You may have heard of Deadly Premonition, the open-world horror/thriller game from 2010 that proudly claims (on the back of the Director's Cut box, no less) to be "the most critically polarizing game of recent times." With a $20 price tag and review scores ranging from 2/10 on IGN to 10/10 on Destructoid, Deadly Premonition quickly earned a reputation for being "so bad it's good." Like a good "B movie," this was a game whose primary entertainment value seemed to derive from laughing at its failures and its generally awkward incompetence.
There's certainly plenty of reason to dislike Deadly Premonition. The graphics look 10 years out of date, the controls are clunky, the animations are ridiculous, the sound mixing is poorly balanced, the lip syncing is awful, and the music selection is often totally inappropriate. As a result of the clunky controls and the large open-world, the bulk of the actual gameplay feels pretty uncomfortable, and even a little boring, particularly in the beginning when you have very little reason to care about what's going on. Hidden beneath all of these superficial problems, however, is a comically bizarre, oddly fascinating, and uniquely surreal experience.
In Deadly Premonition, you play as FBI Special Agent Francis York Morgan, sent to a small town in the Pacific Northwest to investigate the murder of a high school prom queen. York, as he prefers to be called, is attacked by an axe-wielding menace in a red rain coat upon his arrival on the forested outskirts of Greenvale, and has to fight his way out of the woods while zombie-like shadow creatures crawl out from the ground. Once in town, York meets with local law enforcement to begin the investigation: visiting the scene of the crime, reviewing the autopsy report, and questioning townsfolk as the killer continues to find new victims under York's nose. The rest of the game is a matter of following leads and attempting to stay one step ahead of the killer to prevent each subsequent murder.
The "red room" that York finds himself in during his dreams.
The story -- in fact, nearly everything about the game -- bears a strong resemblance to David Lynch's 1990 television series Twin Peaks. Both center around the murder of a high school prom queen in a small town founded on the lumber industry; both feature an eccentric FBI agent as the lead with a diverse cast of oddball supporting characters; both rely on dissonant scenes, awkward humor, and pronounced music to create their unique atmospheres. Like the eponymous town in Twin Peaks, Greenvale seems at first like a quaint, idyllic small town set apart from the cynical ways of the rest of the world, but is soon revealed to have its own seedy underbelly and mysterious dark forces at work.
These are just the broad similarities; when you look at the two under a closer microscope, the specific similarities are even more astounding. Considering that the game references Twin Peaks directly with hidden Easter eggs, the similarities feel more like a respectful homage than a blatant ripoff. Speaking as someone who's watched Twin Peaks multiple times and considers it one of his favorite television series, playing Deadly Premonition was a real treat because I enjoyed spotting the references. What impressed me most about the game, perhaps more than anything else, is how much it actually feels like an interactive video game form of Twin Peaks; with the show's short run and abrupt ending, anything that can recreate that unique atmosphere, especially with its own creative twists mixed into the formula, is exciting and worth experiencing if you enjoyed the show at all.
Even if you've never watched the show, there are plenty of genuinely interesting things to enjoy in Deadly Premonition, and it starts with the unique protagonist. York has a bit of a split personality, constantly raising his hand to his ear and speaking to someone off-screen known only as "Zach." A weird oddity at first, you quickly realize that whenever York addresses this Zach, he's actually addressing you -- the player. This allows for a unique window to York's inner thoughts and feelings as he carries out one-sided conversations with you, talking at great length about movies, punk rock, and some of his former cases while driving across town, which helps to flesh out his personality and make him more likable and more interesting.
An example of the kind of cutscenes in Deadly Premonition.
Deadly Premonition does a really good job of putting you in the role of a detective, since the game is essentially an open-world simulation of solving a small-town murder. The main story follows a linear series of events, but you're always free to go where you want and to talk to whomever you want to gather information on the case. As a real detective, it would make sense to pay a visit to the victim's mother; the game never explicitly tells you to visit her, yet if you choose to go to her house while she's there, you trigger a pair of side-quests that reward you in various ways while shedding more light on the story. There are fifty such side-quests in the game, all of which are entirely optional and can be done in nearly any order you like.
Finding these side-quests and meaningful activities isn't always very easy to do, however, because the town is so spread out and the map is such a pain to use. Quests are only available form certain people at certain times of day, and with people moving all around town throughout the day, quite realistically, it's easy to miss things. Once I saw a quest marker around midday, but had to stop for lunch and found that the quest-giver had moved by the time I had finished eating, and the quest had become unavailable for the rest of the day. Another quest requires you to go to a certain character's house after 9pm on a rainy day to even trigger it. It can be a bit overwhelming and annoying at times, but I really like that the game doesn't hold your hand and drag you by the nose to every bit of content; it's a game that requires your own input to figure things out, and that makes for a more engaging, rewarding experience.
The story is, I think, one of the more interesting stories I've seen in a video game, and it's riveting all the way through. Much like Twin Peaks, the setup is fairly standard, but it becomes far more complex and interesting as you begin pulling back layers; a murder mystery in a quaint town with its own legends and mysteries (yet, which feels plausibly realistic) that turns into a serial killing with you hunting down clues and reacting to each new murder, trying to pin down the suspect while red herrings send you through a loop from one suspect to next. There are a ton of unexpected twists and revelations in this story -- chief among them York's backstory -- that had me in utter shock over what I'd just witnessed.
Driving around town in a police car.
As evidence of the good storytelling in Deadly Premonition, there's a romantic subplot in this game that actually feels genuine. The relationship between York and Emily, the sheriff's deputy, develops naturally and gradually; they begin the game as mere coworkers, with Emily put off by York's rude city habits and unconventional methodology, but then they develop a platonic friendship over lunches spent together at the sheriff's department and the camaraderie of investigating crime scenes. After a while, they find themselves on the awkward cusp of mutual affection, where they're getting drinks together and visiting each other in their free time. As dramatic as the rest of the game is, and as dramatic as most typical video game romances are, it's remarkable how understated the romance actually is in this game -- you almost don't even realize it's happening, but then when the characters start to reveal their feelings you understand why. It works, and it makes sense.
Unfortunately, the story suffers a bit towards the end, when the game's supernatural element runs rampant and becomes obnoxiously exaggerated. There's supernatural shading throughout the entire game, but it always feels plausible. York is constantly attacked by zombies in an alternate version of reality, after all, which seems to be some kind of psychotic hallucination since none of the other characters ever experience it or comment upon it. The game always feels grounded in reality, even when it introduces bits of dreamlike (nightmarish?) whimsy, with the line constantly becoming more and more blurred as you progress. In the final few chapters, any semblance of realism is dropped in favor of the villain(s) gaining ridiculous superpowers that seem to the defy the "this is a hallucination" theory.
Gameplay is split roughly in two sections: open-world exploration which takes place in the "normal world," and Resident Evil 4-style third-person action investigations that take place in a dark, alternate version of Greenvale. During the open-world sections, you're free to roam about the town searching for optional side quests or optional challenges like collecting trading cards, going fishing, doing time trials in your car around town, in addition to simply talking to townsfolk and observing them in their daily behavior. During the "alternate world" action sequences, you fight enemies and search for evidence at crime scenes in a type of linear survival-horror structure, usually whenever York is close to making progress in the case or whenever something major happens.
Visiting the scene where Anna was found murdered.
Combat follows a Resident Evil 4 approach, which has York stop moving while he aims and fires his weapons from an over-the-shoulder perspective. Unfortunately, the combat isn't all that good in this game. Such is the case with most of the gameplay, in fact -- all of it's completely serviceable, but it's often bland or simply not as good as the competition. The aiming, for instance, is a bit of a nuisance since it feels really floaty and imprecise, and most of the enemies pose no real threat, simply standing around waiting to die. It's therefore not very satisfying and sometimes feels a bit like a chore, but the combat is simple enough that the imprecise controls never feel frustrating.
You spend basically the entire game fighting the same basic enemies, which gets to feel a bit shallow and repetitive as the game goes on. The enemies look and sound sufficiently creepy early on, with their bent-over-backwards walking-towards-you movement and their wistful cries of "don't want to die" when you kill them, but they become far too familiar after the first couple of encounters because you see and hear the same stuff over and over again and become desensitized to it. There are only a handful of other enemy types in the game, which only show up in small doses at sporadic moments; there are very few twists or surprises that require changes in strategy or which set up unique, memorable, setpiece encounters.
Furthermore, the combat is just way too easy. At first I thought it was going to be a Resident Evil 1 style game where you had to manage a limited ammo supply -- having only five bullets to kill six or more enemies -- since your melee weapons deteriorated with use and since they included a stealth system that would let you sneak past enemies. But then I realized that your starting pistol has unlimited ammunition, so you can safely pick enemies off at a distance over the course of the entire game with no fear of repercussions. You can acquire a ton of other guns and melee weapons to make combat easier, but it's so easy from the very beginning that it's never really necessary, and a lot of the weapons you can acquire come with infinite ammo and durability, as well.
Fighting a zombie-shadow nurse in the hospital.
When you're doing one of these "action-oriented investigations," you're usually progressing through a more-or-less linear level collecting pieces of evidence, finding keys to locked doors or ways past blocked paths, and solving minor puzzles. The puzzles are never that complicated, so once again they don't prove especially satisfying, but they offer a pleasant change of pace from the combat. Occasionally, you encounter quick-time-event cutscenes in which the Raincoat Killer attacks you. and you either have to dodge his attacks, run away, or find a hiding place. When this happens, the screen splits into two, one showing you your own perspective and another showing the killer's perspective, which is kind of cool. These sequences are kind of shallow and gimmicky gameplay, but they're genuinely tense because the Raincoat Killer is a one-hit kill and you don't have much ability to fight back.
When you're not watching cutscenes or doing linear missions, you're free to explore the world in a type of sandbox fashion. There's not as much to do in Deadly Premonition's open-world as there is in Grand Theft Auto or The Elder Scrolls, but what sets Deadly Premonition apart from other open-world games is that everything has a purpose and there are consequences for virtually everything you do. The game takes place in real time, for instance, with all characters following a set daily schedule, which changes from chapter to chapter. Usually whenever you have a mission, it'll require you to visit a location at a certain time of day, which leaves you only a limited amount of time to accomplish any side goals before tackling the main objective, therefore making your actions and decisions actually matter.
In addition to time passing independently of your input, you also have to eat, sleep, shave, and wash your clothes at regular intervals in order to survive and maintain a healthy outward appearance. If you don't shave, York will actually grow a beard; if you don't wash your clothes, you'll find flies circling around you; if you don't eat or sleep, York will slowly weaken until he eventually passes out or outright dies. Likewise, your vehicles have gas tanks that need to be filled after several hours of driving around the town, and they need to be washed and repaired after sustaining damage. As with the time limits, it all ensures that you have meaningful things to consider. Things like shaving and washing your clothes are such trivial tasks, but they go a long way in making you feel more immersed in the setting.
Also unlike a lot of other open-world games. most of the side-quests in Deadly Premonition are actually worth pursuing. Some of them are admittedly kind of bland and repetitive (rearranging boxes in the storeroom, driving Roaming Sigourney around), but most of them serve as character development, and thus allow you to learn more about the characters' personalities and what goes on in this world. Each quest-giver is someone with an established, recurring role in the story so it's easy to care about their dilemmas, especially when they contribute something worthwhile to the main story, as they often do.
Another of the game's more memorable cutscenes.
Greenvale is a setting that's genuinely worth exploring, because it's filled with such unique, eccentric characters. There's the rockabilly hipster who owns a small grocery store, a butler who speaks in rhymes for a gas-mask-wearing paraplegic millionaire, a cross-dressing bar-tender, a mad war veteran who runs a junkyard, a sexy cowgirl who runs a gas station, a pale insomniac who tends the graveyard, a crazy lady who always carries a pot around and is missing one shoe. The voice actors do a great job bringing these characters to life -- even with the dated graphics and stiff, repetitive animations, the characters feel like real, genuine people because of the sincerity the actors put into the roles.
The music also does a good job of establishing the game's atmosphere, with its eclectic mixture of smoky jazz, folk music, somber piano/string pieces, and comical arrangements featuring an entire kazoo chorus. Along with the story, setting, and characters, the music is the final component that gives Deadly Premonition its unique character. It's emotional and evocative when it needs to be, dark and brooding when it needs to be, fun and lighthearted when it needs to be. That's not even including songs like the main theme, The Woods and the Goddess, or other atmospheric pieces like In a Jazzy Mood. Just take a listen to some of these tracks for yourself; they're all really good, and I've enjoyed listening to the soundtrack on continual repeat all while writing this review.
As I've said before, Deadly Premonition has its problems -- the graphics and animations are bad, the lip syncing is suspect, the controls aren't that great, and the gameplay isn't always as fun as it really should be. Besides simply polishing these superficial aspects, the game would be a lot better, I feel, if it had a stronger survival-horror feel to it with scarcer ammo and limited healing to make the linear action sequences more intense and more compelling, along with more varied enemy types and unique encounters to keep you on your toes. It would also be nice for there to be at least some kind of random "unscripted events" like in GTA, LA Noire, or Red Dead Redemption to give the world just a little dynamism to break up the pace of the mechanically structured world.
Some people will understandably never be able to get past the game's problems. Others would be content to say that Deadly Premonition is a good game, but only with a hint of irony in their voice. I'm one of those who believe that Deadly Premonition is a genuinely good game -- one with some notable flaws -- a flawed masterpiece, if you will. This is, quite simply, one of the funnest games I've played in a long time, and certainly one of the most memorable I've ever played.