[Review] Heavy Rain

By Jeremy M. Zoss in Reviews
Tuesday, February 23, 2010 at 12:43 pm

It's been said in much of the coverage of Heavy Rain that it's hardly a video game in the traditional sense. I'd argue the complete opposite - Heavy Rain is a video game in a very classic style: the adventure game. 

The adventure game genre has experienced something of a renaissance lately, thanks to the work of developers like Telltale games. I haven't personally checked out many of the recent adventure game titles, so for me Heavy Rain was like revisiting late-era Sierra adventure games like Phantasmagoria, when a game's story was more important than how you interacted with the world. The decidedly old-school mentality of Heavy Rain means that it likely won't appeal to every gamer out there, but for me the game was (mostly) a rousing success. In a strange way, I even count Heavy Rain's failings as triumphs. Read on and I'll explain what I mean.

Heavy Rain

Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment / Developer: Quantic Dream / ESRB Rating: M / $59.99

There is very little to say about Heavy Rain's gameplay. To put it bluntly, there isn't any aside from Quick Time Events, a gameplay convention that's become one of the most loathed and derided mechanics in the industry over the last few years. But even if you absolutely can't stand QTEs, I'd urge you not to dismiss Heavy Rain out of hand. By frequently varying the inputs between button presses, stick movements and motion-sensing controller movements, Heavy Rain's QTE gameplay never feels stale. More importantly, the results of your inputs gives the simple gameplay incredible gravity; when a child's life hangs in the balance, correctly hitting a series of keys is every bit as tense as pulling off a split-second headshot.


Obviously, in a game where the actual gameplay isn't the focus, story is key. If Heavy Rain were a movie, it would be a decent, modestly successful serial killer thriller: four individuals hunt for a psychopath called the Origami Killer who has been abducting young boys and drowning them in rainwater. The plot isn't the stuff of Oscar-worthy films, but is leagues beyond that of most video games. But as any good writer knows, there is plot and there is story. Plot is what happens, story is what it's really about. Even the best video game plots usually don't have much depth behind them, and that's what truly sets Heavy Rain apart from the pack.

Heavy Rain is a game about characters, consequences and morality, constantly asking players how far they're willing to go to save someone they love and what consequences they're willing to live with as a result. Borrowing a bit from the Saw movies, there are some awful moments in Heavy Rain, but you always have the choice to walk away. On the other hand, there are moments of genuine tenderness and humanity in the game, little scenes like a father playing with his children in the yard or an older man taking care of a helpless infant that truly make you feel like you're witnessing the lives of real people. Despite being about a serial killer, Heavy Rain is a shockingly non-violent game, with character interaction and quiet scenes of human moments outnumbering fistfights or gunfights five to one.

The dramatic impact of Heavy Rain's quiet scenes and moral decisions wouldn't be sold if it wasn't for the game's amazing graphics, which include some of the most realistic and impressive facial expressions I've ever seen. It still looks like a game and not a movie, but even so the characters are believable enough that you can't help but experience genuine empathy for the protagonists and be moved by some of the situations they find themselves in.


The believability of the characters is a bit of a double-edged sword, as I occasionally found myself questioning a character's motivations or groaning that a supporting character felt cliche. But in a way, these failings only emphasize the strengths of the game: when is the last time you pondered the motivations of a game character or thought about the cliched nature of a non-player character? Typically, characterization in games is like plot in pornography; it's not the point, so neither the creators nor the audience bother to worry about it. If the rest of the game weren't so successful at selling these characters as real people, we wouldn't even notice that a few of them seem less fleshed out.

Heavy Rain is filled with weird eccentricities that will bother some gamers. There's plenty of weak voice acting, some strange cultural misunderstandings by the French developer about the United States and a good amount of stilted dialogue. But to dwell on these minor issues would be to not see the forest for the trees; Heavy Rain is one of the most successful attempts I've ever seen at building a mature, character-driven game. 

It's a game that proves this medium can have something to say, can create legitimate emotional responses and can successfully focus on story over action. Heavy Rain is a huge step forward in the maturation of the video game medium, even if the gameplay had to take a step backwards towards the adventure games of yesteryear to head in that direction. It's a risky experiment of a game, but one that deserves the attention of any player looking for a deeper gaming experience.


This review is based on a copy of the game provided by the publisher.

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