Heavy Rain is an interesting game. I almost hesitate to call it a game, but that’s me being a little bit snarky and not giving it its due. It is a game. And there are points where it is really gripping and emotional and – dare I say it? – fun. But then there are points where the game becomes tedious and dull and somewhat inexplicable.
The game bounces between three types of scenes: intriguing choices (the most fun), quick-time-event boss battles (fun at first, but get kind of old), and mundane “normal” tasks (which get old really fast). In terms of story (what I would consider both the game’s greatest strength and its biggest weakness), I found that the first 75% of it was entertaining and interesting.
But then. But then the game reveals its big secret, and it…is disappointing. All of the gameplay and story leading up to this point has been split between four characters investigating and tracking a serial killer. All of a sudden, with the reveal of who the killer is, the motivations and gameplay that I had done with one of the characters was thrown into complete chaos. There are choices I had made that now made no sense with my newfound knowledge. Whereas a twist in a movie is set up and supported by all the writing before and after it, the fact that the game allowed me to do things that I felt like would have been completely out of character simply due to a lack of knowledge made me feel kind of cheated. What’s more, the scene in the clock shop seemed like an outright lie.
In terms of the individual chapters, I found the choices that were presented were seldom actually meaningful. I would be interested in playing through Heavy Rain again not so much from a player’s perspective but more from a designer’s perspective. I’m interested in how many of the choices I made during the game were essentially fake choices; things that may have affected a line of dialog or a short cutscene, but not had any lasting effect.
The interest is also in a sense of testing the game’s edge cases. What happens if I let any or all of the four main characters die? Can they die before they are scripted to? Does shooting the drug dealer change anything? Does not kissing Madison change anything? Does the fact that Madison can call either Ethan or Jayden mean that I can essentially fail at playing one of the three investigative paths and still save Shaun? Does any of this gameplay affect anything meaningfully other than the end cutscenes?
Personally, I found Ethan’s storyline the most interesting (it’s supposed to be, right?), but I also really took to Norman Jayden as well. I really liked his ARI investigation scenes, but there were only two of them. I wished they had given me more of that. While I liked the archetypes presented in the characters and from scene-to-scene enjoyed the way the game was able to get me to feel a large range of emotions – lighthearted joy, suspenseful fear, nervous anticipation – I found the overall story arc left me with questions and seemed to be a bit messy.
Maybe it had to be in order to make it interactive or there were just lines or scenes that I misunderstood or missed, but here are some things I was confused about after the game ended: why would Ethan blackout and end up far away with an origami figure in his hand? What was the relationship between Madison and Norman? Why would Scott even think about helping Kramer when he’s having a heart attack when he has no problem burning Madison alive later? Why does everyone mispronounce origami?
A few UI hitches: the moving, rotating icons are cool-looking but a functional disaster. It makes it hard to see what choice is attached to what icon (especially given how similar Circle and Square can look) and – in some cases – even can cut the choices off off-camera. This would be OK if I had forever to make choices, but the game forces your choices after a set amount of time in some instances. And let’s touch on camera angles for a second; it is never a good idea to suddenly switch camera angles a complete 180 degrees when I am walking relative to the camera. It means that hitting left now walks me in the completely opposite direction, which is very frustrating.
So, in the end, I don’t know what to make of Heavy Rain. It was an enjoyable ride, but that’s what it mainly felt like: a ride. It felt like a long movie where I was forced to hit play every five seconds to continue watching. And while the movie was entertaining enough, hitting play that many times is bound to get tedious at some point.