Shaun Mars is missing. He was last seen playing at a local park, before the rain started to pour. You might assume that he just ran away – his home life wasn’t exactly perfect – and pray that he’ll show up at the door any second now. But deep down, you know he won’t. You know better. He’s been abducted by the Origami Killer, a psychopath who drowns young boys in rainwater and leaves an orchid and a little figurine behind with the corpse. No one knows who this guy is. Thousands of potential leads to follow, hundreds of suspects to interrogate, and not a definitive clue about how to stop a single madman. You’ve got to find him. There is a child locked away somewhere, slowly dying as he clings to the hope that someone will save him.
You’d better think fast, too. It’s raining hard, and the water is still rising.
The search begins with Ethan Mars, the father of the latest victim. His story is tragic; he devolves from a successful architect and family man into a miserable, gibbering shell of a man. You can’t really blame him. How would you feel if your children were kidnapped? What would you do? What could you do? That’s exactly what the Origami Killer wants to know. He’s sent Ethan some instructions, that, if followed correctly, will lead him to Shaun. They start off small, like retrieving another clue from a safebox. But each new task offers something more lethal; he has to choose between aiding or running from the authorities, attacking innocent people, and facing dangers that could easily kill him. They might, depending on how you play. It’s a dark, heart-wrenching tale of just how powerful a motivator love can be. Ethan will do anything to save his son. It’s just a matter of how far you’ll let him go.
He’s not in it alone, either. Heavy Rain is presented through the perspectives of three additional characters. Not only do you get to see the story from the eyes of a desperate father, but from the people hunting the killer as well. Norman Jayden is an FBI profiler who struggles to resolve the case while dealing with a seemingly corrupt and bureaucratic police force. Scott Shelby works independently as a private investigator, interviewing previous victims while trying to uphold some sense of decency in the city’s seedy underbelly. Madison Paige, a journalist, spends her time connecting the evidence together and following her own leads. Though these characters don’t suffer nearly as much as Ethan, their stories remain compelling right through the epilogue. They’ll struggle with substance abuse, the pursuit of the truth, moral integrity, and the necessity of compassion. These dilemmas are compounded by all the clever plot twists and red herrings that pop up once the storylines start to converge. By the time the mystery is solved, none of them will escape unscathed.
That’s assuming that they’ll make it that far. Progressing in this game doesn’t revolve around open exploration, but interacting with everyday objects via quick-time events. All you’ve got to do is follow the arrows on the screen. The tutorial level demonstrates this perfectly; you hold a control stick to get Ethan out of bed, shave and brush his teeth, take a shower, get dressed, and go about his daily business. Things that you take for granted – opening a door, taking a sip from a glass, kissing, using a phone – are all done with button commands. All you’ve got to do is get close enough to the object, and follow the prompt that appears. You can even hold a button to look through the characters’ thoughts, which uncover more options and hints as to what you should do. By the time you’ve manipulated everything, you’ll have uncovered the next plot point. Even when you’re not in control, the commands still show up during the cutscenes; rather than attacking an enemy, you’ll have to follow a prompt to shoot or dodge. It makes Heavy Rain feel less like a game and more like an interactive movie. The story is compelling and emotionally engaging enough to keep you from caring, though.
Most of the time, anyway. It takes a while to get used to the movement mechanics. Pressing a shoulder button lets the characters walk in whatever direction they’re facing, and the analog stick can be used to turn their heads and move accordingly. It can be awkward, especially when you’re in a cramped space and you’re trying to focus on a single object. Even if you do get a handle on it, the characters move in a slow, almost drunken gait. It’s not horrendously bad, but it feels clunky compared to the quick-time events. You might pass up the item completely, forcing you to stumble around and try again. You might be facing the right direction, the game will occasionally ignore your inputs and force you to restart the animation sequence. It’s annoying, especially when you’ve got to hold down multiple buttons at just the right time to work. These miscues rarely happen, but they are jarringly out of place in an otherwise amazing experience.
The game is usually forgiving of any input errors, but you shouldn’t take it lightly. The choices and actions you perform can have a drastic effect on the rest of the story. Something insignificant, like making a phone call or finding a clue, might take things in a completely unexpected direction. The most significant ones don’t show up until the latter half of the game, but even the smallest events could lead to something huge. It’s entirely possible for some of the characters to die far earlier than the final showdown, which can remove or alter whole chapters from the story. There are over twenty endings and alternate cutscenes, all of which are solely dependent on decisions you could have made hours ago. Not all of them are happy, either. Half the fun is going back and figuring out what you could have done differently, and watching things unfold in a new way. It’s this kind of impact that make you feel more connected with the story; you’re not just watching some movie, but playing an active role in its progression as well.
It’s easy to be fooled, though. The game looks amazing. Every last inch of it is stunningly detailed. You’ll understand once you get a screen-full of Ethan’s face. The texture of the skin, the reflection of the light, pupil dilation, hairy chin, slightly furrowed brow, facial expressions… no other game on the PS3 (MGS4, maybe) comes anywhere remotely close to that level of realism. Heavy Rain is an emotional game, so it’s not surprising to see its characters present themselves as such. The stages and audio are just as engaging. Imagine walking through a train station. The bustling waves of people, a dull roar of footsteps, glowing information screens, and sunlight drifting through the windows. But you’re nervous; you can’t handle crowds. You keep bumping into people. You start gasping for breath, and your hands won‘t stop shaking. It’s not so easy to move anymore; you have to shake the entire controller just to take a step forward. And all the while, the music starts pounding louder and louder until you moan hoarsely and curl into a fetal position.
Now that’s atmosphere.
That doesn’t mean this game’s for you. This is hardly the typical game, and you might prefer something a little more traditional. Maybe you don’t want to care that much about the characters. That’s great. Totally understandable. But if you’re open and willing to take a chance, Heavy Rain is worth it. The story is a twisted, chaotic tale of a murderer and the love of a father. Its dark themes force you to look at these ordinary characters in different ways. You’ll be drawn further into it with each passing scene. It turns something as simple as using a phone into a far more meaningful act. The game allows you to interact with its rain-drenched world, shaping its development in ways that you’ll never expect until it’s too late. The clunky movements and awkward controls kill some of the immersion, but the gorgeous graphics and emotionally assaultive scenes will keep you mesmerized. So go ahead, give it a try. Take a walk in the rain.