Version tested: PlayStation 3
Games typically begin and end with killing. In between, there will be a lot of killing. And if you get bored, you can always go off and do some different killing. Heavy Rain is another game about killing, but the difference is that when you pull the trigger - if you pull the trigger - you're committing to something with consequences. You may die in Heavy Rain, but rather than losing progress you may lose opportunities. In a medium where your existence is now so cheap that most games don't bother to punish you for wasting it, Heavy Rain wants you to respect human life.
Speaking of consequences, Ethan Mars, one of the game's four playable characters, does nothing but live with them. In an extended playable prologue to the main story, Mars suffers through the death of one of his two sons, an accident that also leaves him in a coma. When we return to him two years later he's suffering blackouts and estranged from his wife, blaming himself and weeping behind closed doors as his remaining, increasingly distant son Shaun watches TV downstairs in his ropey bedsit. The "game" is to drag a broken man through the motions of parenthood.
Before long, however, things go from sad to horrible for Mars when Shaun is abducted by the Origami Killer, a serial murderer who kidnaps children and drowns them in rainwater a few days later, leaving the bodies on strips of wasteland. It would be a massive spoiler to explain exactly what else the Killer does, but the kidnap and outside influences set Mars on a brutal journey that will test his mental strength under pressure, his resolve and his commitment to saving his boy.
He will have help, however. Heavy Rain features three other playable characters whose narratives interact with Mars' in remote but ultimately vital ways. Scott Shelby is a puffy, soft-spoken private investigator who gently questions the parents of Origami Killer victims in the hope of recovering evidence that may have escaped police attention. Norman Jayden is an FBI profiler sent to assist the local police with the investigation. Madison Paige, introduced last, is a chronic insomniac who first meets Mars at a motel - apparently the only place she can get any sleep.
The action shifts between the core cast at regular intervals to keep everyone's personal story in sync, and in each scene the player typically manoeuvres through the environment using the game's unusual third-person control scheme. It's possible to interact with a great many things - very few of which prove completely incidental - by performing motions on the right analogue stick, by holding or tapping combinations of face buttons, or by replicating a gesture indicated on-screen using the pad's built-in motion sensor.
It takes a little getting used to but proves worth the trouble, as physical actions correspond to things characters do in a manner that enhances your involvement in a scene. Breaking through plasterboard with a heavy object is a repeated downward swing. Twisting Mars' body through a mesh of perilous wires involves holding one button, then another, then another, and more, until you're just as contorted and in danger of dropping the pad as he is of losing his balance.
Quantic Dream's last game, Fahrenheit, featured an interactive introduction where director David Cage introduced the concept and controls, but Heavy Rain doesn't need any such thing. The range of flicks, motions and holds becomes an intuitive shorthand for the actions they set in motion, in a way that a more traditional control scheme would be unable to match without praying on your patience and muscle memory.
When events pick up pace in particular scenes - fights, chases, even driving - the game flies closer to the dreaded "quick-time event", prompting you to react quickly as the characters are being forced to do likewise, but rather than warranting criticism this is consistent with Heavy Rain's goals: unpredictable events should have uncertain outcomes, while scenes in which characters have time to think should allow for thinking time. The reaction-based situations might still appear harsh, however, were it not for the way the game treats failure: missing a prompt may mean you see different events that lead to the same outcome, or the outcome may change, but the game won't be over, and the story it continues to tell will be no less interesting or affecting.
Games that encourage personal alignment usually do so very overtly, with meters and rewards and Dark Side points, and those who feel this approach actually discourages individuality - setting players on a path they worry about losing out if they stray from - will also enjoy the way that Heavy Rain reduces your current "status" to a footnote through the strength of its narrative and diversity of outcomes. The differences are subtle, and the game's anticipation and interpretation of your actions is intelligent: you can lose a mock lightsaber fight with your kids and they love you more, and you can reject someone's advances in a way that strengthens the bond you share.
Director David Cage has tried to distance Heavy Rain from Fahrenheit - a game that struggled to keep its narrative feet on the ground, bouncing through multiple conspiracies until it could be difficult to recall what was going on - but while Heavy Rain is grounded and lean by comparison, Cage's interest in the mental state of its protagonists persists with mixed results. Holding one of the triggers presents a swirl of the current character's thoughts and allows you to listen to one, but the game is arguably more mysterious and attractive, and no less playable, if you ignore this. Consider it a hint system, perhaps.
Other ideas, built around Ethan Mars' fear of being in crowds and the after-effects of his head injury, are more successful, while Norman Jayden's battle with addiction to fictional drug Triptocaine proves a useful plot device on a couple of occasions, as well as an interesting way of shifting the narrative sands beneath events in his life. Heavy Rain also deals with psychological trauma during formative years, and while the outcome of that particular thread is a touch simplistic, it pays off.
Elsewhere though there is evidence of actors speaking in their second language from time to time, while clichés in dialogue are never too far away, and a few scenes designed to deliver vital clues to certain members of the cast perhaps try a little hard to justify themselves. Paige and Jayden's respective self-contained encounters with a former doctor and a dodgy junkyard owner are tense and exciting, but their villains are transparently evil in a way that stands out against the subtlety evident in other areas. Meanwhile, a few of the more domestic scenes have the opposite problem, offering only menial tasks to perform while the story develops around them.
However, while the writing sometimes lacks poetry or restraint, it never lacks compassion and bravery, whether it's young Shaun Mars trying to tell his dad that his brother's death was nobody's fault, or the way Scott Shelby speaks to a young mother who has so little left after the death of her son that she's selling herself. While the mechanics provide the framework for emotional investment in these characters, these scenes secure it. You may end up shocked by how much you liked certain people once the truth breaks from behind the clouds.
Heavy Rain can't be accused of narrative dysfunction either. It's possible to solve the mystery by losing or saving people in various circumstances, relying on different methods to reach your goals, and all without upsetting the rhythm and coherency of the story. Considering the number of possible outcomes, particularly in the latter stages when pivotal events come thick and fast, this is a considerable achievement. Despite the developer's evidently lofty goal, Heavy Rain isn't precious about its alternative outcomes, either, allowing content-hungry gamers to pick the story up from particular scenes and continue in a different way to try and make new things happen, rather than having to start the game over.
Nor is it a technical wimp. Like last year's Uncharted 2, Quantic Dream uses performance capture, and with similar success. Facial detail is capable of sufficient subtlety that one of the defining twists is foreshadowed by twitches you can go back and look for afterwards and curse yourself for not noticing. Environmental detail is less attention-seeking, but is of a very high quality, and in a game where rainfall plays such a key role it's perhaps no surprise that some of the game's most beautiful sights are reserved for water. Watch out for the fish tank, and a particularly dreamlike, practically astral sequence towards the end.
Of course, there are also a few technical weaknesses. Some of the on-screen icons are quite similar to one another, which can be costly - particularly at the end of the game - and while the majority of Heavy Rain's mysteries are broad, with solutions built through action or inaction across a range of scenarios, there are a couple of occasions when it resorts to what are effectively common-or-garden puzzles, and these feel out of place. And just as the script doesn't quite sell a fleeting romance at one point, the on-screen kissing animation makes a bit of a mess of it too.
Heavy Rain also won't be for everyone. Not everyone will accept the way it sometimes offers prompts even when they may have no impact on actual events. For all the game's flexibility and manifold outcomes, there are also times that you may wish to do something that is not available, as the illusion of free will and suspension of disbelief strains at the writer's narrative leash. Perhaps most damning, for some, will be the realisation as the game reaches its narrative apex that the bonds of empathy it has fought to establish were somewhat diversionary.
It would be a shame to look past Heavy Rain for these reasons, however, because while it is an intricate game that deserves to be debated for a long time, it is also a simple one to enjoy: a thrilling mystery, cleverly composed, and unlike anything else you will play this year. It may also be the only game you play this year where pulling the trigger makes you really feel something, and I can think of no greater compliment.
9 / 10