It'd take a certain kind of person to finish Heavy Rain, put the controller down and not be plagued by "what if?" questions, that burning desire to fire up the console again and play through a second, third time, to further explore what's on offer, subplots and twists and details that may have been missed on the first play through. This "interactive film" hinges so much on your actions that it's impossible to know whether or not you made the "right" choices - a little like life, really.
And, like life, it's not all sunshine and rainbows. The game's opening scenes put protagonist Ethan Mars in a beautiful house, with his beautiful wife and his two beautiful sons. Going through the motions of daily life is idyllic - helping with the groceries, playing with a toy car, spending quality time with the kids... to the point that you just know
something will go wrong. And it inevitably does, with later scenes showing Mars living alone in a tiny, undecorated flat, blaming himself for the death of one of his sons, the breakdown of his marriage and the deterioration of his health. As much as I'd like to say otherwise, it only gets worse for Ethan from there. Whether or not there's sunshine at the end is - you guessed it - up to you.
The storyline of the game is complex and impressive - take four people and follow them as their lives intertwine (or don't), all while trying to stop the Origami killer. Mars is asked to prove how far he would go to save his son, by taking on a number of tasks set out by the Origami killer. While he's jumping through those hoops, Scott Shelby is a private detective trying to gather details on the case by interviewing parents of the killer's victims. The FBI is also involved, bringing profiler Norman Jayden to assist local police with their investigations. Finally, Madison Paige is introduced as a chronic insomniac plagued by bad dreams, who can only find sleep in cheap motels. She's not the only one with problems - despite the lack of detail revealed throughout the game, every character is 'human', with their own weaknesses: Mars cannot handle crowds, Shelby needs his asthma medication, and Jayden has a whole new set of dependencies.
Further to their 'humanity', each of the four characters (and various others) can die - or not - depending on your choices, and all will come close as the game progresses. If one does die, your story will continue - the dead character's chapters will end, their death may be referenced in-game, but the adventure can still be played to its conclusion. It is possible for all four characters to die before the end of the game - and there is an ending which ties that up neatly, as well.
The control scheme takes this complexity to a new level - while it's easy enough to move around in-game (left stick will turn the character's head, R2 makes them walk in that direction), things get a little tricky when interacting with objects, puzzles and fights. An early scene sees Jayden walking up a muddy slope in the pouring rain (it's always raining, of course) - the sort of hill where you'd be clinging with your fingernails and wishing you'd brought better shoes. To get Jayden to climb to the top involves holding down a series of face buttons on the PS3 controller, and if you don't manage the right combination, he'll slip and slide back down again, covered in mud. This sort of thing happens again and again throughout the game - climbing through fences, holding off attackers, even seemingly simple acts like changing a dirty nappy (I kid you not) or making an omelette - and every time the sequence adds to the sense of immersion, as you end up contorted around the controller in much the same way as the in-game character is twisted around an obstacle. (Similarly, I couldn't help but connect further with Ethan as I shook the controller in my hand and watched him shake a bottle of orange juice onscreen.)
I hardly relied on instant-twitch reactions, but at times you'll have to make split-second decisions - and although you'll often be immediately filled with regret and "what-if" over the wrong choice, delaying your response will cause the game to follow its own path, something you'll likely regret even more. Far from being a negative, this keeps the game moving and pushes you further down the rabbit hole that Quantic Dream have dug for you.
But! It's not perfect.
With a few exceptions, the voice acting leaves something to be desired (particularly from the children). This is sort of to be expected when using a cast of largely non-native English-speaking actors, but it could have been easily avoided. If you can suspend disbelief and place the game outside of the US, the slightly-accented speech flows better. (That mindshift also helps explain some of the stilted dialogue and cliched phrasing that is dotted around the place.)
The control scheme, while fantastically implemented for complex tasks, did result in Madison walking around a table several times instead of sitting at it, thanks to camera shifts and the slight controller lag. I also had trouble throughout the entire game trying to get anyone to walk in a straight line - lots of scraping along walls and bumping into things. That might just be me, though.
There are also a handful of relatively slight bugs - my game froze twice in the early stages, but I've heard from others who were plagued throughout the entire game. It goes a long way to destroying all of the immersion that's been so lovingly crafted. The occasional graphical glitch didn't really help, either (amazing appearing cars and clipping issues, mainly).
As a side-note, while I loved the science-fiction-esque ARI (Added Reality Interface), it did seem a little off
when compared to the rest of the story. Even though Shaun Mars apparently disappears in 2011, Quantic Dream have done a wonderful job of making the whole thing appear almost film-noir, full of gumshoe detectives, kind-hearted prostitutes and loving fathers - and then the FBI man comes in with his fantastic gadget and uses science to solve things. The way it's integrated is great, and it's genuinely helpful and quite fun to play with, but it does jar a little. I'd love to explore the technology a little further, see what it's capable of - and I hope that will be featured more heavily in the soon-to-come downloadable Chronicles which focus on each character.
Heavy Rain is epic, flawed, and brilliant. I'm hoping it's a sign of things to come, with more games picking up this technique and running with it. There's so much to improve on here, but as a start, it's one of the more exciting things I've seen in gaming to date. If you're looking for something just like everything else, keep moving - but if you want to be challenged, emotionally affected, questioned and inspired, pick up Heavy Rain.