The strange new PS3 game Heavy Rain really does take some getting used to. My expletive-laden twitter feed from a week ago still stands as a testament to the game's rather arcane control system and unexpectedly vague set-up. I was curious, and then intrigued, and then frustrated, and then aggravated. Game-friendly pals convinced me to give the game a fair shake, and since I was about to write a review of the thing, of course I had to spend more than a half-hour with Heavy Rain. Plus, deep down, I was kind of impressed by the game's unique approach and "mystery movie" concept. So back down I sat. And focused on learning the controls. And started having a rather good time.
It starts out like a domestic drama in which you get to do all sorts of mindless little minutiae, just so you can get the controllers down pat. You wake up, take a shower, get dressed, learn to juggle, take your kids to the mall, buy some balloons, watch one of your sons get run over by a car, etc. Wait ... what? Yup, Heavy Rain gets pretty serious, kids. Divorces and arguments about your son not doing his homework allow you to get a little more used to the rather unique gameplay, and then tragedy strikes again.
The controls go sort of like this: You hold the R2 button to walk, and you'll frequently come across rectangular icons that indicate how you're supposed to swing the left stick. As your Hero (Ethan) approaches a cabinet, for example, you'll see an arrow pointing up, you click up and voila. Obviously there are lots of things to interact with, but here's where things get interesting: what you do (specifically) will directly relate to where the game heads next. To use an early example, Ethan has to get his son to do his homework. If you just up and turn the TV off, the kid kinda flips out. But if you're a bit nicer, and you wait until after 6pm (check the clock, don't forget!), then things go a little bit smoother. There's also an "emotion" cue that pops up with the left trigger, so if you'd rather say "Excuse me, please," instead of something like "Move, jerk," you'll know what vibe to give off. (This is an important trigger to remember, as it can often spur you in some interesting directions.)
While you can die in Heavy Rain (and stay dead), most of the challenge comes in trying to complete your noir-ish plot points in the quickest or most efficient way. If you get beat up, the baddies get away. If you follow those rectangular icons correctly, you may kick some butt. Plus the game switches to the perspective of a few others characters, which is kind of a neat touch, since it gets a little tiresome being Ethan. If you've got the couch-time for it, you could probably play straight through to an ending, start it back over, and get dozens of new deviations and plot divergences, leading to different outcomes. Not that you necessarily would, but I could see a hardcore gamer picking it up after six months and spinning through it again, not unlike you would with a movie.
And speaking of movies, wow. Heavy Rain really is as cinematic a game as I've played. (Keep in mind that I'm mainly a film critic and not a game expert.) True to its title, the game is probably the rainiest story I've seen since David Fincher's Se7en, and even in the game's most basic settings, there's a real artistry to the graphics and a keen attention to detail. The voice acting ranges from mildly stilted to surprisingly effective ... again, just like it probably would in an above average kidnapping flick. There's also a real slick sense of style when Heavy Rain gets to its more kinetic moments ... not that I've seen all that many of 'em. (Hey, a guy can like a game without being all that good at it!)
Perhaps best described as an interactive film noir, Heavy Rain is not for the short-tempered, the impatient, or the very young. It seems to assume that the player will take a little time to learn the ropes, and also that the player has a firm appreciation for moody thriller stories and (frankly) gorgeous production design. The game is disinterested in scoring points, collecting coins, or leveling up. It’s more interested in the way in which it layers option upon option, so that the player actually has to consider his many choices, it's a pretty novel approach to video games. Probably not for all tastes, and maybe not a game you'll play for four hours straight, but it's a unique combination of gaming and movies, and one that I'll gladly dive back into every once in a while. Most likely in 93-minute increments.