Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Review: Heavy Rain

All that is old is new again. A game comprised entirely of quick-time events (a concept that hasn’t been funky fly since Shenmue) combined with the hunt for a Jigsaw-like killer (imitating a movie that hasn’t been interesting since…well the first one), coupled with Resident Evil-like walking controls (which have never been cool). Throw in the most daring attempt to climb the uncanny valley to date and you have a game that really, really should not have any claim to relevance in today’s market.

And yet there’s something about Heavy Rain that makes it feel so fresh and interesting that you almost have to play it out for yourself.

The game is built around some Origami Killer figure that kidnaps and murders children. This “killer” could be anyone. He could be Ethan Mars, the family man-turned-manic-depressive whose son is the latest victim. He could be Madison, the obligatory female character who exists in the game mostly to have her female body parts violated. It could be Scott Shelby, the unhealthy but cheery private eye figure who exists to break the streak of characters with perfect physiques. Could be Norman Jayden, the cokehead FBI agent wearing freakin’ virtual reality sunglasses, the kind of fictional technology that makes the CSI Vegas show jealous. For all we know, the killer could be you.

The game comes with a graphic piece of paper, and the installation screen gives instructions on how to fold it into the Origami Killer’s artwork of choice. Quite bluntly put, this really is the greatest installation screen in the history of gaming. Despite how my origami bird-thingy has since crumpled and creased under the weight of gravity, it was sure worth not renting the game for that sole purpose.

There’s an admittedly slow start to the proceedings. First you have to live an excessively jovial day in the life of the Mars family (no relation to the cancelled CW program) as they live a perfect birthday in the perfect house with the wife, picket fence and 2.5 children. Then the obligatory tragedy occurs and suddenly, you have to live a day in the decidedly unjovial life of the deadbeat Mars family, with his not-perfect house and not perfect…yeah. The game has some admittedly slow pacing issues but at least effectively breaks you into each new pawn in this murderous chess game is introduced.

A combination of factors immerse you into this odd version of reality. There’s the ever ominous music, some of the most weighty and mood-appropriate orchestral pieces to appear in an electronic video game since I played Kum-bay-ya on my recorder in Grade 3. There is the ability to interact with your environment through any given number of quick-time events. You can sit down, use the can, take an exposed-breasts-shower, open the fridge, decide you’re not thirsty, close the fridge, turn on the tele, watch random, looped cartoons you see people on television watch, etc. They’re mostly pointless (even the ones that involve alcohol, sadly) but they at least serve the task of making you feel like part of a world instead of a series of walls pretending to be furniture like in every pre-Half-Life-2-shooter.
In fact, quick-time events are the very soul of Heavy Rain. Heavy Rain is to quick-time events what Republicans is to opposing free health care.

The game’s plot conjures up a variety of surprising gameplay scenarios to use these quick-time events. And you’ll be shocked as to how well combining button presses, analog stick swipes and Sixaxis motions, often in clever tandems, recreates in-game activities. It actually puts the three-year-old Wii to shame in regards to interactivity and that’s embarrassing, Nintendo. There are a variety of interesting scenarios, such as changing a diaper or applying first aid, that are a shocking fit to the game’s unique brand of controls. Of course, there are also fights, chases and various other action sequences, and the game at least grants a reasonable amount of leeway. Instead of being forced to restart a battle over slipping on a single button, your mistake is merely reflected in the form of your own-screen character slipping-but-not-defeated. In turn, Heavy Rain is a massive improvement over every single game to use quick-time-events-ever-period-end-of-story-up-yours-god-of-war.

The catch of this quick-time-action-driven-insanity is that the game does get a little outrageous at points. You’ll be suspicious as to how the main characters can just happen to run into these various unlikely scenarios. These are an awful large quantity of Hollywood fight sequences. The most difficult to swallow is one involving a particularly deranged doctor, better suited for a James Bond film than a game with some semblance of reality. (Though giving ARI a claim to reality seems to be pushing boundaries a bit.) And do not fret, nothing in this game approaches the sheer stupidity of the events of Indigo Prophecy, Quantic Dream’s previous interactive movie folly.

And the voice actors try their hardest to conceal their non-American accents. The child actors, in particular, seem to endure a great struggle in the regard of covering up the truth behind their culture of origin. And the walking controls, reminiscent of Resident Evil but not really, they suck. But at least you can adapt. But if you can accept a small modicum of nonsense, the plot does get very interesting as you progress. The action scenes get exciting, the murder mystery gets intriguing, and the game will sink its hooks into your shoulders and drag you through some exciting moments (and do so with the shoulder buttons in a quick-time event).

Since you have a degree of input in the character’s actions, and determining who lives and dies, the game’s final sequences do feel like the product of your design, and give you an appropriate payoff for your button-pressing.
Admittedly, subsequent playthroughs are a bit less interesting. All of the major moral choices occur the game’s later stages, and you’ll find no pleasure in reliving those lengthy stays at the Mars residence. Rather, you’ll feel more inclined to just revisit individual chapters to see how certain events unfold. It’s almost comical, actually, how there can be little-to-no punishment for failing certain sequences. For at least two fights, I put my controller down and made no attempt to defend myself, and the story progressed all the same. There’s a seemingly dire life-or-death situation in particular seemed strange in how I was allowed to make no attempt at survival and still survive.

But still, Heavy Rain is one of those games that you kind of have to play at some point. It’s highly immersive and intriguing, and so different from everything else on the market that it almost begs for attention. I doubt that it’ll launch a genre of “interactive movies”, but I would not mind the occasional attempt of a new story from Quantic Dream here and there. Plus it has the whole origami paper install factor going for it.