Heavy Rain is a unique piece of electronic entertainment, because it is not really a "game" in the traditional sense of the word. The best description would be "interactive movie". It has a fairly linear progression but how successful you are at "playing" it and the decisions you make will affect the outcome for many characters, the levels you play and the overall plot.
Writing a review for Heavy Rain is difficult, because of the narrative focus of the game. You will play Heavy Rain for the story, not the gameplay mechanics, which is the reason it feels more like a movie than a game. However, if I were reviewing a movie I would discuss the themes, only avoiding any major twists; but with Heavy Rain, the whole story is a spoilers zone filled with twists. You really should experience it all for yourself.
To many people it will seem as if the game is one long quick-time-event, but this isn't always the case. Admittedly, there are a great variety of button actions you will have to take during the game, ranging from playing twister with your fingers by holdings down certain buttons, to shaking the controller in a particular direction, or moving the thumb-stick in a certain way at a certain speed.
Yes, you will also have to press buttons in the correct sequence while the action on the screen plays out. However, if you fail here it doesn't mean you have to start again; instead the scene will continue to play out, taking that mistake into account, and will go in a different direction. The best (non-spoiler) example I have is having a wooden sword fight with one of your children. If you press the right buttons you will win, however if you fail to press them, then your son will win. In this case, I lost on purpose, because I wanted to make my son feel good about beating his dad in a game. The fact that I could make a choice like that and enjoy that outcome felt very real to me.
That in many ways is the greatest success of Heavy Rain; most of the actions feel contextually accurate and will remind you of doing the same things in real life. Some actions are mundane, as drying yourself with a towel, making an egg or holding up your hands at gunpoint. This would be a mess in the more action-based scenes if it were not for the placement of on-screen prompts for the buttons you need to press. The developers did a great job at almost always putting them where they are easy to see and identify but never causing you to take your eyes away from the action. Instead of most quick-time-events in other games which pull you away from what is happening, this has the opposite effect of pulling you further into it, which helps your investment into the characters and the story.
While the story starts out a little slow, once it starts to pick up pace you will not want to put the controller down until you get the end. It has a great story and credit needs to be given the way different scenes are handled. There are four playable characters and any of them can die at certain points of the game. If they do, you won't get a "game over" screen, instead the story will continue, taking their death into account which can drastically alter how some parts play out later on.
Heavy Rain has some fantastic action moments, some lovely character moments and some really messed up sequences that made me think of the movie Seven. Make no mistake this is an adult game. It has violence, nudity, language, drug use and other adult themes, but as an adult gamer I am very grateful for this; it is nice to see a developer not afraid to say "screw it" and just push that M rating for all it's worth without going over the top.
The story never feels silly or violent for the sake of it. Everything happens in order to get an emotional reaction out of the player, and it succeeds in this area. It has the kind of moral dilemmas that are rarely seen in games and I applaud Heavy Rain for doing them as well as it does. Sadly there are a few plot-holes, and one in particular that ruined a lot of the story due to the seemingly impossible nature of the event.
There are other places where Heavy Rain falters. Moving your character can be a bit of a mess. Instead of using the thumb-sticks like most other games, you hold down R2 to make your character walk. Then you use the left thumb-stick to point in the direction that your character is focused on. This will become less of a problem as you get used to it, however even by the end of the game I was still walking into walls or back into rooms I was trying to leave. Not only is this annoying, but it takes you out of the experience because your character looks like a complete idiot when it happens
Additionally, the voice acting is also all over the place - some of it is excellent, and some of it is truly terrible. Quantic Dream are located in Paris, but they chose to base their story in America, and therefore should have hired American voice actors and not people simply doing bad American accents. Sure it can be funny sometimes, but mostly it hurts the immersion of the experience and story.
Graphically Heavy Rain is impressive. The environments you play in are interesting and varied with some very cool lighting thrown in for good measure. There are also crowded scenes where the sheer amount of people they get on screen at once is commendable. Unfortunately, due to the game going for such realistic graphics, some characters can look downright strange at times.
The game also suffers from a few technical problems. I experienced frame-rate drops and sound cutting out regularly. The worse of these was a bug where the camera stopped following a character and I was unable to continue playing because I could not see where my character was going. Reloading the game did not solve this problem and only once I reset my PS3 was I able to continue playing. A bug like that should not have made it into the final build, so it is very disappointing that it is there. Otherwise the fixed camera is not perfect but doesn't get in the way too often.
Heavy Rain, to me, seems like the next evolution of the Adventure Game genre. It's an interactive movie that people should experience. Some gamers will be put off by the fact that this is not a "game" in the traditional sense and I would be curious to see if movie goers who are "non-gamers" would find anything appealing in Heavy Rain.
From a game perspective, it does not have the traditional mechanics you might expect, but plays well for what it is trying to do. From a movie side, it has a good story, that starts out a little slow but will have you pulled in by the end. Yes, some character's stories are more interesting than others (Ethan Mars – a father and certainly the main character - being the most interesting to me) but this should not stop you from wanting to see how it will all end up for everybody.
I would happily watch Heavy Rain “the movie” in theatres, but the fact that I get to watch and control it on my PS3 instead is very cool. It will be exciting to see what other titles come out of this new genre of electronic entertainment.