Heavy Rain is about choices. Odd choices. Sometimes odd choices from the developer. It is a strange little game, the kind of release that really doesn't deserve the massive hype Sony threw at it... because most people simply are not going to want to play it. It is a polarizing game, because it is not exactly a game. At least, not as we think of them. Heavy Rain is closer to "game" than, perhaps, Noby Noby Boy, but it still veers far afield of most.
I'll confess that I really did not have much interest in this one, until I played the demo. And even after that, Heavy Rain did not become a instant purchase. I could have waited for a price drop. The main reason I picked it up last weekend was because everybody else already is playing it and the game is so unfortunately spoiler-prone. It's a murder mystery, and despite the user having a major hand in how the plot unfolds, I gather that there's pretty much one solution to the mystery.
Which, of course, is ruined up and down the internet. In fact, I'm maybe a third of the way through the game and I think I had the final twist spoiled for me by some dick on an unrelated message board two weeks ago. So that's great.
But that's why I had to pick it up, so that I have some chance at experiencing the game before all the secrets are turned loose. As you can imagine, it's hard work avoiding it right now. Stupid articles about Heavy Rain are scattered across the entire enthusiast sphere, and idiot assholes are willing to wreck the game for others even when nobody is talking about the game.
It's just sort of rare that a game balances this much on mystery. It's rare that a game tries to have this much plot. Even if you discount the odd plot contrivances, the sometimes-screwy voice acting, and the likelihood of insomniac, tight-jeans-wearing, over-friendly brunettes named Madison.
You know, I'm not going to trash the game over voice acting. I find it terrible that, in an artform rife with lame voice acting, cliche characterizations and simplistic storylines, that poor Heavy Rain is the game that gets crucified for it. Really. It's not that bad. It's bad enough that you have to wonder what Quantic Dream was thinking in letting certain voices and dialogue bits break the illusion, but it's not going to drag a solid game down into the Don't Play category. (If you plain and simple don't like the concept of a game based entirely on QTE cutscenes, that's more than enough to keep you away.) For whatever reason, half the cast mispronounces the word "origami." Seeing as the plot revolves around the media-dubbed "Origami Killer," you hear that one quite a bit. The Fox Mulder guy says "anything" weird. Like, "enithin." Which must be some dialect somewhere, although I'm not clear whether it's the character's dialect or the voice actor's dialect.
The game starts so slow that you'd think it was attempting to be a realistic Animal Crossing. In the first scene, you get opt to guide lead character Ethan through the exciting adventure of brushing his teeth, followed by working on his architectural drawing project. I'm not put off by a game simulating banality, but I can see why some people would be instantly bored. If you're expecting a constant barrage of Quick-Time Events along the lines of the fight cutscenes in Resident Evil 4, set to a exploding backdrop fresh out of 24 Season 7, you're going to have to wait that one out.
The reason for the slow start is obvious to me: it's to force you to connect to the lives of the characters, by living them before the water breaks. It's paced very much like a novel in that regard. Again, I can see how the attention-deficit gamer community would chafe at that, as we're conditioned to expect instant, unrelenting action.
Once things start swinging, the more harried QTE scenes (like, when you're not brushing your teeth) can be exceptionally involving. As an example, there's a bit where one of the characters is caught in a convenience store holdup. With a delicate touch on the controller - buttons and analog stick - you can try to sneak around the store in an attempt to get the drop on the robber. One aisle has spilled potato chips on the floor; can't go that way or the man with the gun will hear the crunch. Have to hold steady on the stick, or you'll walk too fast and make more noise. Then you brush against a box and it falls... a QTE button press catches it, then a slow push on the stick will silently replace it.
Turns out, I was too fast on the replace and made noise. Suddenly the robber whirls around and has his gun on me. Although the bottle in my hand betrays my blunt instrument intentions, I manage to sweet-talk the guy out of the store without incident. This part is all done by navigating through dialogue options. I imagine a more aggressive player may have found a path to actually clobbering the guy, or lunging for him, but I found the peaceful option.
I held my breath during most of that scene, and that is Heavy Rain at its best. (Another early wow: Underwear girl's first "level.")
At its worst, you're stuck walking around a room trying to get your character to point at the right thing you want to do. And for all the immersion of the setting and graphics and music, watching a virtual person pull Cirque tricks in a living room is enough to remind you that you're playing a game. I half think it would have been better to run the movement as Suda 51 did in Killer 7: on rails. At least a Killer 7 style would maintain the illusion of the game being a movie by virtue of the characters not looking stupid whenever precision movement is required. Or, you know, do movement the way every other game does, solely via the left analog stick. For a reason I can't fathom, you walk by holding down R2 and the use the stick to suggest a turn. It's easily the worst part of Heavy Rain.
I don't know if I can play this game a second time and generate a different path. I know I mentioned this when I played GTAIV, but I want to play in the way I feel the character would act (or, failing that, how I would act.) Like, when I decided between killing Playboy X and Dwayne in GTAIV, I chose to kill Playboy because I felt that's what Niko would have done. Eventually I did cheat on an old save and kill Dwayne just to see what would happen, and I hated it. It did not seem right, was not true to Niko. Went right back to the "correct" save.
Maybe on play #2 I'll stop that box from attracting the robber's attention, but as far as character decisions go - particularly in dialogue trees - I'll wager I already have locked on how I think these characters should act, based on what I glean from the non-interactive portions.
One thing I especially like is that the game does not make you feel like you FAILED, at any point. In most games, you know when you've made a bad decision. Either you die and the game ends, or somebody else dies and the game ends. I have had at least one part where I just don't know if I did the right thing (but wow, what a moment it was, acting on pure instinct!), and the game just keeps on truckin'. It continues to unfold.