I want you to think back to the last time you actually counted days down to something happening, something so exciting that you even planned that day out months in advance. When it finally comes, it is such a wave of joy and relief from the anticipation; it might not turn out exactly as you had hoped, but so much the better that it surprised you at the very least. For me, my most recent subject was the game Heavy Rain, which dropped on February 23rd, 2010. The game is the latest, and claimed to be greatest work released by writer/director David Cage and developer Quantic Dream. The French team has been known for ambitious, out-of-the-ordinary games in the past, specifically games like Omikron: The Nomad Soul and more recently Indigo Prophecy (Fahrenheit outside the US).
I played through the latter of these two games with an enthusiasm nearing obsession. Indigo had many dozens of little quirks and intricacies, and almost any one of them could spell out “Game Over” before you even thought twice. Characters even had a meter that represented their mental health, topping out at “neutral” (I think that should say something about the mood of the game) and bottoming out with what could be your character’s suicide or leaving the city. With the multi-protagonist setup of Indigo, along with its movie-like style of play, I couldn’t help but be engrossed by this little gem, even today. A caveat I am compelled to mention is that the final hour or so of the story is just so convoluted and up its own behind that I wished the game had ended earlier just to save itself the embarrassment.
Moving from the snow of Indigo to Heavy Rain seemed like a perfect transition; going from the well-detailed and variable, yet ultimately linear experience to a more fluid and controllable one. Heavy Rain’s biggest selling point, next to the absolutely gorgeous character rendering (which is likely the best since MGS 4) was the ability to shape and craft the story you experience based on choices you make. The way it was advertised almost made it sound like a “butterfly effect” that would resonate throughout the game. This sounded to me like what games should be like, with real-time and lasting responses to character choices, and not simply providing choices that are “Good,” “Evil,” and “Neutral.” All these elements came together to make me salivate over the thought of popping it into my Play Station 3. When I finally got my lumber jacking hands on this marvel, I was ecstatic. Four days later, however, the luster of the pearl has begun to dull.
As I had mentioned before, the game is a visual marvel. I was tempted many times to get up and wipe away what I thought were streams of rainwater running down my screen. When characters cried, I could see the tears clearly flowing down their cheeks, dribbling into cracks and wrinkles in a stunningly realistic fashion. The facial models themselves were beautiful as well, if a bit toothy during speech (the lip synching is almost spot-on). Environments were also very nice, although the bright and clear colors of the first hour or so of the game give way to the murky browns and dim lighting characteristic of many current-gen games. Even in the club scene, writhing with maybe a hundred dancers that are surprisingly lifelike, was ultimately rather visually crowded and confusing. Overall, though, I applaud the attention to detail in the scenery, but I will not forgive the fact that the bushes in some areas are actually solid objects that characters collide with and slink around. With such powerful technology, surely we can render a shrub that a character can move though.
Noting that aspect of movement does warrant a word or two on movement in the world of Heavy Rain in general. Unlike any other game I’ve ever played, this one requires you to hold down the R2 button in order to move. Think of the R2 button as the accelerator on your car and the left stick as your steering wheel. Now imagine that the orientation of the four major directions your car can turn shifts every few feet you drive. You now have a basic understanding of how control feels with the game’s dynamic camera. Yes, the ability to switch between two angles with the L1 button helps a bit, but it doesn’t come close to fixing the problem. Aiming your character in the direction of your intent is also an art in this game. Prepare to waste many precious seconds during edge-of-your-seat escape scenes (that aren’t controlled by quick-time events) trying to orient your character to face the doorway or window so you can make it out without having your legs sawed off or getting busted by the cops. In summary, the movement is workable at best, frustrating at worst, and is always worth practicing.
With all the minor issues aside, I want to get back to what I was saying at the very beginning of this review. That big day you’ve been waiting for has arrived. You’re sucked in by the splendor of it all, enjoying every moment as it happens, but then you look back at the end of it and find that the taste wasn’t as sweet as you thought. That is what I took away from this game. I was absolutely mesmerized at the beginning. Even within the first hour, I was taken in by the sickeningly perfect life of one of the four main characters, then crushed by the way it came to a horrifying end. I put in all my emotional chips, hoping that my wager would be well worth it. I strived for hours, always engaged with my characters, doing my best to make sure they all stayed alive and maybe had a chance to have some kind of a happy ending. I made them take chances and shirk from danger. I even got two of them to have sex. Then the plot twisted and turned, and I figured a few of them were done for. One was, but I suppose he had it coming. A few got their happy ending, the rest not so much. All in all, it was a very human experience.
Then I did it all again, and that is where my troubles began.
For a game that touts a storyline based around your choices, I’ve never come across one that cared so little about the choices you actually make. In my first play through, I thought I was seeing the effects of my actions resonate throughout the remainder of the story. I would occasionally see little throwbacks to decisions I made a chapter or two ago, but it was enough for me. I was banking on a big finish. However, when contrasted with the second go, I could see that this game has an agenda, and it doesn’t plan on letting it end up at your discretion. I did the exact opposite of what I did in my first play through, winding up with two characters dead about two-thirds of the way through the game. Now, it is very important that I mention this little tidbit: director David Cage told players that they should not attempt to restart a chapter if they lose a character, but rather to go on and see how the story unfolds. Keeping that idea in mind, I can tell you that the story does not unfold when characters die. It shortens. I had assumed that I would be privy to new information and more choices with surviving characters if some were to fall. This is unfortunately not so. I really felt as though I was being punished for letting these characters die. No one even bothered to mention that they had been dead until the ending cinematics. While these did offer a bit of insight as to how the other characters around them really felt, it would have been a hell of a lot better to have gotten this information earlier, and even to have integrated it into the story. It was frustrating, really, to see how many of the scenes stayed the same with half the characters dead as when they had been with all of them alive.
In the end, l’ve been led to believe that the only thing you can choose is your ending. Your seemingly important decisions will be thrown to the wayside in favor of a few overarching story elements. Your characters will be forgotten just as quickly if they died as if they had lived. It’s almost impossible to find yourself in the same predicaments that gave Indigo Prophecy its challenging kill-you-anywhere-anytime game play, as the story will carry you kicking and screaming to the bitter end regardless of how much or how little effort you put into those fast-paced action scenes. It will never let you make the choices it doesn’t want you to make, it will play by its own set of questionable rules, and it will seldom seem like it’s ever holding you back. You’ll probably finish that first play through and think, “That David DuPlantier guy doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about.” But I’ll warn you right now, start up a new story, and by the end you’ll end up rewriting this review.