Heavy Rain Review, Spoilers and AllBy Jared Newman
If the headline isn’t an indication, this Heavy Rain review is full of spoilers. The decisions you make in the game, and their consequences, deserve an open discussion. For a consumer report, go to Metacritic or Gamespot, or take my spoiler-free endorsement: Heavy Rain, despite its numerous flaws, gets into your head, if you let it. Players who look for cracks in the structure or plot will be disappointed with the finished product, while those who suspend their disbelief and invest themselves in their characters will be rewarded in ways that make most games seem childish and pointless. Spoilers begin in the next paragraph. You’ve been warned.
When Heavy Rain asked me if I’d swallow a bottle of poison to save my son, I paused and put down the controller. I wondered, how important is this father, Ethan Mars? He’s basically been a ghost since his first son died in a car accident, anyway. This seems like a fitting end to a life that no longer has purpose, except to save Shaun.
But I like Ethan, so I weighed the options. My other characters are doing a good job of tracking down the Origami Killer. There’s a pretty good chance they’ll find Shaun even if Ethan doesn’t drink the poison to get the full address of where his son is held captive. And besides, I didn’t complete the previous trial — kill a man to learn more of the address — because let’s face it, Ethan’s not a killer. How do I even know that three quarters of an address will be enough?
Fuck it. I unpaused the game, grabbed the bottle and chugged down its contents. Ethan was meant to do this.
As a whodunit mystery, Heavy Rain fails. It’s full of plot holes and smacks of countless “serial killer with a cause” movies. The identity of the Origami Killer — private dick and playable character Scott Shelby — is so arbitrary that the killer could’ve been any other character, and the 10-or-so hours before the big reveal wouldn’t have needed any modification. For a lot of people, this plot twist ruined the game.
Fortunately, Heavy Rain’s not really about solving a mystery, it’s about making decisions and living with them. The game’s tagline isn’t “Who is the Origami Killer?!?” It’s “How far would you go to stop a killer?” If you’re willing to honestly ask yourself those questions and make decisions based on your convictions, Heavy Rain leaves a lasting impression.
Most modern decision-based games handle moral choices in a completely different way. In the Mass Effect series and Fallout 3, your options are polar opposites (or an ambiguous “neutral” option that accomplishes nothing). Jail the alien or take a bribe. Free the slaves or join the slave drivers. Initially, how you play depends on the role you desire for your character — same as Heavy Rain — but before long, morality breaks down into currency, rewarding you with new powers or abilities depending on how heavily you lean one way or the other. Decisions no longer stand on their own merits. They’re just resources to be farmed in pursuit of a goal.
Heavy Rain has no resources. Your decisions don’t add up on a meter that you can quantify. The game consistently wades into grey area, and thrives on uncertainty. Does the tone you choose for FBI agent Norman Jayden matter when responding to his hard-nosed local detective partner? Probably not, but it helps establish the character as the player sees fit. It builds a bond.
When your choices do change the game’s outcome, a “right answer” doesn’t necessarily exist. You can orchestrate a kiss between Ethan and journalist Madison Paige, but for me it felt awkward at such a crucial time, so I declined. This prevents the characters from getting together in the endgame, but Heavy Rain never suggests you made a wrong turn.
As fellow journalist and GamerCrave contributor Sinan Kubba suggests, it’s a directorial moment where you decide what’s best for both characters, but I don’t think that forces the player to detach emotionally from them, as Sinan argues. A good director will sympathize with all the actors and feel an emotional obligation to guide them. As I said above, some players will make that investment. Others will not, thinking of the game only as a challenge to be won. You can probably tell which side of the fence I fell on.
How did I get swooned by Heavy Rain to the point of cheerily overlooking its flaws? For starters, the game’s life-or-death quick time events won me over. I’m not in the camp that believes responding to button prompts is worthless, and Heavy Rain is proof. If your heart wasn’t racing while Madison tried to escape the masked intruders in her apartment, there’s not much that video games can do for you. And yes, those mundane tasks of shaving and changing a baby’s diaper weren’t necessary to the plot and don’t bring you closer to the characters, but they are a form of tutorial, training you for the moments when your character’s life is on the line. I was glad to have them.
I also don’t buy the idea that Heavy Rain needed to be the exception to shitty video game narrative. Again, Heavy Rain isn’t about untangling the mystery, it’s about the first-hand experience of decision and reaction. Heavy Rain is close to “playing a movie” as any game that draws heavily on film, your precious Uncharted and Gears of War included. Somehow those games’ half-baked plots are excused on one hand, but their cinematic experiences are praised on the other. And yet Heavy Rain is a target.
The reality is that any video game can be picked apart for all the stupid things players choose to slide under the rug. Just watch Ben Croshaw skewer the most critically-lauded games on Zero Punctuation and try to argue with any of his points. Personally, if I can accept that eating potato chips and beans recovers health in Bioshock 2, I can write off Heavy Rain’s logical inconsistencies in order to enjoy what’s really important.
Because of this, Heavy Rain stayed with me. After the credits rolled, I scrambled onto Twitter to see if anyone was talking about it. I brought up Ethan’s pivotal scene over dinner with my fiancée – not a discussion she’d normally tolerate. Normally, beating a game is like coming down from an adrenaline high. Getting through Heavy Rain is like leaving a session with a shrink. How much you glean from the therapy is your call.