As video and computer games continue to mature, drawing in an ever-expanding demographic of players beyond the industry’s traditional young, male base, we’re hopefully going to start seeing a lot more titles like Quantic Dream’s “Heavy Rain.”
With its layered story and simple gameplay based on visual cues and timed button presses, “Heavy Rain” (rated M, $60 on PlayStation 3) shows there’s plenty of room for games aimed at casual players that aren’t based on matching colored gems, solving simple puzzles, pantomiming along with popular music or participating in shallow, “Mario Party”-style minigames. In short, “Heavy Rain” is a single-player casual game that doesn’t condescend, delivering a fully fleshed-out game world, interesting cast of characters and a suspenseful, often-compelling serial-killer tale.
“Heavy Rain” revolves around the hunt to find the Origami Killer, a serial kidnapper and murderer of young boys whose victims always disappear from public places, then turn up several days later, drowned, with faces covered in mud, an orchid on their chests and an origami figure in their right hands.
As the game unfolds, you’ll play as four primary characters, but the story revolves around Ethan Mars, an architect whose son is kidnapped by the Origami Killer early in the game. You’ll also take turns as Scott Shelby, a former police lieutenant who’s now a private investigator; Madison Paige, a journalist who moonlights as a photographer for interior design magazines; and Norman Jayden, an FBI agent equipped with a cool pair of virtual reality sunglasses he uses to investigate crime scenes and review data.
Gameplay is relatively simple, and the straightforward level set-up should appeal to older or casual players who feel frustrated by open-world games that give players a great deal of freedom. Like a movie, “Heavy Rain’s” story is told in sequential scenes, with each taking place at a set location. You’ll have freedom to walk around a mangeable, predetermined area; as you do so, visual cues will pop up to tell you when you can interact with a particular object or character. These activities range from scanning a crime scene for clues to playing with Ethan’s children or brushing his teeth. Eventually, the passage of time or something you do will trigger the end of the scene.
But “Heavy Rain” isn’t that simple. From time to time, your character will be threatened or find him or herself in a situation that demands a cool head and quick reaction time. In these instances, you’ll take part in what’s typically referred to in the games industry as a quick-time event, pressing a number of buttons in rapid succession based on on-screen prompts. It’s actually possible for characters in “Heavy Rain” to die, but the narrative continues without them. (Once you’ve finished the game, you can go back and start playing from previously unlocked chapters, ensuring that players who struggled with the quick-time events the first time through get a chance to keep everybody alive without having to start all over at the beginning.)
As you make your way through the game, certain chapters will unlock or remain hidden based on how you’re doing, which both serves to forgive players’ mistakes and add replayability once you’ve finished the story. (Even the most casual players should finish the story. It’s relatively short, and there’s no such thing as a “game over” screen.)
Even though “Heavy Rain’s” layered, gameplay-driven story is a hallmark for interactive fiction, its impact is blunted by a number of questionable decisions and shortcomings. For one, it’s set in an unspecified East Coast city. Yet most of the dialogue is spoken by European actors, whose attempts at American accents range from awkward to unintentionally comedic. I’m willing to suspend disbelief to a certain extent, but it was hard not to get distracted nearly every time Jayden (voiced by British actor Leon Ockenden) got worked up and started yelling, or one of the game’s children started talking.
In addition to the uneven voice acting, “Heavy Rain” leaves a number of events and details hanging or poorly explained by the time the game concludes. While some gaps might be filled in as I replay the game and access scenes I missed the first time through, the disappearance of a major supporting character and the inclusion of implausible statements and scenes that seem only to serve as red herrings muddy an otherwise exceptional narrative.
That’s not to say “Heavy Rain” isn’t a good game. Quantic Dream’s somewhat unusual approach to game design has yielded that rare title capable of delivering a compelling, mature narrative to die-hard and casual gamers alike. Anyone interested the evolution of storytelling in games would do well to give it a look. What’s more, its relatively simple control scheme, visual cues and forgiving nature should make it appeal to casual gamers interested in serial killer tales and suspenseful mystery shows like “CSI” In other words, it’s the kind of title gaming nuts can buy and share with their nongaming spouse or friend who bought a PS3 mostly to play Blu-ray movies.
Because some folks continue to buy M-rated games for relatively young children, it’s probably worth mentioning that “Heavy Rain” is not for kids. Aside from its plot revolving around someone who kidnaps and murders children, it features nudity, sex scenes, torture and intense violence.