Heavy Rain is a Playstation 3 game that was released in 2010– as such, this review will be full of spoilers so you should stop now if you want an untainted gaming experience.
The first time I played Heavy Rain was in 2010 with my wife, Hilary, and we completed the entire game within 48 hours. The game-play is a bizarre departure from standard fare, and coupled with incredible graphics and unique storytelling, Heavy Rain is a memorable experience. I revisited the game this week and drummed up all the old joys (and frustrations) once again. It’s a portrait of where games may go, and although it suffers from some inconsistencies it represents a beautiful moment in gaming history.
As a work of video game noir, it’s extremely pleasing- a collection of gritty vignettes which feel torn from the pulp rags of a previous era. The settings are perfectly detailed, and the rain dumps buckets of noir on the screen. The first chapters are suspiciously bright, but the memory of them later provides stark contrast within subsequent scenes. Not only are the backdrops dark, but the subject matter as well, and lends the thematic heaviness that should permeate any true noir media.
You control 4 separate characters throughout: Ethan Mars (an architect and father of two), Scott Shelby (a middle-age private eye), Norman Jayden (an FBI agent struggling with addiction), and Madison Paige (a loner photojournalist). Each character’s story orbits the central threat: a serial murderer called The Origami Killer.
Ethan is a textbook noir anti-hero. He blames himself for the death of his first son, and his self-inflicted shame robs him of self-worth and plunges him into depression. When his second son, Shaun, is kidnapped by the Origami Killer, his desperation reaches dangerous levels. I was annoyed that he never seemed to do what you’d do in a scenario, it wasn’t even an option. As the story unfolds, it’s obvious that the developers wanted you to feel in control of the action and direction of the plot– but sadly I frequently felt like a passenger instead of a driver. Why not go to the cops? The second I was contacted by the kidnapper of my son I would be talking to the cops. The letter Ethan received never told him that going to the police was against the rules, but he appears to not even think about it. So frustrating. A simple fix: one line in the letter that says “involve the cops and I kill your son.” Problem solved.
Scott Shelby is another great noir character. He’s a bit overweight and asthmatic, an ex-cop with a kind demeanor and an eye for detail. You come to love him in his quest to gather clues from the victimized families who’ve lost little boys to the killer, and then you’re shattered when you discover that Scott IS the killer. I was peeved, not because he was a lovable character who turned out evil, but because we were given so little indication that he was the killer. In their attempt to fool the player, they robbed us of the chance to figure it out on our own. They give us a few little clues, and even give us access to Scott’s thoughts, but apparently he’s lying to himself the entire time just to keep us in the dark. I could understand it if they were trying to keep the “multiple endings” option on the table, but from what I’ve read, every ending has Scott Shelby as the killer– so why the blatant lies? If they’d just been a little more careful with his inner monologue, it could have been an even more compelling twist.
I had a great time with Norman Jayden as a playable character- he has access to some futuristic CSI tech, and a great New England accent. As a ‘Profiler,’ he acts as a surrogate to the player in solving the case: He gathers clues and at various times allows us to bounce our ideas off him through a close inspection of the facts. They deepen his character by creating a crippling addiction to ‘triptocaine’– and allow us to indulge him or clean him up. My only problem with Norman is that he rarely takes a partner along and never calls for backup. Half the crazy shiz that happens to him would be resolved if you could decide to take someone with you.
Madison Paige is the femme fatale of Heavy Rain, but I was a bit annoyed by the way her scenes/character develop. Within 5 minutes of taking control of her, we’re encouraged (by her thoughts) to take a shower. Then we’re given a lengthy wet and naked scene– a complete voyeuristic romp in her penthouse bathroom. C’mon guys. This was blatant pandering to the male audience (of which I’m sure a large percentage of Heavy Rain players are). I understand the need for eroticism in noir, but the emotion arises out of subtlety– not this sort of heavy handed strip down. When we should have been building a relationship with this character that will propel us through the game, we were shown that she is a play-thing for our appetites. Throughout, she’s portrayed as vulnerable and naive, constantly endangering herself.
Heavy Rain has gigantic plot-holes introduced early that are never addressed later. Ethan has a blackout in which he awakes in the rain with an origami figure clutched in his hand– Are we to believe the origami killer is Ethan? or that the origami killer put the figure in his hand while he was blacked out? I think one line of dialogue later could have cleared it right up. We’re also expected to believe that of the 8 kids taken and killed, none of the families gave their letters/shoe-boxes of tasks from the Origami Killer to the police. Yeah right. Last one I’ll mention– while you’re visiting Manfred as Scott, he’s killed in the backroom. Turns out we did it, but we’re not shown that Scott was the killer until the big reveal at the end of the game. Such a crazy misdirect.
I really enjoy Heavy Rain as a beautiful ode to the noir genre– but I’m frustrated with the plot. With just a little more polish, a few edits here and there, and this could have been a superb piece of noir. Instead, we’re left with a semi-good crime fiction and an interesting video game.