Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Heavy Rain

Post-Launch Review
Heavy Rain: Director's Cut
Developer: Quantic Dream
Released: February 2010
Played: story complete in 9h30min, The Taxidermist DLC complete in


Seven children have been drowned by a serial killer, who leaves his victims with an orchid on their chests and an origami figure in hand. An eighth boy has disappeared, and now the boy's father, an FBI agent, a journalist, and a private eye race to find the origami killer before he claims another victim.

At Launch

Heavy Rain was well received, earning average review scores of 88%. Reviewers praised the emotionally powerful, noir-tinged story and its pacing, as well as the involving nature of the controls. Some critics noted gaps or flaws in the story where the player's motivation and the character's motivation conflicted, and some criticized it for being more of a film than a game.

Post Launch

Patches fixed several common crashing and freezing bugs, and later added Move support to the game.
A DLC series called Chronicles was intended to expand on the background of the four main characters. Only the first episode, The Taxidermist, was completed and released. The other three episodes were put on hold while Move motion control support was added, but they never materialized.
The Director's Cut edition was released as part of the PS3 Greatest Hits line. This version includes The Taxidermist DLC, as well as the score, updated menus and interface, 8 "making of" videos, three dynamic themes, 15 new pieces of concept art, and 2 bonus trailers.

With a game this plot-heavy I can't help but mention some spoilers, which will be hidden with black bars. If you want to read the spoilers, highlight the bits that look like this: spoilers inside!

Right off the bat I ran into a bug that completely ruined the drama of the prologue. Ethan loses his son Jason in the mall and searches frantically, looking for the red balloon Jason was holding. I found Jason immediately, and thought wow, that was easy. But I realized pretty quickly that it was a bug. Check out the video (which I had to take with my phone because my PS3 isn't modded for video capture):

I encountered a few more drama-killing bugs later on as well. Later I'm supposed to make dinner for Shawn but I can't open the fridge, even though I was able to before. I had to quit to the main menu and reload before I was allowed to open the fridge again. Later still, I was in a nightclub, and the pounding techno music went silent. At first I assumed it was for dramatic effect, but everyone was shouting to be heard over the music that I couldn't hear. Pausing fixed this one.

Well, now that the bugs are out of the way, let's talk about everything else.

The atmosphere is very well built. It's dark and rainy for almost the entire game, and the sound of raindrops is constant. This doesn't just help establish the noir tone - it's also a constant reminder of the race against time, since the origami killer's victims die when the rainfall reaches six inches. The visuals of the rain and water are quite well done, as are most outdoor environments, which contrasts with the occasional jarringly poor indoor visuals. Audio is also strong, with a dark moody soundtrack which is more tone-setting than melodic. Voice acting is mostly good, but Ethan sometimes sounds insincere and overacted.

I was also very impressed with the story. Normally I prefer stories that have at least some element of the fantastic - science fiction, fantasy, monsters - so I wasn't sure if I'd enjoy a crime drama. Overall it's very strong and I got quite invested in the fates of the characters. The mysteries kept stringing me along, making me anxious to know more. Following a bunch of apparently unrelated characters was odd at first, but it all comes together at the end as everyone links up (assuming everyone is still alive, that is).

There are a couple of plot bits that don't make sense. When the cops are talking to the psychiatrist, he refuses to talk because of doctor/patient confidentiality, but after some roughing up he reveals ridiculously damning evidence - which ends up being a complete red herring. Later, as Madison, I figured out Shawn's location, and I can choose to call Ethan or Jayden. Why the hell can't I call both? No reason is provided.

One thing I really appreciate is that this is a game where your choices, successes, and failures really do matter. The ending can be dramatically different depending on who lives and dies, and when. It's possible to catch the killer but fail to save the kid. You can save the kid but lose the killer. One of the characters can end up a drug addict. One character can be found innocent, framed and found guilty, die somewhere in the story, or successfully see everything through to the end. If you screw up too much it's possible to fail completely, have everyone die, and the killer succeed and walk away scott free. At the end you're presented with a series of vignettes that depend on who lived and what happened, and these do a pretty good job of providing closure (while one teases a sequel).

The major point of contention with Heavy Rain is the gameplay. A lot of people have criticized it as not being a true video game, though I have to note that this has apparently been a sentiment that's grown over time, since the reviews around launch seem to have been quite positive and didn't mention this very much.

In many scenarios you're simply pressing buttons to advance the story. Not like games where you have to find the boss's weakness and fire accurately and get the timing right - literally press up to get eggs, press down to break the first one, press down to break the second one, rotate to turn on the stove, rotate to mix the eggs, etc, etc. A lot of the time this feels way to overtly "game-ey" and mundane, pulling me out of the experience. When I have to go through ten mindless button prompts to cook an omelette or have a drink, I just get annoyed at having to jump through all the hoops. There are a lot of points in the game where the prompts could have been dispensed with or content cut in favour of more plot or character moments.

Other times, though, the controls work brilliantly. One strong design element is that more difficult or stressful actions require more button prompts at once or in quick succession, or make it hard to tell which button does what. This helps to put you in the moment and simulate what the characters are going through. When people are in stressful situations, they sometimes panic - there isn't always time to plan. So when you have to decide what to say to the guy pointing a gun at you, or driving into oncoming traffic, it can be frustrating to miss the action you wanted to take, or to screw up the complex button sequence and fumble, but that's totally a thing that happens in real life. Sometimes you just blurt out the wrong thing, or your reflexes work against you. And since the game autosaves frequently, you're going to have to deal with the consequences when you screw up.

There are a couple of very clever puzzles that sneak up on you, suddenly asking you to remember details about your environment and interactions on a time limit - for example, Scott and Lauren have been framed for a murder, the police are on their way, and you need to clean the fingerprints off everything you touched in that scene before the cops arrive. I was frantic, trying to remember all the details I hadn't paid close attention to, but I managed to remember everything - except the phone.

The control scheme really shines when you need to so something morally or psychologically difficult. This happens most often with Ethan, but affects some other characters as well. The origami killer subjects Ethan to a series of trials to see how far the father will go to save his son. A few of them require Ethan to make a sacrifice, and these portions affected me much more deeply than any movie has, since I had to take every single step myself. Highlight for spoilers: the third task required Ethan to cut off the end of a finger to earn his next clue. In many games you'd simply be presented with a choice of yes or no, but Heavy Rain forces you to be involved with the process. You have five minutes to search the room for a tool, choose one, pick it up, bring it to the table so the camera can see you, calm your nerves, put your hand on the table, and chop off a finger. Having to manually do every single step in that sequence made it much harder than a simple yes or no. It made it more about my resolve to do something awful when the alternative is even worse.

As for The Taxidermist DLC, I was unimpressed. It took me 20 minutes to play through, had essentially zero significance to the plot of the main game, and was very bare-bones - poke around a house, make a horrifying discovery, escape the house. That's it. Entirely skippable.

Now, would I recommend Heavy Rain? I was very impressed with the writing - it's a dark, mature, dramatic story with some interesting characters, the mood enhanced by strong music. Some elements of gameplay are jarring, distracting, and annoying, while others are brilliantly immersive. A few bugs completely ruined the drama of certain scenes. Looking back, I feel like most of the game would have been better suited to film - except for the portions where interactivity is key to empathizing with the characters and feeling part of the story. Despite some annoyances, I had a good experience overall, so I would say:

Recommendation: play it, but ignore the DLC.


  1. Just so you know, your spoiler tags are actually visible without highlighting.

    The blackout is darker than the hidden text which appears light grey against the black bg.

    Good review though! Its certainly a good break from the usual type of game. Very cinematic.

  2. Great review. Objective and informative.