Heavy Rain is the latest in the line of unusual, immersive adventure games from French team Quantic Dream. It's a detective story with four main characters, each of whom has a unique motive for stopping the elusive Origami Killer before another death takes place, and each of whom affects the others.
Unusual in that it attempts to hug the dividing line between 'video game' and 'cinema experience', each scene can be played out in a number of ways that affect the story's development.
The game controller is used inventively to propel that story and everything is geared towards allowing players and viewers to plumb each character's emotional depth. As such, inquisitive thinking and an ability to empathise is as valued here as an itchy trigger finger. Of course, once a personal connection is established, pulling that trigger becomes that much more difficult in the first place.
Quantic Dream have tried this approach before with a 2005 game called Fahrenheit (also known as Indigo Prophecy in North America), there attempting a seamless join of gameplay mechanics and plot devices.
By now, Heavy Rain is by no means alone in using cinematic conventions to create a unique atmosphere. Among others, PlayStation 2 classic Shadow of the Colossus remains as beautiful to watch as it is to play. Metal Gear Solid 4 became a self-parody, cramming nearly 8 hours of cut-scenes onto the game disc. Both Uncharted: Drake's Fortune and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves have been noted for their fond homage to memorable moments in Indiana Jones films.
However, Quantic's boss, David Cage, has never been shy about his intentions to create games that bring video games closer to the conventions of big screen entertainment.
After October's Eurogamer Expo in London, he told British website SavyGamer that his intention was to present "something different with more depth, more meaning, and more emotion". More tellingly, during another interview with Joystiq he spoke about the quest to make a video game with the same sort of depth and impact as Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino.
A free demo of Heavy Rain is available on the PlayStation Network, allowing the curious to play through two scenes from the game and, ultimately, it's the curious who will enjoy Heavy Rain the most.
For example, what seems to be a successfully negotiated conversation can have unforeseen and tragic circumstances. With the benefit of hindsight, it may have been better to let a character lose a fight rather than win - though things like that won't become apparent until later. It's these nuances that help make the game special.
Initial critical praise has been unrelenting: "One of the most emotional experiences I've ever had playing a videogame", gushed 1UP; "Expect the game's influence to be felt throughout the industry in terms of gameplay, storytelling and interactivity", summarised Boomtown. Even more reserved appraisals such as that of Computer & Video Games magazine concede the game's merits as that of a "bold new venture".
So although a deviation from video gaming's standard templates won't be to everyone's tastes, Heavy Rain is worth keeping tabs on. If it lives up to its surrounding hype and interest, then it should feature in the traditional 'Best of' lists due at the end of this year, and even the end of the decade.
At retail, North Americans who order in advance from selected retailers are rewarded with the first chapter of the Heavy Rain Chronicles extra game content for free - also included as part of Europe's Special Edition.
That Special Edition also contains a sleuth's poster, a soundtrack, and a guide to re-creating the origami bird that features as a motif throughout the game. The game will also be available as part of a new European PlayStation 3 hardware bundle.
Heavy Rain (PS3)
Release: North America, February 23. Europe, February 24.
Price: $59.99 / €69.99
Heavy Rain special edition: €74.99
PlayStation 3 + Heavy Rain: €349.95
See Heavy Rain's review scores at GameRankings.com