Review: Heavy Rain

A haunting thriller for PlayStation 3
By MITCH KRPATA  |  March 11, 2010
4.0 4.0 Stars


Heavy Rain | for PlayStation 3 | Rated M for Mature | Developed by Quantic Dream | Published by Sony Computer Entertainment
Is Heavy Rain a game or a movie? Players have been asking the question since before its release. It confounds a lifelong gamer's expectations by restricting player input and insisting on authorial intrusion to tell the tale of a search for a serial killer. But thanks to a reliance on thriller clichés and questionable localization, it wouldn't quite work as passive entertainment, either. By staking out a middle ground, Heavy Rain achieves the best of both worlds. Emphasizing its characters' inner lives to a degree most games don't attempt, it also gives players enough control over the outcome that even familiar dramatic scenes are imbued with real urgency and danger.

The story follows four characters, all of them searching for the Origami Killer, who kidnaps young boys, drowns them in rainwater, and leaves origami figures with their bodies. We get familiar types: the precocious FBI agent who butts heads with a pugnacious police detective; the genial private eye with an ulterior motive; the glory-seeking journalist. The character who resonates is Ethan Mars, a young father grieving the death of his older son. When his second child, Shaun, goes missing, Ethan finds himself tested by the Origami Killer, who wants to know how much Ethan would be willing to sacrifice in order to save his child.

The serial killer trying to impart a moral lesson is well-worn territory, to be sure. The trials that Ethan must endure in order to discover clues to his son's whereabouts are, though gruesome, not terribly inventive, but Heavy Rain makes them consequential. When you fail a trial, your instinct may be to reload and try again, but the game doesn't give you that option. Whether Ethan succeeds or fails, the story continues. That's when you realize that Shaun might actually die. And if he does, it will be because of what you did. Few games dare to raise the stakes this high.

In its best moments, Heavy Rain evokes powerlessness and panic. After Shaun goes missing, Ethan finds himself at the police station answering questions: "What time did you see Shaun last? What was he wearing?" Several answers swirl around Ethan's head for you to choose from, jittery and hard to read. You think, Oh my God, what time was it? A second playthrough reveals that the scene in which Shaun vanishes begins with a timestamp superimposed on the screen, and a massive analog clock is visible from nearly every camera angle. The facts were there — you had only to pay attention.

What can seem strange is the capricious way the game grants and rescinds player control. Some character interactions are optional; some are mandatory. Some actions can be attempted more than once; some are strictly pass/fail. Action scenes, like fistfights and car chases, take the form of quicktime events in which you don't have direct control and must react to split-second button prompts. Gut reactions take the place of thought-out decisions. You never know when you'll be able to skate by and when you'll be hammered for a mistake. Even during quiet scenes, the tension always runs high.

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