When is a remaster truly a worthy endeavour? It's a question we've asked ourselves often as countless remakes and remasters continue to stream onto today's consoles. These days, our thoughts on the matter are pretty simple - any game that remains exclusive to a single platform, especially when said game suffers from performance issues, can make a great candidate for a remaster. And this is exactly what makes the proposition of Heavy Rain on PlayStation 4 so intriguing - it's just a shame that some unexpected bugs can spoil the fun.
As developer Quantic Dream's first release on PlayStation 3, Heavy Rain was an interesting take on the modern adventure game formula. Combining cinematic story-telling, light puzzle elements, branching quick-time events, and cutting edge visuals, Quantic's first console exclusive managed to eke out quite a following. As interesting as the game is, the presentation was often let down by lacklustre performance and intrusive screen-tear - areas ripe for improvement on PS4.
The remastered version of Heavy Rain delivers a significant boost in consistency and visual quality across the board. Scenes exhibiting noticeable screen-tear on Sony's last generation platform now play back without a hitch. In fact, throughout our time with the remaster, the frame-rate managed to hold steady at 30fps in each and every situation. For a game with such strong cinematic aspirations, stable performance is crucial in maintaining immersion and in this respect, the remaster delivers a solid upgrade.
Of course, while we appreciate the boost in performance, it really is the bare minimum one would anticipate from a remaster project. Thankfully, Quantic Dream pushes the visual quality above and beyond the original in all of the key areas. As expected, resolution is been bumped up to a full 1080p, but more importantly, high quality MSAA produces a clarity exceeding most current-gen releases. The original PlayStation 3 game also employs 2x MSAA but on PS4, the increase in resolution and jump to even higher quality anti-aliasing greatly improves general image quality. Texture filtering is also excellent throughout with textures remaining sharp even at oblique angles.
Beyond that, nearly every single texture in the game is re-created at a greater level of quality. This applies to characters and environments alike and helps create a more visually rich experience across the board. Textures also tend to load in immediately, eliminating some of the streaming issues encountered on PS3. We even noticed instances where the 3D meshes have been edited with additional geometry, smoothing out originally chunky edges. This is most noticeable on character clothing where shirt collars and sleeves are much smoother than before.
Lighting and shadow detail also enjoys a nice bump in quality. HDAO ambient occlusion is implemented throughout the game bringing a newfound richness to the world. In the original PS3 version, the lack of contact shadows really sticks out, so it's nice to see this effect make an appearance. Many of the scenes appear to have been re-lit as well: the difference can prove subtle at times but when viewed side-by-side, the improvements are extremely welcome. We also noticed improvements to certain effects such as rain drops that now appear to react more realistically with bright lights, along with a more realistic water shader used to represent droplets.
Lastly, we noted an increase in both shadow map quality and real-time shadows, with smoother edges and fewer artefacts. This is coupled with improved reflections used in a number of scenes. Shiny floors, such as the wood used in Ethan's first home, benefit from this. Overall, the improved assets and enhanced lighting work brilliantly and allow the game to shine even six years on.
Unfortunately, not every asset has been improved in the remaster. While the majority of the game operates in real-time, Heavy Rain does make use of pre-rendered videos in a number of key sequences. These videos appear to have been remade on PS4 at a higher resolution but the results are disappointing due to playback issues. Namely, these videos now exhibit screen tearing, judder, and severe macro-blocking. While the PS3 original makes use of 720p videos, the bitrate appears to be much higher while playback is more fluid. Effects work, such as motion blur, has even been toned down for reasons unknown - something that also applies to the few sections which employ motion blur in real-time.
Then we have a more serious concern - bugs. While playing through the PS4 version of Heavy Rain, we ran into a surprising number of show-stopping bugs and glitches. On first boot, we were presented with an uncomfortable strobing image effect. We squinted our eyes and attempted to push on only to be greeted with an introduction sequence where animations played back at, perhaps, five per cent of the intended speed. Blowing leaves visible just outside the window were updating at 30fps, but Ethan's animations juddered along in slow motion while text continued to flicker. A full reboot of the PS4 was necessary to overcome this. After discussing the game with someone else covering it, it became clear that we weren't the only ones to encounter this issue at startup.
Beyond that, there were numerous positioning and context bugs that popped up at various points. While attempting to feed Shawn early in the game, for instance, Ethan warped from the refrigerator over to the kitchen table and started vibrating wildly as the frozen pizza clipped through his left leg. We had to restart the entire scene to push beyond this. In other instances, characters would randomly warp to other rooms or areas when attempting to interact with something. In other instances, visual glitches would pop-up at random when transitioning between different camera angles.
We were able to work around all of these problems and continuing playing but, as a remaster, you don't expect such issues to present themselves. We ran into no such issues on PlayStation 3 this time or during any previous playthrough. That's not to say that the original is immune to bugs - videos online certainly suggest that it isn't - but we would have hoped to see a more polished product in its remastered form.
That's what makes this release so difficult to judge as a finished product. The actual work poured into remastering the title is of the highest quality - great care is placed into recreating its textures, fixing it visual flaws, and generally producing something that looks great even today. In terms of the updated presentation, this truly is the definitive version of Heavy Rain and certainly the way we would prefer to play through it.
Unfortunately, the bugs and issues with pre-rendered videos feel like a misstep. They don't exactly ruin the game but they shouldn't exist in a remaster of a nearly six-year-old game either. Beyond: Two Souls was beautifully ported to PS4 and released last year digitally, but both Heavy Rain and Beyond are set to be released at retail together. After discovering these problems, we're now concerned about the state of the game included in the disc version. You certainly don't expect playback errors and glitches on a Criterion Collection blu-ray disc, after all, and we'd imagine David Cage would like to see such a comparison made.
Even in the face of these problems, it's great to revisit Heavy Rain. It remains an engaging experience and the makeover it has received does wonders for its presentation. Due to the issues we encountered while playing, however, it's difficult to give this release a strong recommendation until the various bugs have been ironed out. Heavy Rain is still a great game that clearly received a lot of love and attention in its PS4 incarnation but if you're considering a purchase, be sure to anticipate the potential glitches within. Fingers crossed that the developer will address these issues as soon as possible.