Heavy Rain (Review)

Press X to JaaAAaaaAAason

Platform: Playstation 4

Available on: Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Microsoft Windows

Genre: Interactive Drama, Action-adventure

Developer: Quantic Dream

Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment, Quantic Dream

Released: 23-Feb-2010 original, 01-Mar-2016 PS4

I am so late to this bandwagon that most people have moved past it and have even started to forget the memes that I finally understand.

A hit upon its first release in 2010 on the PS3 and relatively warmly received upon its re-release on PS4 in 2016 despite some poorly aged features, this game still hits a lot of the right notes. The emotional impact, writing, and music stand the test of time very successfully. Some features, namely the controls and to a lesser extent the graphics, time has not been as kind to.

A game whose content is as heavy as its namesake, this third-person game follows four main characters throughout the plot. Each of these characters can die depending on the player’s choices (and reflexes) in-game, as a key plot point branching centres around the player’s responses to quick-time prompts. Considering the main focus of the game is identifying a serial killer named The Origami Killer who abducts children, although what you do with this information/how you respond to it varies greatly, this can lead to some outrageous results.

For players ‘of a certain age’ whose tween years were before 2010, this will hardly register as a drawback. Younger players may need to exercise their judgement before delving in.

Narrow spaces are the devil - Controls

I will start with something that frustrated me before I get to all that I liked about this game.

If I had thought to record my playthrough, the image above could have been a GIF of my character walking into the same wall over and over and over again. And not only due to the repetitive nature of GIFs. But I did not think to record my playthrough. So here’s a picture of Ethan Mars staring vacantly from a walkway that induced unhealthy levels of rage in me.

This game does not like narrow spaces. If there is no room to make a wide, sweeping turn then you have to count the beats it takes for your character to clumsily perform an about-face whenever you take a wrong turn. Which you will. Because the camera angle decides to shift in favour of cinematic panning instead of what is useful to the player when moving around. It looks great, but ultimately when walking in a straight line you want to be able to keep moving in that straight line. Pressing L1, which changes the camera angle, does not allow a traditional sweeping angle change that the player can choose to stop. Instead, it switches between chosen angles that may, or likely may not be what the player was looking for.

This coupled with the fact that to move at all you must be pressing R2 and ‘aiming’ with the left analogue stick, makes basic movement infuriating at times.

This is all rescued by the quick-time events. Action sequences that rely on sequentially pressing buttons within a certain timeframe, in a specific order, and often in a precise direction lends a sense of urgency that you don’t get in the likes of first-person shooters. Suspense, panic as you realise you pushed left instead of right, and fear that you could have done irreparable damage to the ‘type of game’ you were trying to play.

Not a spoiler: but I accidentally chose to leave someone behind to die with my ‘nice guy’ character. I was raging. These things happen.

These action scenes also happen to have the best animation in the game. Even the original PS3 graphics (which I looked up for reference/to satiate my curiosity) were outstanding for the time. For the PS4 version, there area teeny bit of dead eyes (as evidenced by Ethan above), but the action sequences are still slick if you’re calm enough to take it in.

Do You Know Who Writes Good Female Characters? That’s a Question, Not a Hint. Please Tell Me.

Because of the sketchy controls, this game is completely reliant on the story and the characters that drive it. The interconnection between these four narratives is masterfully done. Seeing how each character’s decisions play off the story another character experience is an absolute treat to experience.

The player goes through the first few chapters as Ethan Mars, a mourning father trying to save his remaining son from the clutches of the Origami Killer after a dramatic kidnapping. This happens shortly after the iconic ‘Press X to Jason’ moment which (without giving spoilers for those who may not have played) balances delicately between heartbreaking due to writing, and hilarious due to execution.

The first character switch sees us in the shoes of the charming middle-aged PI Scott Shelby. I found the storytelling at its most poignant when viewed from Scott’s point of view, and many choices and paths taken even in the early game become more nuanced as the story opens up.

Next is an unremarkable FBI agent named Norman Jayden. His personality is that of every single FBI agent in every TV show ever, but he has a drug problem and sports a funky pair of augmented reality glasses that lends an interesting futuristic sci-fi-esque theme to the Origami Killer investigation. So that’s something. I do wish I hadn’t confused the controls at a critical juncture in Norman’s story and killed him though, because I feel as if there was a lot more to offer there than I got to see.

The final character is the one that I feel was the most wasted, despite my not even being able to see all Norman’s storyline. Madison Paige starts as an interesting character. She comes across Ethan in a motel on her nighttime wanders, as she suffers from chronic insomnia. She helps him, despite the dubious and dangerous circumstances. I still enjoyed Madison at this point, despite this being one of the many moments in a game that I wish a woman was involved in the script (seriously, no woman would make the ridiculous unsafe choices this woman was making without calling the police/an ambulance).

But you know. All male writing teams tend to do things like have the sole female character be the only one to run around in their underwear (check), make choices to put themselves in situations that only fix-foot five built men would be comfortable with (check), and include gratuitous stripping and/or sex scenes that focus only on the female character (check). So a character that starts a little interesting devolves slowly into an accessory. A shame, but not enough to detract from the story and themes. Just enough of a bother for a female player, or a male player in tune with these kinds of things, to roll their eyes and maybe grumble “Of course”. Thankfully Madison is quite capable and handles herself well throughout several tense encounters. So for all the writing failures on Madison’s part, at least they didn’t go the whole hog on the damsel in distress stereotype.

A Little Ray of Pitch Black

Because I do understand that the name of the game is literally ‘Heavy Rain’, I also understood that sunny weather is probably not to be expected. Being wary of this was unnecessary. It turns out that when working with an ageing game, darker visuals are a good way to keep the playability at a high enough standard to encourage new players’ attention without distracting poorly-aged graphics.

It also leant itself to the darker theme and ‘feel’ of the game when playing, which was a nice bonus. It could get a little difficult to see things at times and might have been impossible for someone who adhered to the recommended light settings of the game. Having the light turned up a few notches helped in noticing the surroundings of the game, a necessity in a quick-time story-based game, without eliminating the sombre atmosphere.

Final Thoughts

This game does have faults, even compared to other games made in the same year. But these are far outweighed by the positives. The subpar control system is improved by the tense grittiness each scene is built on- pretending that the controls that barely seem functional are a purposeful design choice rather than poor planning almost becomes possible.

The characters, while nothing outrageously unique or particularly well written, fit into the story and become extraordinary in their ordinariness.

The story itself prioritises a few odd details, often involving fanservice a’la Madison, but overall it succeeds in delivering a tale of surprising emotional depth that transports you into this world plagued by the Origami Killer.

I would definitely advise a playthrough for most players on the fence about taking up this game.

Play this game if…

  • You don’t mind (slightly) aged graphics

  • You enjoy grim storylines

  • You value effective world-building

  • You want to experience JAAAASOOON in action

All images are taken from the Heavy Rain press kit here

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