To a greater extent than most games, Heavy Rain is a story-driven adventure. As this is the case, the following review is devoid of plot spoilers, aside from character descriptions and a brief overview of the plot setup.
How far would you go to save someone you love? That's the question posed by Heavy Rain's tagline, but when it comes to discussing the game itself, it might be more useful to ask: “how willing are you to try something different?" Heavy Rain is many things: it's a slick little thriller, a work of interactive art, and undoubtedly one of the gaming experiences of 2010, but one thing it's not is familiar. It's a genuine departure from the status quo, and if you're the kind of hardcore gamer who thrives on shooters and little else, you may find it hard to get your head around.
For the sake of space, I'm not going to spend much time discussing exactly what Heavy Rain is. If you're totally new to the concept of this game you'd probably do well to check out one of our previous previews, but the gist of it is that you get to play through roughly 10 hours worth of “interactive fiction” - a term coined by the project's overseer, David Cage. Rather than using levels, or any other conventional video game structure, Heavy Rain unfolds its story over the course of 50 individual scenes. At any given time you'll control one of four characters, all of whom are looking for The Origami Killer – a child murderer who abducts his young victims and drowns them in rain water. Hunting for psychopaths isn't the safest of occupations, but if one of the protagonists should happen to die in the course of the investigations, the story will carry on anyway. There are no Game Over screens here, just a sinister narrative that grinds on to a conclusion – regardless of player death(s).
This highly unusual format, coupled with the game's astonishingly beautiful graphics, has attracted a lot of attention and dribbling hype from gamers and members of the press alike. This isn't “just” another PS3 exclusive; it's a balls-out attempt, on the part of developer Quantic Dream, to do something genuinely original with the medium. Sony has taken a big risk by backing this project, and everyone knows it. Personally, I've been eagerly awaiting Heavy Rain ever since I first heard about it, but after my last hands-on test the faintest shadow of doubt had crept into my mind. Yes, it was beautiful, and yes it was both provocative and highly original, but I also had a slight sense of being kept on a leash, of being forced along a relatively set path. Given all the noise that Cage had previously made about player choice, this seemed to be a potentially game-ruining disappointment.
Well, having played and finished the final product several times, I'm delighted to report that Heavy Rain is a roaring, highly emotive success. The preview code I was playing last time was limited to the first three hours or so, and to be honest these opening chapters are something of a slow start. However, as soon as the basic plot is established the action kicks up a gear, and from this point onward the pace barely falters. As per my promise at the top of the page, I'm not going to mention anything that even vaguely resembles a spoiler, but let's just say that the story is absolutely packed with surprises and stand-out moments – the kind of events that you'll instantly want to rant about. For the past few days my colleagues have had to listen to all manner of excited screams and caterwauls from the room next to the office, and every time they've attempted to investigate the noise I've nearly decapitated them by slamming the door shut.
There's been a lot of discussion around Heavy Rain's control system, and particular its reliance upon quick time events, but this arrangement is ultimately one of things that allows the game to be fresh and unpredictable. As a general rule you use the left analogue stick to steer your virtual actor about while using the face buttons and simple movements of the right stick to interact with the game world, following subtle on-screen prompts that appear over objects in your vicinity. Critics might argue that this imprecise setup effectively weakens the link between the player's input and the character's actions on screen, but after half an hour's worth of play it starts to feel like second nature. More importantly, it means that Cage and Quantic Dream can throw almost anything at you they like: rather than being a rigid system for governing, say, you're running and gunning (as per any shooter under the sun), the controls in Heavy Rain are a virtual Swiss army knife that allow you to deal with anything and everything.
Take a hypothetical situation in which your unarmed character is being chased by a man with a gun. You might typically start with a sort of “on-rails” bit where you're running away; during this interlude you might have to hit a series of sudden button prompts to let you evade obstacles in your path, and you might get a split second choice of routes to take: up a set of stairs, or into an open doorway. You opt for the room, and after barricading the door, you're suddenly returned to full player control. You've got a limited amount of time to act: you could run over to the window and try to open it; you can dash to the phone on a nearby desk and call for help; or you could try to hide inside a cupboard. The first two choices would probably require simple, one-off actions, while the latter would force you to press and hold a series of buttons in sequence, simultaneously. This kind of challenge frequently crops up throughout Heavy Rain, usually during highly stressful moments, and it ultimately resembles a kind of hand-held version of Twister. The hardest of these tests will leave you with both hands contorted into a painful knot, mirroring the struggle of your on-screen counterpart. It sounds a bit daft, but it works extremely well.