Deadly Premonition is a game that’s been described by a lot of people as “so bad it’s good.” While I’m glad that a game as strange as DP has managed to find an audience, I can’t help but feel that the game’s B-movie reputation is unfairly dismissive and reductive: sure, Deadly Premonition has some pretty substantial flaws, but it more than compensates for its shortcomings with a lot of charm and a few genuinely great ideas.
A few hours into Deadly Premonition, I had to drive across the game’s fictional city of Greenvale in order to reach the next objective. The car I’m driving handles like a shopping cart that’s missing a few wheels, so despite my best efforts, I usually swerve off the road every time I try to take a tight turn. The scenery around me consists of the same two or three trees and shrubs, copied and pasted over and over again across the game’s landscape. I think I might be going in the wrong direction, mostly because the in-game map is incredibly cumbersome to use and hard to read.
Despite all of this, I’m grinning ear-to-ear and I’m completely enthralled. I turn up the volume as the game’s protagonist, Agent York, begins to talk to himself about the 1990’s action/horror “classic” Tremors, starring Kevin Bacon.
I’ve always been a proponent of the idea that games should be judged mostly on their gameplay, and that elements like music, graphics, and even the game’s story are minor, trivial concerns. I’ve played games whose stories I liked (BioShock Infinite, Mass Effect, and Persona 4:Golden immediately spring to mind as recent examples,) but despite how reliant on narrative those games were, I still don’t think anyone would’ve bothered playing them if their gameplay wasn’t at least halfway decent. People will play games with terrible or even non-existent stories as long as the gameplay is still good (such as Mario, the older Sonic games, or pretty much any classic retro game, really,) but the opposite is rarely true: nobody wants to slog through bad gameplay in order to see a cut-scene, no matter how good it is. I’m completely fine with that; games are an interactive medium that should be graded on how fun they are to play, not watch, and I’ve always thought that people who play a game solely for the story are missing the point of video games entirely.
Yet here I am, completely addicted a game that features some of the sloppiest controls, combat and level designs that I’ve ever seen in a boxed, retail console title.
If I was to grade Deadly Premonition with the usual criteria I apply to games, I’m pretty sure I’d have to give it a less than flattering score. Deadly Premonition’s edges are so rough that you could use it to sand the paint off of cars, and there’s no denying that the game’s combat mechanics and graphics are a generation behind most other games available today. But despite the game’s admittedly substantial problems, I can’t help but love it; I can’t recommend Deadly Premonition as a game, but when viewed as an experience, I think it’s something that every gamer looking for something different should at least try.
Deadly Premonition tells the bizarre story of FBI profiler and special agent Francis York Morgan, who comes to the town of Greenvale in order to investigate the grisly murder of a young woman named Anna. Morgan discovers that Anna’s death is connected to a series of ritualistic murders that he’s seen before, and it quickly becomes clear that there’s more to Greenvale and its residents than meets the eye.
If that premise sounds familiar, it’s probably because Deadly Premonition’s story shares more than a passing resemblance to David Lynch’s classic TV series, Twin Peaks. All of Twin Peaks’ most iconic features have some sort of analogue in Deadly Premonition: Agent York is a slightly less friendly version of Twin Peaks’ Agent Cooper (right down to the obsession with coffee,) revelations about the investigation appear during surreal dream sequences, there’s a crazy lady who talks to an inanimate object (instead of Twin Peaks’ infamous “Log Lady,” Greenvale has a woman who talks to a pot,) and the game’s giant hotel and diner are the spitting image of the Great Northern Hotel and the Double R Diner from the TV show.
Twin Peaks’ main storyline was about the murder of Laura Palmer and the mysteries surrounding her death, but the real highlight of the show was learning about the town’s colorful cast of characters and the intricate, often secret connections between them. The same is true of Deadly Premonition: simply wandering around town and getting to know its residents is far more entertaining than doing the actual story missions that progress the game’s plot forward. Similar to Majora’s Mask, the characters in Deadly Premonition aren’t simple NPC’s who stand around waiting for you to talk to them: they all have their own schedules and lives, and events happen around town whether you’re there to witness them or not. It’s possible to simply rush through Deadly Premonition without exploring the town or getting to know its many ancillary characters, but dedicated players can spend hours following each character around, learning more about each of their lives and finding out more juicy secrets about Greenvale.
While Deadly Premonition wears its narrative influences on its sleeve, it does eventually manage to differentiate itself from the show that obviously inspired it. I don’t want to spoil too much, but the game gets pretty crazy near the end (which is saying a lot, considering how weird it is from the get-go,) and even a hardcore Twin Peaks fanboy like myself had no way of predicting all the insane twists and turns that the story ends up taking. The ridiculous story never stops escalating, and while it’s not the best written or best acted narrative story, I have to admit that I was entertained the entire time, and frequently surprised by some unexpected clever bits. Stuff that initially seems like comedy relief, such as Agent York’s frequent asides to his imaginary friend Zach, ends up becoming an integral part of the story line. Game developers have been questioning the idea of player agency ever since Metal Gear Solid 2 and the original BioShock, but the dynamic between Deadly Premonition’s York and Zach is arguably the smartest commentary on the relationship between players and the characters they control yet, despite the game’s lo-fi presentation. DP has gotten a reputation for being dumb, ironic fun, but there’s some genuinely smart bits in there for players who pay attention.
Unfortunately, DP’s brilliant ideas are somewhat dulled by the awkward “survival horror” sections that you need to play through in order to advance the story. These segments of the game were obviously inspired by Silent Hill and Resident Evil 4: sometimes York will enter a building only to have the surrounding area “change” a-la Silent Hill into a nightmarish world that’s filled with monsters. RE4 was the obvious inspiration for the game’s combat mechanics, which isn’t necessarily a bad idea (if you’re going to steal ideas from other games, you might as well steal from the best,) except for the fact that DP’s clumsy, loose controls make even the simple act of aiming a gun into an awkward chore. Like in RE4, pulling out your gun causes the camera to swing over York’s shoulder as he stands in place (you can’t move while shooting,) and aims his weapon. Unfortunately, the controls for aiming your weapon are loose and jumpy, making it hard to shoot accurately. Because of this, melee weapons like pipes and wrenches are actually far more useful than most of the guns that York can equip.
Unlike the original Xbox 360 version of the game, the Director’s Cut doesn’t offer an adjustable difficulty level; the game now features a single difficulty mode that feels like the equivalent of the original game’s “easy” setting, a change which works both for and against it. Enemies usually go down with a single melee hit or a couple shots from the pistol (which has infinite ammo,) so you can clear the game’s horror sections without having to worry about getting overwhelmed or running out of supplies. At the same time though, the game’s lack of challenge makes these sections feel more like busy work rather than the tense, life or death situations they’re supposed to be, and they tend to drag on for longer than they need to. I almost wish that the game’s action sequences had been cut completely, because they don’t add anything to the experience and just feel like filler material designed to pad out the game’s length.
If you already own the original version of Deadly Premonition that was released three years ago, I’m not sure there’s enough new content here to merit a double-dip. The new cutscenes don’t add much to the story, and the game’s graphical upgrades are a mixed bag: the weird purple screen filter that was applied to the original Xbox release is gone, so colors now appear more vibrant (Greenvale’s forests actually look green now!) and some of the sloppier texture work has been cleared up (bushes now actually look like bushes instead of weird, round extensions of the ground,) but some of the game’s lighting effects don’t look quite as smooth as they did in the original version, and the framerate is strangely inconsistent, despite how simple the graphics are. The Director’s Cut adds in motion controls via the PS Move Controller, but I was unfortunately unable to test this feature out since I didn’t have a Move controller on hand.
After reading all of that, you might be wondering why Deadly Premonition is worth playing. Honestly, I’m having a hard time quantifying why I liked it so much too, but let me just say this: for better or worse, there’s no other game out there that’s even remotely similar to Deadly Premonition. As games become increasingly expensive to make and the big publishers consequently become less and less likely to take any risks, a game as unique and strange as Deadly Premonition feels like a breath of fresh air. Most people will probably have to force themselves to play through the game’s slow paced opening hours, but trust me, it’s worth it — patient gamers who are willing to work through the game’s initial awkwardness will discover one of the most rewarding and memorable experiences ever. I know a lot of people will probably buy Deadly Premonition to point and laugh at its B-movie presentation, but I implore anyone who hasn’t tried the game yet to approach it with an open mind: you may just find out that you actually genuinely like it.
Final Score: 7.5/10