Amassing a large cult following in recent years, Deadly Premonition is a third person survival horror action game written and designed by a man referred to as “SWERY”, originally released on the Xbox 360 in the Americas and Europe (with a Japanese PS3 release) as a budget title – full of poor design decisions, odd characters and bad gunplay it leads to pure unadulterated bliss that leaves you wondering why you are in love with such a bad game. Deadly Premonition is an odd title that will draw you in, entrance you and leave you feeling confused. Weird fascination is what will keep you playing.
IGN UK called Deadly Premonition the “Best worst game ever” when they reviewed the Xbox 360 original, and this claim is perhaps the most astute description I can think of. There is nothing about Deadly Premonition that screams high AAA quality. Even in the Directors Cut – which actually seems to change very little – there are times you will, like me, put the controller down and stare blankly at the screen, wondering what provoked the decisions they made when designing the game. There is a whole slew of odd things ranging from a mandatory story centric fishing game, based around a roulette system, to the crazy manner which animals appear on the roads with mutated evil dogs dropping from the sky in front of your car with no warning. One part of the rework that can be seen immediately is the lack of difficulty options. Instead of offering three tiers of difficulty to players, you get one pre-set difficulty which the development team claims is between “Easy and normal”, I will confess I did not find the game particularly challenging and for the most part only used the pistol.
The technology the game is based on makes you think of a Dreamcast game as textures randomly flicker, objects pop up in the distance, everything is flat with rectangular edges and facial expressions alone are shockingly unnatural with York’s smile being one of the most terrifying sights in modern video games, but it’s hard to hate it almost. Feeling like a B movie of video games, low budget, crappy set, but a memorable plot that is full of cheesy scenes filled with bad one liners. A sadly annoying problem is that the Directors Cut has hideous FPS issues with the game sometimes grinding to a near halt, these only happen at certain points throughout the game thankfully.
We open to our protagonist, FBI Agent Francis York Morgan, doing a combination of the most dangerous things you can do in a car: talking on a mobile phone, smoking a cigarette, using a laptop and driving in heavy rain. On the phone he is detailing to an unnamed colleague his belief that Tom and Jerry, the cartoon cat and mouse, are involved in an abusive homosexual relationship, the phone cuts out and York begins addressing “Zach”, at which point the car swerves, avoiding someone in a strange red raincoat standing in the road with an axe. York’s car crashes in the wilderness. Stepping out of his car you wander around the forest searching for a way out, when the cheesy nightmare begins.
As you walk through the forest you come across a dog torn apart, broken fences and so on but then you reach a point and you’re greeted by the games main nuisance – the Shadows. The Shadows are a curious enemy, not outwardly threatening but at first their behaviour is unsettling enough to make you feel nervous, as they attempt to crawl inside your body. With their faces coloured in gray with black smears swept across their faces making them resemble Heath Ledger’s Joker, they groan as they limbo backwards towards York. Making oddly contradictory cries of “Kill me” and “Please don’t kill me” as you empty bullets into them, you are never really told why they exist. Every shadow says the same things over and over, after a while the repeated sound effects can become somewhat irritating or can even reach the point of being comical to some, the games poor audio mixing makes some groans suspiciously louder than others for no reason.
You make it through the forest into a clear daylight and an ill fitting backing track that sounds like someone humming begins to play as you pelt your way down the road to Greenvale, after meeting the town sherrif you begin your search for the “Raincoat killer” who has killed and ceremoniously hung a young girl from a tree.
Ill fitting music is not uncommon for the rest of the game, there is an oddly catchy whistling track that persistently reappears through the game but it is never used at the right time – I had finished dashing from the games main villain to be greeted by a track titled “What a wonderful life”, as my characters proceeds to ignore the events of the Lumber Mill – and acts as the default track in most cutscenes. Strange jazz tracks play at completely unnatural intervals and the audio levels are so different throughout that in some scenes the music will be deathly silent one second, then loud and blaring the next, drowning out the conversations of the characters. The music makes the tone of the game feel constantly like it is shifting around and can’t stay still as we move from upbeat and crazy to demonic, sultry flows. For all my complaints the soundtrack has some very strong tracks that will definitely hook you but the audio mixing team needed to work harder on it.
The cast is the main reason you’ll stay in Greenvale however, little more than a soap opera with a supernatural element, Deadly Premonition has a surprisingly large cast that you can interact with. Due to the sand box nature of the game, each character has their own unique timetable, making the small town feel slightly more lively as characters seem to live out their own lives. For the most part you’ll only pay attention to George and Emily initially whose relateable tales make these strangely animated, static faced creatures feel like actual people. The games storyline isn’t treading any new ground, a murderer in a small town with a bunch of supernatural stuff happening, but the way that SWERY has approached it is fairly unique, his dialogue is really what sells it and interactions between York and the other characters are worth listening to alone.
As you drive around Greenvale, depending on who is the car, you will have short 5 minute conversations with them and none are better than York’s conversations with “Zach”, leading to you talking about B Movies, DVD extras and Zach and York’s feelings for Emily. Zach acts as a way for York to address the player, almost – these can feel forced and out of place but over time you get used to it, it gives York a good reason to talk to himself, although you will question the main characters sanity and why nobody really ever mentions that York is talking to an imaginary friend. This is seemingly explained away later on. This initially jarring method of exposition eventually becomes comfortable, tying into the plot and helping progression, whilst unnatural it is an interesting approach, especially as an attempt to bridge the gap between players cognitive dissonance with a character that isn’t them.
Sadly for all the clever things it tries, it doesn’t excuse the lack luster gameplay that fills up the majority of the game. Storyline is progressed by entering murder scenes and investigating them, when you enter one of these there is an immediate disconnect to the outside world and it is almost never addressed why all of a sudden these shambling zombie like manifestations are everywhere, the red “fog” that covers areas is used as a way to guide the player from one end of the room to another. This merely acts as a way to disguise the poor level design, moving away from the open world nature of the game these areas are more like tunnels that force the player along pathways to collect items so that York may “profile” the area. York has to collect these items due to “static in his mind” that prevents him from seeing the true nature of the events that took place. Some of these areas have puzzles, these puzzles are more “collect this item, then figure out a pattern”, and sadly none are ever truly too challenging.
A weird approach is that there are almost no boss fights, in the traditional sense, for the entire game until the last hour where the game feels it must cram in as many as possible making you fight off against a fairly varied array of malcontents. This does serve to bring a climax to the story but it feels almost out of nowhere and with the clunky gun controls, these can become an infuriating affair, especially since bosses can regenerate health if left to their own devices. No weapon ever truly handles the way you want and guns feel boring to use, so you will try and avoid combat. The game does offer a way to avoid combat by holding your breath, but outside the killer this seems to offer no benefit.
Essays could be written about everything that Deadly Premonition does right, and there have been endless discussions about it, but there is a weird feeling of comfort and will to progress that will take you through the entire game. Despite doing so much wrong Deadly Premonition was still a joy to play purely because I felt that I wanted to progress further in the games story. Deadly Premonition is an experience that will reward those willing to take a risk and dive in.
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