In the post-Telltale world of 2016, where games such as The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones have popularised the idea of the ‘playable story’, it’s easy to forget how daring Quantic Dream’s first experiments actually were.
Most games go out of their way to avoid the mundane activities of daily life, empowering the player to perform superhuman feats with the simplest of key presses; Quantic Dream embraces the inverse philosophy. Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls sought to let players experience the minute details of their characters’ lives.
This focus on the everyday and lack of traditional mechanics has lead some to debate whether Heavy Rain even deserves the title of ‘videogame’, but whether or not you believe it belongs in this category is irrelevant - Quantic Dream’s most famous creation has undoubtedly come to shape the trend of narrative based gaming. Now Heavy Rain and the more troublesome Beyond: Two Souls are back in a super shiny double set available for the PlayStation 4, but are they still as compelling half a decade later?
A life less ordinary
Pull open the fridge, pick up pizza, put pizza in microwave, fetch child, feed pizza to child, send child to bed - Heavy Rain’s domestic sequences often bear more resemblance to the voyeurism of reality television than videogame action, but this is one of the many reasons it felt so contemporary back in 2011.
Of course, this wasn’t Quantic Dream’s first journey outside the box of gaming convention. Back in 2005, before everyone was au fait with decision-based narrative gaming, came Fahrenheit (known in the US as Indigo Prophecy), the precursor to Heavy Rain and Beyond that laid the groundwork for their inception. Adventure games feature lateral thinking puzzles, RPGs offer tactical challenges, but Fahrenheit was an all-new mix of fast-paced, decision-making, critical quicktime events.
Heavy Rain is a very similar game to Fahrenheit, but unlike its predecessor, which lost itself in a grandiose story that became near-nonsensical by its end, it succeeds in bringing together its elements to form a cohesive whole.
The plot of Heavy Rain, whilst occasionally bordering on the ridiculous, is a more grounded affair. Four individuals are searching for the deadly ‘Origami Killer’, who has a nasty penchant for killing young boys with paper swans. Whether you’re a sucker for a murder mystery or not, this setting aligns gracefully with the game’s decision-making mechanics - every choice carries with it the weight of unknown consequences and a lurking malevolence.
Heavy Rain’s brooding, film-noir atmosphere is no less foreboding than it was five years ago, but surprisingly its multi-threaded plot, which can unfold in a number of different ways, has also reemerged in 2016 relatively unscathed. Central characters can permanently die, and the game’s final outcomes vary from ‘everyone is dead and the killer walks free’ to a saccharine sweet vision of domestic bliss.
This timelessness is in part achieved by the hidden nature of Heavy Rain’s mechanics. Not only are there no prompts to indicate when a plot-shaping decision has been made (almost all choices are discrete), but the player isn’t even shown a chart of the potential decisions they could have made at the end of a chapter. By keeping its inner workings hidden, Heavy Rain creates an effective illusion of free-flowing narrative as well as a sense of mystery about what could have been.
Graphical titivations are abound in both games. Beyond: Two Souls is now rendered in full scale 1080p, with improved lighting and shadows. The game looks unarguably beautiful, in spite of the uncanny feeling inspired by the digital rendering of Ellen Page’s likeness, which I never quite managed to overcome.
Unfortunately Heavy Rain doesn’t fare as well. The five years of graphical advancement since release show up cracks in the visage that may have previously gone unnoticed. In certain lighting, facial textures have a tendency to appear completely matt, removing any sense of depth and lending a disturbingly mannequin-like quality to some of the cast. Facial animation that once seemed out of this world in its emulation of human expression now seems over the hill when compared to the likes of LA Noire.
There are also a few other, welcome changes, such as the option to play Beyond with a new ‘remixed’ option that allows Jodie’s story to be played in linear order from end to beginning, rather than in its original, out of sequence configuration. It gives the story a slightly different feel, but it’s not overly significant.
What is somewhat baffling is why Quantic Dream didn’t choose to update Heavy Rain’s clunky control system, which requires the player to press R2 to walk in a given direction, rather than simply move the analogue stick. The build I played for this review was also far from stable, as I suffered numerous crashes during my playthrough, several of which were during critical quicktime events. With any luck there’ll be a launch day patch that will tighten things up.
Small improvements, however, haven’t significantly altered Beyond: Two Souls though, and that means it suffers from the same core issues. Key of those is that it can’t seem to make up its mind about what it wants to be. Heavy Rain fully committed itself to its premise of a ‘lived experience’, but Beyond often strays from the path with dire consequences. One notable chapter sees the game, completely unnecessarily, transform into an unspeakably awful cover shooter. Said segment drags on, and on, and on in this confused manner until you simply want to put the controller down and walk away.
I suspect that this and a couple of other dubious action sections were added to make Beyond feel more ‘game like’ than Heavy Rain, but if so, Quantic Dream was responding to the wrong criticism. It was Heavy Rain’s avoidance of traditional mechanics that made it so special, and Beyond never quite remembers the ingredients to its predecessor’s magic formula.
The friendly ghost
The other obvious chink in Beyond’s armour is Aiden, the otherworldly being Jodie has been permanently attached to since birth. The player swaps between the two throughout the game, sometimes by choice, at other times when forced.
Aiden can interact with the world using telekinesis, and also has the ability to possess people as long as they’re within a certain distance from Jodie. Unfortunately, Aiden proves the immediate solution to almost every single obstacle Jodie encounters, whether it be a wall blocking her path or an assailant who needs a good scare.
The result is the repetition of the same process ad nauseum from start to finish: Jodie gets in trouble, Aiden smashes trouble, Jodie very upset, repeat. This is none the more compelling for controlling an amorphous blob that floats through walls: an element of the design that the developers clearly overestimated.
There is also a great deal of inconsistency in the rules that govern Aiden’s powers. Some people can be possessed, others not - why? The player is never told. Beyond opens the door to more traditional mechanics and then fails to remember that other games are governed by rules that make sense. Offering players a semblance of freedom and then funneling them toward one decision is a shortcut to frustration.
Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls verdict
I don’t think many would argue against the idea that the games industry needs more companies to take inventive risks, and Quantic Dream’s approach to gaming is nothing if not singular.
If you enjoy Telltale adventures and don’t mind storytelling that tends to become lost in its own grandiosity, it’s would be hard to not recommend Heavy Rain. However, this collection suffers significantly from the inclusion of Beyond, which lacks the delicate touch or clarity of vision that Heavy Rain benefits from.
Genre nerds will likely clamour for the pair, but for the rest of us, it might be worth waiting for Heavy Rain to make a debut on its own.