Deadly Premonition Review
Survival horror games make for some of the most compelling interactive experiences out there but strangely, they're not made as often as they could be. Japanese developer Access Games' survival horror/adventure game Deadly Premonition came out recently and I'd venture many gamers never even heard of it. It apparently didn’t get much marketing support and so it was released quietly--some might say, apologetically, at an unheard-of $19.99. If you’re one of the many who haven’t heard of it, Deadly Premonition was designed and directed by Hidetaka "Swery" Suehiro, and is an obvious homage to David Lynch’s 1990 TV series, Twin Peaks. Its story blatantly mimics Twin Peaks’ storyline, revolving around Francis York Morgan--an FBI agent who’s sent to the rural town of Greenvale to investigate the brutal murder of a young local girl.
York arrives in town and is greeted by sheriff “George” and deputy sheriff “Emily", and soon learns that the killer appears to be styling himself after a local bogeyman tale of a vicious Raincoat Killer. The killer’s MO is certainly singular but it isn’t the only unusual thing about Greenvale; in keeping with the Twin Peaks model, from the get-go you realize both the town and the people in it are completely bizarre. Fortunately, Agent York is no stranger to strange. If the townsfolk are eccentric, he's completely off the charts. York appears to have some sort of supernatural aspect to him, manifested mainly as a tendency to talk to an imaginary friend he calls "Zach". He seems to believe the cream in his morning coffee sends him messages and his unorthodox profiling methods are unlikely to be approved by the FBI since they consist mainly of creating psychic visions by chain smoking.
In spite of his and the game's weirdness, the game does offer up some periods of everyday reality. In fact, it alternates fairly evenly between being a straightforward cop story/adventure and an over the top survival/horror game. Half your time is spend getting to the know the people of Greenvale, who from Sigourney the wandering pot lady to Harry, the wheelchair-bound, skull-mask-wearing tycoon, are a matchless collection of oddballs. Your interaction with the townspeople plays out like an adventure game…sort of. It is like an adventure game in that you interview witnesses and suspects, but it also isn’t since you can’t control what’s said. Once you talk to people, there are no dialog options; everything just plays out via cutscene.
When you’re not talking to people, you're investigating the area both by car and on foot. The driving mechanics are simple and work much like they would in any other (non-racing) game that lets you drive, although Access tries to spice things up by letting you turn on your headlights and windshield wipers. At first you’re stuck driving nothing but ugly police cars, but later in the game you can buy a hot rod from the crotchety old junkyard owner. During the times you're forced to resort to foot-power, the control scheme and camera will be very familiar to anyone who’s played Silent Hill or nearly any title in the Resident Evil series--ie, slow and clunky. When on foot, though, York can carry and use several weapons including a pistol with endless ammo and various ranged and improvised melee weapons like shotguns and metal bars. Weapon use is as clunky as movement often turns out; you have to hold RT to aim, LT to target lock and A to attack, which feels like more work than is strictly necessary. This becomes what in gaming lingo is known as a “bad thing” when you're in a room full of zombie ghosts who are quickly closing in on you.
These ghosts show up during unsettling nightmare or alternate reality sequences which are reminiscent of the dream sequences of Max Payne, but scarier. During these, the walls become covered with Silent Hill-ish veiny things and the environment is thronged with creepy, black-mouthed ghosts bent on your destruction. It’s not clear whether or not the events in these sequences are really happening or are just figments of Agent York’s twisted imagination, but it doesn't really matter. Your life is in danger, and the only way you can escape is to gather clues and use them to do some fancy profiling. Profiling is simple and consists of finding evidence and then hitting the A button, which triggers a series of fuzzy film clips that give clues to the killer’s identity. The more evidence you have, the clearer the clips become.
In addition to the main missions, Deadly Premonition functions somewhat as an open-world game full of optional objectives. You’re given time frames within which main missions must be accomplished, but then you can run around doing whatever you want, which mostly amounts to performing chores for Greenvale’s inhabitants. If driving Sigourney the pot lady home doesn’t sound like much of a kick, you can play darts at the bar, do some circuit racing or go fishing at the lake. You can also drive around collecting trading cards scattered throughout the environment, and show them to Wesley the gunsmith in exchange for various rewards. One unexpected aspect of the game is its pseudo-RPG element. Agent York gets both tired and hungry as time passes, and you’re meant to watch his food and sleep meters and make sure he gets enough of both. York can also change his clothes and shave, and it’s implied that if he does neither, he’ll not only draw flies, he’ll offend people. Lastly, you can take York around town to shop for items and food, to eat at the local diner, or to get gas at the local gas station. (A word of advice--don’t run out of gas. If you do and you don’t have a flare to call for help, you’re gonna get stuck running a long way.)
Deadly Premonition is a much better game than it might at first seem. Unfortunately, first impressions are tough to overcome and Deadly Premonition doesn’t make a very good one. The first hurdle to get over is its cheesy, low-rent artwork. The intro cutscene is ridiculous, artsy, nonsensical and potentially off-putting. Then the UI is awful and looks like it was done using nothing but free fonts. Characters and environments are blocky and low-res (Agent York does have an admirably believable face but deputy sheriff Emily looks like a waxen Naomi Watts) and enemies fare no better, often looking laughable. Many of the ghosts approach in a goofy backbend and have black makeup on that makes them look like members of Insane Clown Posse. Textures flicker and tiling is obvious; overall, it’s not a pretty sight. The second hurdle to get over in Deadly Premonition is the sound. Sound effects are extremely basic and while the voice acting is pretty good, the mix is terrible and so in many cut scenes, the voices are drowned out by the music. And oy, what music! The music is godawful, alternating between something that sounds ripped from a 70’s cop show and a totally inappropriate acoustic ditty with someone inexpertly whistling. Neither of these themes is pleasant to listen to or seems to fit the mood of the game at all. If only the problems stopped at the sensory elements...but alas, many gameplay mechanics are problematic as well.
As mentioned before, the controls are sometimes infuriatingly clunky (luckily, in most cases, enemies move even slower than you do) and the RPG part of the game is fairly pointless. I never changed my clothes or shaved and while I did notice a few flies buzzing around me, no one ever treated me any differently. It also never seemed to matter that I never ate or slept. Finally, the open world idea is more or less a lie. While you see suspects all over the place, you can’t talk to them until you’re supposed to, and optional missions are parceled out in a certain order as well. Ooh--and before I forget a particular peeve of mine--Greenvale covers a huge area which forces you to drive a lot, but it's impossible to set a waypoint on the map. This means way too much time is spent pausing the game to see where you're going.
That’s the down side of Deadly Premonition, and collectively, it sounds like a lot. That the upside--and there is one--is strong enough to balance all that out is surprising. The thing is, once you get past the utterly weird behavior of the characters and the bad art, the story really sucks you in. The game is chock-full of interesting dialog and cutscenes and a lot of care was taken in regard to creating tension and developing character. The story does an admirable job too of setting up a lot of suspects and keeps you guessing almost to the very end in regard to the Raincoat Killer’s identity. The nightmare sequences are vivid and suspenseful and the scenes where you’re hiding or running from the killer are truly terrifying. I challenge anyone to play through them without feeling their heart beat faster. Despite its sense of unease and even dread, the game also has a sense of humor. Agent York for one, offers some laughs with his blunt demeanor and the townspeople’s reactions to him are pretty amusing. And while York is hard to identify with, he’s interesting enough to keep you wanting to know more about him and wondering what he’ll do next. Surprisingly, both his and the game’s quirkiness make the situation seem more real--even things like York raving about having great coffee or literally fishing the lake for evidence.
Deadly Premonition, while lacking in the aesthetic aspect, is a surprisingly entertaining game. Its $19.99 price point may make gamers overlook it, assuming it’s either really short or total crap but neither is the truth. With four long Episodes (made up of multiple chapters totaling upwards of twenty hours), a cast of interesting characters, a truly compelling storyline and a variety of different things to do, it’s likely one of the best action/adventure/survival/horror values released in some time. Adventure fans and survival horror enthusiasts are sure to enjoy it, and if you’re into David Lynch, you won’t find an interactive experience that simulates his bizarre sensibility any better.