[Overdue Review] Deadly Premonition

By James Hawkins in Reviews
Friday, April 2, 2010 at 1:45 pm
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Deadly Premonition

Deadly Premonition flew under many people's radars when it released in late February 2010. It is by definition a niche game and is unlikely to appeal to a broad audience. Set in a fictional town called Greenvale in Washington State, the game follows quirky FBI agent Francis York Morgan on his investigation of a bizarre murder -- one that is strikingly similar to others he has seen across the country. Though it looks and plays like a first-generation PlayStation 2 game, the unique storytelling, wild plotting, and twisted atmosphere of Deadly Premonition challenged the way I look at video games.

Deadly Premonition

Publisher: Ignition Entertainment / Developer: Access Games / ESRB: M / $19.99

Initially, Deadly Premonition looks like a B-movie rendition of Silent Hill with a Twin Peaks twist. And technically, that is exactly what it is. The graphics look at least five years old and the controls feel like they predate Resident Evil 4. From the get-go I was skeptical that this game was going to amount to anything, and the constant cut-scenes with poor sound mixing didn't help at all. But I figured that a $20 price tag meant I should excuse some of the technical shortcomings so that I could give it a fair review.

Before I get into my thoughts on the project, it is important that you get a feel for the scope of the game. First and foremost, it is saturated with 1980s homages and campy, self-aware dialogue. The story is set in Greenvale, a small logging town in Washington State that has been largely deserted in the recent years. FBI Special Agent Francis York Morgan (or York, as he insists) is on the trail of the Raincoat Killer, a fairy tale monster that appears to have become real and is killing the young women of the town. He is accompanied by Greenvale police hardass Sheriff George Woodman and his deputy, the shapely and wonderful Emily Wyatt. It seems like an interesting, though pretty regular, murder mystery. That is, until you meet the people of Greenvale.

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It is safe to say that the thirty or so non-player characters that York interacts with are the weirdest, most screwed-up crew of people to inhabit a world since Twin Peaks aired, and their multidimensional, deeply intertwined stories help give Deadly Premonition much of its life. Even York is rather batty -- he talks to his imaginary friend Zach as if there was someone there, yet no one who hears him asks him about it. He reads his coffee every morning for clues. Sometimes, when profiling a scene, he slips into this foggy world with zombie-like creatures that want to stick their arms down his throat. The writing is hilarious and self deprecating at times, and seriously impressive at others. Really nothing about the game is on-kilter.

The first three or four hours of the game are totally linear -- I didn't feel like the game had much momentum at the beginning, but with some patience, I was able to get through it. There were a lot of spots during the game where the pacing was not quite fluid and where I felt that I couldn't wait for the stage to end. But as I played more, that patience really paid off.

Once the game breaks out of the linear narrative and you are able to drive around the city, it begins to breathe a whole new oxygen. There are time-specific plot points that give the days a bit of structure, but in the meantime you can go around the city and do a whole slew of side-quests and mini-games that expand on the storyline. Most of the side-quests are done for Greenvale residents who will reward you with information and backstory. But the real reward is in seeing how the characters act with one another and how their strange personalities dictate their actions and motives. You can beat Deadly Premonition without doing many of the side-quests, but you will get a truncated version of the story. It would be like going to New York City and only spending your time in Times Square -- sure, you'd get the feel and the aura of the big city, but there is so much outside of it to explore if you really wanted to get the full picture.

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One of the biggest aspects of this game that delighted me was how the story was told -- almost entirely through cut-scenes. There are so many damn cut-scenes in this game that even Metal Gear Solid 4 would say, "Damn, that's a lot of cut-scenes." But the writers have perfected the art of the cliffhanger in this one. Each cut scene is packed with either character-strengthening dialogue or the furthering of an earlier thread. It helps too that once you've become accustomed to it, the overacted voicing and awkward jokes that seem to permeate each scene only add to the flavor of the game.

The game was able to succeed by being story driven, and that was because it never adhered to a particular genre. It is billed as a survival-horror, but I would call it a "haunted psychological mystery." As a huge fan of the survival-horror genre, I was disappointed by the lack of variety in enemies and the almost non-existent boss fights. But as I played through it, I began to care less and less about those aspects, and found solace in the few, but very tangible, instances of horror that the game produces. By not sticking directly to any particular style of gaming, Deadly Premonition is able to do what it wants. It can convey a multidimensional, crazy story while never being forced to oblige a particular fanbase. This will be alienating for some people looking for a polished survivial-horror game, but I say to you people: just pick up Dead Space... alphabetically, it is very close on the store's shelf and will probably satisfy your needs.

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In reviewing this, it is difficult to accurately describe it. The gameplay and graphics are really sub-par, but the story is insane, emotionally engaging, and clever. The way the video game world works now is that games can be entirely written off for having a weak production, yet rarely are video games ever nicked for having wooden stories and shallow characters. The Halo series, despite being one of my favorites, is notorious for that -- the storytelling is fairly weak, and the characters are one dimensional. Yet all games in the series are nearly universally acclaimed.

For instance, it seems that in most big budget games, the protagonist is always able to come through. A hostage situation? Keep trying until you nail it. Need to save the world? Hero will do it. But there is a flawed kind of humanity in York. You won't always save the ones in trouble, and you will often be wrong in your suspicions.

So, what happens when a budget game with a great story comes along? The production value is incredibly low, but I really admire what the developers were able to do with so little. It ends up that the whole has become far greater than the sum of its parts. Instead of big guns, you are rewarded with self discovery and intriguing dialogue. Instead of building to a massive land war or super cinematic climax, the different elements coalesce into a perfect storm of resolved red herrings, tied up threads, and vivid plot device explanations. And during the climax, when it reaches fever pitch, I was exposed to some of the most off the rails, batshit crazy imagery I've ever seen rendered on a console.

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Some have said that this game is so bad, it's good. But I would argue against that wholeheartedly. I think that this game is a self aware amalgamation of obscure references, ballsy plot devices, and ingenuity employed by a group of ambitious people with limited resources. All of that trapped inside really dated production. Obviously, there were a lot of things that I wish had been improved. I would've loved to have seen the landscape through a more lush rendering. The single-stick, stop-and-shoot controls took a long time to get used to. The sound mixing is horrendous. Hell, even the fact that you couldn't put a waypoint on a map got on my nerves, and I found myself constantly checking it to make sure I was going the right way. That facet always seemed like a no-brainer to me. Yet every time I left my Xbox 360 to sleep or whatever, the story stuck with me and I felt the drive to get back on board. Even since I've finished it, I've spent a lot of time considering the outcomes of the different plot arcs and the obscured revelations that occur throughout.

There is a lot that I really love about this game, though the archaic gameplay and stilted pacing of the story took a little getting used to. This game will absolutely not appeal to everyone, especially those that value production above all else. But for those of us that love seeing something different, that love playing something totally out there, Deadly Premonition is a compelling and emotional ride through a weird part of the world. The mainstream marketplace has no place for games like this one -- I've never really seen anything quite like it. I can see someone being able to argue a bad review out of it just as easily as I can see someone giving it a near-perfect review. But I feel as the reviewer I need to give it exactly what I feel in my gut.

So I'll ding it for the crappy map.

The Official Review: 4 out of 5

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