Review: Heavy Rain (PS4)

Republished on Wednesday 27th June 2018: We’re bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of July’s PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text follows.

Love it or loathe it, Heavy Rain is an important game. The drizzly depression session certainly didn’t invent the idea of interactive drama – developer Quantic Dream itself took a stab at the genre five years prior to its PlayStation 3 debut with the inconsistent Fahrenheit – but it popularised many of the systems that we appreciate today. Would the likes of The Walking Dead or Life Is Strange exist without David Cage’s divisive murder mystery? Potentially not.

But like the rudimentary polygonal PSone releases that dragged the sprite-obsessed video game industry kicking and screaming into the third-dimension, this tale of origami-obsessed serial killers has started to look sodden under the relentless rain. It’s not that the conversion to Sony’s latest console has been poorly handled – far from it, the game still looks great from the right angle – but more that time has been unkind to Ethan Mars et al.

The voice acting was never the game’s strong suit in 2010, but in the wake of The Last of Us and even its contemporary Beyond: Two Souls, it sounds practically ancient. Perhaps working on a shoe-string budget, the Parisian developer primarily hired non-native American actors to portray its predominantly Philadelphian cast. But while some characters pull off the accents better than others – portly private eye Scott Shelby immediately springs to mind – others are less successful.

The supporting cast is particularly bad, with the children upon which the whole plot pivots pumping out some cringe-inducing dialogue. It’s a shame because the adventure has some bold ideas: looking after your child in the evening after school and taking him to the local park are sizeable sequences and unlike anything that you’ll have ever experienced in games before. It never shies away from the mundane, grounding its characters in a way that’s both unexpected and original.

But the execution’s far too inconsistent to make these scenes work. Six years ago, when there was nothing else quite like it, it was easier to forgive the foray’s iffy performances – but times have changed. The actors are not the only ones at fault, however, as David Cage’s script is overwrought and riddled with plot holes. While newcomers may be less perturbed by the absurd red herrings, they stick out like a sore thumb once you know what’s coming.

For those completely unfamiliar with this tale of parenthood, though, it offers a voyeuristic-like view into the lives of four flawed personalities. The separate stories are sewn together by a spate of murders, where the modus operandi of the individual involved deals with the death of drowned children. It’d be dark stuff if the script was stronger, but even with the dodgy accents and awkward exchanges, it’s still pretty depressing.

This is partly because the characters are all unusually imperfect. The aforementioned Scott Shelby is overweight and asthmatic, while Ethan Mars is agoraphobic and mentally unstable; Madison Paige – a sprightly journalist modelled upon Guy Ritchie’s spouse Jacqui Ainsley – is an insomniac, while FBI agent Norman Jayden is a drug addict. All of these afflictions feel a little forced as Cage tries to sell the cast as everyday people with common problems, but they do provide the framework for plenty of drama.

Of course, the main spectacle revolves around Mars’ search for his son, who’s been kidnapped by the aforementioned killer. A little like Beyond: Two Souls, the game can’t quite seem to make up its mind about whether it wants to be a police procedural or a thriller, and it even veers off into the territory of torture porn and psychological horror. But despite these tonal inconsistencies, it at least has consequences that matter; one mistake can see you permanently lose a character.

While the experience is still authored, the significance of your actions matter more than in comparable releases, and it’s not always obvious what the outcome’s going to be. Sometimes, the game even expects you to be paying attention to details that seem inconsequential; a police enquiry asks you to recall information from an earlier scene that’s spelled out but you probably won’t remember. It’s moments like these when the title is at its absolute best.

And the presentation is impressive, too. The iconic thought bubbles that are used in dialogue trees were later borrowed by big-budget television series Sherlock, and the action is frequently framed in a way familiar to movies but not necessarily games. This does lead to some clumsiness in the controls – you essentially accelerate your character using the R2 trigger like a car – but when it works it’s pretty great. The screen splitting into multiple parts is also a compelling story-telling technique.

There are definitely areas where the game’s starting to show its age visually, though. While a lot of work has been done to upgrade the graphics to 1080p, there’s a low-poly look to the environments and character models that root them in the previous generation. The animations feel unnatural as well, primarily due to the fact that the body and facial performances were shot separately. It just doesn’t always match up as it should, and leads to uncanny valley.

We should also probably mention the overemphasis on QTEs, which use the motion sensors to ill effect. Despite the DualShock 4 packing much more precise gyroscopes, it still feels like you’re stuck with the old SIXAXIS when you’re forced to shake the controller like a mad man to avoid speeding cars and… Er, dry your back with a stained bath towel. We get what the developer was going for, but it’s just not as exact as it needs to be – and it’s extra frustrating when there are lives on the line.

Conclusion

The forecast was never exactly great for Heavy Rain on the PS4. This remains a ground-breaking game, and it’s still possible to appreciate the areas where it innovated, but time has not been kind to the title’s damp performances and dismal writing. If you’re eager to go back to the release that gave life to the current spate of narrative-driven games, then this new-gen port does an admirable job of sprucing up the visuals. But while we don’t want to hang this important outing out to dry, you should certainly beware of the inclement weather within.

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