Generally videogames tend to follow a tried and tested formula. The reason for this is a fairly simple one: the games publisher or developer knows that there’s already an audience out there for the product even before they start work on it, and so – assuming that they don’t make a complete hash of things – they can be guaranteed a fair few sales. Every so often though, someone decides to take a risk on a new idea and when this happens gamers might find themselves experiencing something new, like this latest from developer Quantic Dream, the PS3-exclusive Heavy Rain.
Probably the best way to describe Heavy Rain is as an ‘interactive movie’… because that’s basically what it is! The story opens with a nice cinematic intro sequence, and you then get to play out each of the scenes that makes up the ‘movie’. The catch is that because each scene is set in a specific location, you’re playing within a restricted environment. So, although the story itself is based in a massive, living, breathing city, you can’t just jump into your car and race off wherever you want, as you might in, say, Grand Theft Auto IV. No, with each new scene you find yourself restricted within a specific area of limited size and scope, and you must explore this area in minute detail, uncovering clues and interacting with other characters and objects within the environment to move the plot along.
That’s not to say that your actions don’t matter – there are multiple ways for you to tackle certain situations, some of which will result in failure, others that will move the plot in a specific direction, and in the case of the latter, exactly how you tackle some of the puzzles and tasks that exist within the level can determine how a character feels and acts in later parts of the game. Things you DON’T do can affect you later too – for instance in one scene you’re in a park with one of the characters and his son, shortly before the son gets abducted. In a subsequent scene, this character is quizzed by the police about what time the abduction took place – a question you can’t actually answer (answer truthfully that is, you can always decide to lie) unless you took the time to look at the clock that was in the park during the previous scene. Similarly, the character is asked to describe what his son was wearing, and at this point, much like a witness in a real crime, you find that you never really took much notice of what seemed at the time unimportant details. Small touches like this help the whole thing to feel less like a game and more like a story with a fair bit of depth to it.
The presentation and feel of the whole game is actually very cinematic, with everything surrounding you rendered in exquisite detail, especially the people, to the point that you really do start to feel that you’re ‘living’ within the game, rather than just playing it. Instead of focussing the action on just the one main character, as with most movies there are numerous different characters involved in the story, all of whom have their own agendas, and you take on the role of a number of these as you move from scene to scene within the game. Each character has their own personality, their own back-story and – more often than not – their own character flaws. There’s the private detective for instance, a tired, cynical, overweight type with Asthma. There’s the young FBI agent with access to some awesome high-tech CSI-type gadgetry at his disposal, who is also fighting some kind of drug addiction. Then there’s the father who is struggling to come to terms with the death of one of his sons and the break-up of his marriage, is suffering from blackouts and who may or may not actually be the deranged individual that everyone else is hunting. From the brief overview of just those three Heavy Rain characters, you might get some clue that this isn’t a game that’s all about happiness and sunshine.
In fact the whole tone of Heavy Rain, at least to begin with, is a very dark one. The plot revolves around people who are all, in some way, affected by the actions of a vicious serial child killer, dubbed the ‘Origami Killer’ for his habit of leaving small origami animals on the bodies of his victims. The title of the game comes from the fact that the killer is apparently drowning his victims in rainwater, and someone figures out quite early on that he’s basically locking them away somewhere and letting mother nature do the actual wetwork (no pun intended) and thus how heavy the rainfall is each day affects how long the police have to try and track down the next victim before they drown. Unfortunately in this city it rains, a LOT.
This dark serial killer plotline, along with the constant adverse weather, coupled with the unhappy, world-weary Heavy Rain characters who are often in conflict with one another, make this a game that is about as far from uplifting as you can get. And the pace of the whole thing can only really be described as ‘languid’. In each scene, you basically have to wander around, listen to what your character is thinking, and accomplish various tasks. Just about everything, from simple, seemingly unimportant things like making a cup of coffee or your character cleaning their teeth, to more serious tasks like uncovering evidence at a crime scene or helping your character fight for their life, requires some input from you.
For the most part, the gameplay leaves you free to wander around wherever you like within the limits of the scene, interacting with objects to solve (or not, as the case may be) problems, or simply to accomplish minor tasks in the characters’ lives. When the ‘action’ gets more immediate however, like when you get into a fight, or start to stumble down a steep slope for instance, then the gameplay switches to a slightly different style, with you effectively watching an animated sequence during which at key points you have to hit buttons as they appear on the screen in order to influence how the fight (or other activity) progresses. This is very reminiscent of the old coin-op Dragon’s Lair, and while it’s a neat way of tackling ‘action’ in what is essentially a slow-paced detective adventure for the majority of the time, it might leave some gamers feeling like they’re not really enough in control, interaction during these sections being limited as it is to occasional button pushing when prompted.
For me though, the control interface did work. As I’ve already said, the pace of the gameplay is hardly what you’d call ‘speedy’, but for me, Heavy Rain is basically the ultimate evolution of the old-style adventure games I used to play as a child, where often the graphics might simply be static images, and you’d spend hours studying each screen and typing in commands like ‘examine desk’, ‘pick up lamp’, as you sought to unlock the secrets of that particular screen and progress on to the next. If you took those static images and converted them into beautiful (if dark and a little depressing) three-dimensional digital landscapes, then replaced the text interface with control of a virtual avatar who can interact with everything within said landscapes, then you’d basically end up with what you’ve got in Heavy Rain.
For those who like their games fast, furious and adrenaline-fuelled, Heavy Rain is probably not going to be your cup of tea. In fact you’re unlikely to get past the first scene, where a proud father has to get out of bed and prepare for his children’s birthday party by getting dressed and doing various everyday chores around the house. This, incidentally, was the only scene I didn’t really like, because, while I can see that it’s obviously serving the dual purpose of acting like a prologue to the main game – showing us how sunny and great the father’s life is before his child dies – and also operating as a ‘training’ stage – familiarising gamers with the various controls in an unthreatening environment – I nevertheless found the script and voice acting in this stage particularly unconvincing, and nowhere near the standard of the rest of the game. It might be that the writer is just much better at writing dark and tortured Heavy Rain characters, or it might be because the two kids in this scene have the insufferable forced jollity of the child actors you see in almost all American TV commercials – whatever it was, I found that I was perversely quite glad when one of the kids died, the rain set in and everyone stopped being so sickeningly happy!
So, not a game for those interested in shoot-’em-ups and nothing else then. But for those gamers who like to try something a little different every now and then, and who enjoy being able to use their brains as well as their reflexes, Heavy Rain offers a very interesting and – for me – a fairly unique gameplay experience. Whether it will have a great deal of replay value – well, that’s another matter. While what you do in the game does change how the plot develops, having only played through once I can’t tell you whether playing the game again would be a massively different experience. That said, it’s still well worth picking up a copy to experience what might well be a whole new genre of videogame. I’d rate it as an excellent 8 out of 10.
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