'Oh you mean, like The Sims?' is the usual response, and this is natural given the beginning of the game consists of: Getting out of bed, brushing teeth, answering the call of nature, having a shower, getting dressed and going downstairs to do some work.
For the purposes of review I am going to refer to Heavy Rain as a 'game', but this term underplays the structure of the title. Sure, you insert the disc into your PlayStation 3, and then sit back on the couch with the SIXAXIS controller in hand, but only from time to time (apart from some frantic moments) do you press those controller buttons in any kind of gaming way.
The premise [slight spoiler alert]: Starting in 2009, but largely set at the end of 2011, Ethan Mars has had a pretty rough time of it over the past two years, losing one son to tragic circumstances and his second one has been kidnapped by the mysterious Origami killer.
The story on paper (or cathode, or LCD) sounds a little naff, a little too much NCIS with a serial killer on the loose, but one who leaves the intriguing clues of an origami animal, an orchard and the characteristic of drowning his young victims in rain water.
In practice however, the gloomy rain swept setting with obvious parallels to Blade Runner and other film noir, the beautifully sparse piano based score, and the generally brilliant depiction of the main characters transcends the ludicrousness of the screenplay.
In fact, by game's end, I was totally involved in the plot. I think, being a parent, given the circumstances of the stories central arc, Heavy Rain is even more compelling.
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Each scene is introduced by a 'loading' screen with close up of one of four main characters, here you can see the effort developer Quantic Dream has put into crossing the 'uncanny valley' of non-human actors.
In game this works remarkably well in establishing an emotional link with the player, though there are some issues with lip syncing, as well as the slightly robotic way onscreen characters will embrace. It is hard to shake the feeling that Heavy Rain is nothing more than a tech-demo for the game yet to come.
Game-play wise, this is a hybrid game of traditional adventure based pixel hunting, with quick time events (QTE) and some puzzles thrown in for good measure.
The pixel hunting comes in the form of moving characters around the screen, until an interaction icon appears next to an object. By moving the analogue stick with the correct motion, the object will be manipulated -usually - as expected, I say 'usually' because sometimes, as you role-play the characters, your interpretation on how they may physically use an object may play out differently on screen after issuing the command, this can be a little frustrating through the course of the game.
There are a few relatively easy puzzles thrown into the story mix, and then there are the QTE's.
Along with dialogue choices, and environment manipulation, the QTE's will determine the course of the games presentation. In fact, towards the end of the game, these action-based QTE's could mean life or death for the character involved.
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For the first time in a long time, here is a game that uses the SIXAXIS accelerometer in a well integrated way, sometimes it feels like you are playing a Wii game, and then you glance at the screen and see this is far and above what the Nintendo game system can offer technically.
As fights play out on screen, QTE request will flash on screen, but unlike the granddaddy of QTE games, Dragons Lair, failing any one request will not result in instant death (again, usually), instead the animation will take into account the one-off miss and have the onscreen character take a crowbar across the arm, muddy up their pants or similar degradation.
There are also QTE's in the dialogue of Heavy Rain, conversation options float in and around the characters head, depending on the stressfulness of the situation, these options will jutter and bounce at varying speeds and for varying length of time, sometimes making the choices difficult to discern. It is annoying at times, but a great way to build tension all the same.
I found myself really trying to role-play each character. I tried to pull the mopey Ethan Mars out of his depression, and make him the hero of the moment. I tried to enhance the giving sides of both investigative reporter Madison Paige and private eye Scott Shelby. And finally, I really tried to play the 'good cop' side of FBI agent Norman Jayden.
Many times though, the game will fight against these wishes. It does after all have a story to tell, and this includes both the positive and flawed side of the personalities involved. Sometimes, no matter what you do the outcome is predetermined. This is, after all, an emotional experience, wrapped up in a choose-your-own-adventure style game, but one that must come to some sort of conclusion.
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As I said earlier, there is a feeling Heavy Rain is a tech demo for titles still being built. This is backed up by the unlock rewards for playing through the game, the concept art and videos on 'the making of Heavy Rain' show how much effort has gone into the technology. 172 days of film shooting and 30,000 individual pieces of animation for a start.
But this is a title that should not be written off, I found the story, characters, game play and style all compelling, there are times when style outweighs the substance, but overall this is a highly recommended title.
What We Liked:
If you let it, there is compelling depth to the storyline
Emotionally stirring from time to time
Good use of SIXAXIS controller
What We Didn't Like:
Some frustration in controls
Some gambles with chosen actions
Taking a step back, can reveal some silliness to the story.
What We Gave It:
8.5 out of 10