It’s generally accepted that in reviewing something, one needs to be objective. After all, objectivity is the surest base for criticism, a foothold that allows one to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of a game and recommend it accordingly. But when an oddity like Deadly Premonition arrives, such convention does not apply. As a game, it fails. The combat is awful, the visuals are dated and the music is best muted. On the other hand, these shortcomings are dwarfed by the best story to grace a Microsoft console. Deadly Premonition’s tale is as much a doting love-letter to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks as it is a self-contained narrative. Yet while it owes much to Lynchian surrealism, Deadly Premonition is also an excellent tale in its own right, interweaving both the physical and existential into something that feels singularly unique. As a commercial product, it’s almost certainly unpalatable to audiences brought up on conventional action games, but if a review is anything, it’s a retelling of a personal experience. And personally, I’ve never been more engrossed.
Deadly Premonition was first released in America and Japan in February and March 2010 respectively. The subsequent PAL release came out in October of this year, and is the version reviewed here.
Naturally, characterization is important for any tale to work and in Francis York Morgan, Deadly Premonition has a fascinating protagonist. If the game is strange, its hero is too. By profession, he’s an FBI agent, but he seems to harbour his share of psychoses too. In York’s mind, he is never alone, for he comes with an alter-ego named Zach. During long monologues that touch on subject matter as diverse as Steven Spielberg’s Jaws to the denizens around him, York reveals Zach to be his best – and perhaps only – friend. Split personalities have long been examined, but what makes the formula work in this videogame is a stroke of genius. When York addresses Zach, he’s actually addressing you: yes, you the player. It becomes apparent that you are the silent half. You are the alter-ego, watching from your television with the controller in hand. You are the one that chooses to wield the trigger, that opens a particular door, that picks up an object of interest. York is the face and the voice to the world; you are his inner cogs. Yet just as you get to grips with this match-up, the game engineers a surprise twist. I only wish I could divulge it, for it’s an inspired u-turn that owes more to highbrow literature than the videogame and filmic world combined.
And in Greenvale, Deadly Premonition has its rain-soaked Washington enclave. York arrives in search of a killer who targets beautiful young woman, the first of which has seemingly been given as a sacrifice to a mysterious red tree. As the questions mount, so does the intrigue. Just what is the purpose of the tree? Accordingly, what do its red seeds mean? And just why do the residents of Greenvale repeatedly refer to York’s scar when it has all but faded? Forget videogames: few films and novels manage the satisfying revelations that Deadly Premonition achieves. This is an intelligent story that, by and large, opts for clever twists over shock-horror. And at its core, its central character ties the narrative thread together. You can’t help but wonder about this FBI agent who dominates the screen, his off-hand comments and deadpan voice at odds with the surreal world he inhabits. He’s endearing; moreover, he’s interesting, and the final revelation surrounding his character will elicit a gasp.
“Forget videogames: few films and novels manage the satisfying revelations that Deadly Premonition achieves.”
The game is at its best when York is at the fore and at its worst when he’s not. Towards the end the story descends into farce, throwing in muscled boss battles that have more in common with a bombastic envisioning of Batman. The liberties taken to explain these scenes affect the story in negative ways. Moreover, the boss battles and the action scenes in general just aren’t fun. At all. In Japanese tradition, York must stand still when discharging a firearm, while shambling monstrosities edge towards him moaning, “I doo-oont wa-a-ant to di-e-e-e-e”. It’s an unsettling sound at first, but soon becomes very, very annoying. There’s also a Raincoat Killer, a stuff of legend says the town’s sheriff, but a legend that York spies regularly. These scenes are explained as “otherworldly”, but while they add to the game’s surreal flavour, the combat seems like an effort to satiate the action crowd while simultaneously lengthening the story. The developers needn’t have worried about either: the narrative alone is a good fifteen hours, while the former could have been remedied by exclusively relying on the quick-time events that crop up on occasion. Make no mistake then: these bouts of action that you and York must endure are neither fun nor effective in improving the story. They also seem like a half-hearted nod towards Resident Evil 4: minus all the fun, of course.
Elsewhere, the game slips up too. The music is ill-placed, with many climactic and macabre scenes suddenly punctuated by an absurd song entitled “comic relief”. Yes, comic relief. Quite why the comic relief is needed you’re never quite sure, nor are you ever entirely convinced that Deadly Premonition is a game meant to be taken entirely seriously. But if seriousness is what the developers are after, its excellent narrative is undermined by the terrible music. Do the right thing and unceremoniously mute it.
Still, there’s no denying that Deadly Premonition has something going for it. York’s inappropriate observations (the man has a capacity to remain exceedingly calm) run alongside a game that mixes the extraordinary with the truly ordinary. This is not a game that tries to be different. Deadly Premonition simply is different. Ten minutes of gaming can see you first tending to York’s beard before being plunged into a survival horror scenario, where, instead of a razor, York handles a shotgun. Fifteen minutes on and in true Patrick Bateman fashion, York may be addressing you on the merits of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. And once home, don’t forget to change his suit. York attracts flies after a day or two, much to the distaste of the Greenvale residents.
“It’s a cast juxtaposed against a town that, in its drab palate of greys and greens, is the perfect recreation of an enclosed and isolated American town.”
And what a cast they are. You have the millionaire who never leaves his mansion without his gas mask, a fat travelling salesman and his dog, a rigid sheriff and a deputy that bears an unnerving similarity to Naomi Watts. It’s a cast juxtaposed against a town that, in its drab palate of greys and greens, is the perfect recreation of an enclosed and isolated American town. A limited budget means that the visuals are more at home in an era of Grand Theft Auto 3, but ironically this works in its favour at times. Constrained by the technology, Greenvale can only offer an undulating landscape of prairie dullness, one that feels completely right. Still, a few extra licks of paint wouldn’t have gone amiss either, and there’s no denying that many will be unable to get past the game’s ugly exterior. Character models animate poorly, the acting is wooden and lip-synching is just about nonexistent. Where the visuals really become a concern is during cutscenes, of which there are many. Since the game relies on its narrative so heavily, it’s a shame that the technology driving it cannot create the emotive and expressive characters that would have truly elevated the story. Being able to better distinguish between facial expressions would certainly have helped, and long pauses in conversation seems more a fault of the technology than an intended dramatic technique.
There are also idiosyncrasies in its design, pointing to a game that was created with conflicting ideas over a long timespan. Greenvale is a sandbox in nature and you can explore it at leisure, but the game is adamant that you follow the main story. There’s always a blinking red arrow pointing you to the next story segment, despite the fact that side-missions, races and collectibles litter the world. Though York will put up with the diversions, you always feel a bit bad, don’t you Zach?
As a budget game, these flaws are no surprise. Visually it’s poor. Sonically, it’s woeful, and the less said about the combat the better. What is surprising is how easily you’ll be willing to forgive these flaws once the story grips you. Given its limited resources, it has no right to be so ambitious. Half-baked elements reside throughout the game. Vehicular excursions are clunky. The map is nigh-on indecipherable yet, somehow, Deadly Premonition keeps going. Lift the veil and you realize that there is more going on than you ever thought possible. Residents of the town go about their routine in their cars and personalized number plates. Strange and ominous bones litter the grasslands. And an extensive, fifty-strong set of side-missions provide better weapons and useful tools. In Laura Bow fashion, you can even peep through windows and watch the townsfolk doing their chores. Greenvale appears an empty and desolate town, but the amount on offer soon becomes striking. The mix of the pedestrian and outlandish would make Lynch proud, while its budget price-tag is a steal.
Ultimately, it’s a subjective experience and a subjective buying choice. Many people won’t enjoy Deadly Premonition and I don’t blame them. We’ve been schooled to believe that a game succeeds on the merits of the technology running it. If you’re only interested in being led through a series of staged set-pieces amid crumbling scenery and impressive graphics, this is not worth your time. But if you have the stomach for the surreal and the patience to ride its flaws, there’s much to appreciate. It’s a fantastic story, led by the most memorable protagonist this side of Grim Fandango. High praise indeed for a game hobbled by antiquated design and archaic visuals, yet it does what no commercial offering ever can: it flies in the face of convention. This is a story that rewards your patience and input. Appropriate then, considering you and York are inextricably linked.