Released: FEBRUARY 23, 2010

By Alex Kierkegaard / March 21, 2010

Heavy Rain belongs to a new genre of games which in an essay included in the second volume of my upcoming book I have ventured to baptize with the name "Cinematic Videogames". What these games will be able to do and what they won't, as well as their genre's future prospects and its relative importance for videogames as a whole, are questions which I answer in the essay and are beyond the scope of this review. The essay itself is a relatively demanding piece of theory, which is why it's placed near the end of the second volume; it presupposes a clear and thorough grasp of everything that precedes it. Now, in order to acquire a perfect understanding of Heavy Rain, that is to say of its exact position within the, let us say flux of becoming of electronic interactive entertainment (sounds overly pretentious, no? It's perfectly accurate, though, if you take some time to think about it), one would basically have to have read both volumes of my book, and then and only then move on to this review -- which would itself have to have been written with such ideal readers in mind -- which it isn't, because the book is not even out yet -- nor has it even actually been written, lol (though it does exist inside my head in a more or less complete form).

Given all the above, one would be justified in asking whether it wouldn't have been better to hold off on the review until the books were done. And the answer is yes, that would have been the ideal way to do this. But in practice, since Heavy Rain happens to be an extremely primitive, clunky, and more or less irrelevant example of this up-and-coming genre -- a genre which, though it does have its antecedents all the way back to Will Crowther's 1975 Adventure, hasn't quite arrived yet -- we are not really losing much by just simply trashing it in a couple of paragraphs and moving on as if it had never existed -- for that is how things will be by the time the genuine cinematic videogames arrive: none of us will remember much about this game, if anything at all.

Heavy Rain's problems are numerous and extensive, and we will shortly be dealing with each of them in detail, but if I were asked to take a step back and identify the game's most detrimental failing, I would point unhesitatingly at its almost complete lack of meaningful interactivity. The designers simply had no idea what they were doing; they wanted to make an interactive movie: that is clear enough. But they lacked an understanding of what is required for that; an understanding, that is to say, of the things I explain in my essay (yes, the one that hasn't been written yet). And in fact they lacked a great deal more than that: they lacked the necessary market conditions, budget and player-audience which would have allowed them to go ahead and actually implement these design choices -- for it does not suffice to simply know what the right choices are: one must also be in a position to actually make them.

So what did they actually end up doing then? They took the classic adventure game concept, dumbed down the fuck out of it, practically removing the entire puzzle-solving aspect (the genre's sole raison d'Ítre) and diminishing the dialogue aspect to an absolute minimum, then stitched up a fancy-shmancy SixAxis-based QTE action system next to it, and finally grafted the whole thing onto a ridiculous sixth-rate murder drama mystery that doesn't really make any sense, which is moreover poorly directed and for the most part terribly voice-acted. The result is such a bewilderingly botched abortion of a videogame that it is actually worth playing through it once, or at any rate sitting down with it for at least an hour or two, to witness first-hand what can happen when you give a lot of money and an overly ambitious mandate to a bunch of clueless losers. And this is the reason I've given the game a second star, as I did a couple of years ago with Sakaguchi's Archaic Sealed Heat, which does to the SRPG genre more or less what Heavy Rain does to adventure games.

What little interactivity the game does offer then consists of tediously maneuvering your character around the game's environment via a frustratingly clunky control system (think Biohazard at its worst), being forced to pantomime pre-choreographed scenes via the SixAxis-based QTEs, most of which could have just as well been cutscenes; and the action-heavy QTEs, which, though during some of the more hectic chase and fight scenes can be mildly amusing, are simply unacceptable as a core mechanic for a game on a seventh generation console in AD 2010. It's bad enough to have otherwise solid games like Shenmue or Ninja Blade hamfistedly add QTEs for no good reason whatever -- but an entire game essentially based on them is simply unacceptable. Even worse, though the game does its best to convince you otherwise, it's in fact next to impossible to die in most of them.

The final serious flaw, and one which moreover I have not yet seen anyone point out, is that, though the game does have a main protagonist, it also at times gives you control of three other characters. The stupidity of this design choice is truly mind-boggling. The whole point, after all, of cinematic videogames and their adventure brethren is to immerse you in a role and in a story -- the only thing that is accomplished by pulling you out of your role at regular intervals and sticking you inside another one is to effectively destroy any chance there is of this actually happening. If you cared very little about these poorly conceived and poorly acted characters at first, once you realize that you'll very soon be leaving them behind you simply cease to care at all. This is not to say it would be impossible to make a game such as this work with multiple protagonists: but look at how rarely this is accomplished successfully, or even attempted at all, even in films or novels. If even an Altman had a hard enough time of it, in a medium which requires no interactivity, how these guys, who couldn't even write a decent "What I did during my summer holiday" essay, would ever suppose they had what it takes to make this sort of thing work in a videogame, and work well, is simply beyond me. And by the look of things, it must have been beyond them too.

Better games to play instead: The Last Express (1997), Blade Runner (1997), Phantasmagoria (1995), Pong (1972), Barbie Horse Adventures: Wild Horse Rescue (2003).


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