Deadly Premonition Review
Developer: Access Games
Publisher: Rising Star Games
Available on: PlayStation 3 & Xbox 360 (Xbox 360 version reviewed)
Marmite. Love it or hate it. Divided opinion. Deadly Premonition has split both reviewers and gamers alike – some call it “perfection”, whilst others look at it as “awful in every way”. First announced at the Tokyo Game Show in 2007, this game has gathered somewhat of a cult following over the internet. Since the time of release, its technical elements have been labelled atrocious, whereas it has received many plaudits for the freedom allowed and the universe it has created. So does this Open-World Survival-Horror title live up to its lofty reputation – good or bad?
WARNING: The review might contain some very minor spoilers regarding the story, nothing too major though…so stop being a sissy and read on!
STORY: The game opens with as creepy a start as I can remember to a horror game. Identical Twins. In a horror story, you know twins are always going to lead to something spooky. We open in small town rural America and soon enough the twins, along with their Grandfather, stumble across what looks like a ritualistic murder. Local girl Anna Graham has been strung up on a tree with a gaping hole running from her chest to her stomach. Oh and she is completely naked.
Enter FBI agent Francis York Morgan, but call him York – that’s what everyone calls him. York appears in his bureau car, apparently speaking with his partner, Zach. We soon discover that Zach is no normal partner. He is either a figment of imagination or York is referring to the player as Zach, constantly asking our opinion and letting us know what is on his mind. Investigating a series of murders of young women, Agent York is sent (begrudgingly) to the backwater town of Greenvale. Upon arriving in the town York meets town Sheriff George Woodman and his deputy Emily Wyatt, who fill him in on the details of the murder and eventually lead him to the crime scene.
York is abrasive and a little unhinged, his bodily tics and the aforementioned asides to an invisible aide not helping his cause. Although, strangley enough, no-one seems too worried about the absence of Zach in the game world. Throughout the game, York will get the chance to meet and interact with all of the townsfolk, helping out with their personal missions and side-quests – either to help further his investigation or to gain rewards from the citizens. The impressive cast of characters is deep and well-developed, and they all help to flesh out the dark past of the town and to aid in the players search to bring the criminal (the legendary Raincoat Killer) to justice.
The Twin Peaks similarities don’t end with the disturbed investigator, dodgy townspeople and horrific murder though. In-between chapters, York will find himself in a red, leaf filled dreamscape, where the two twins sit as Cherubs speaking in strange voices. All around you are talking deer heads and televisions showing white noise. Here you learn hints and clues that may help you in your travels, but much of it just adds to the confusion.
GRAPHICS: Now this seems to be one of the main bugbears people have with the game. Deadly Premonition looks OLD. Beginning life at least as early as 2007, many believe the game was intended for release on PlayStation 2, but missed the boat. In fact, its similarities to Twin Peaks led to a lengthy delay in which the game was re-written and voices re-recorded to lessen those links. It makes you wonder what else used to be in this game!
But regardless of the three-year delay, the game looks thoroughly dated. Character graphics are generally bad – the Deputy Sheriff being an exception, with her Naomi Watts look-alike character model. Animations are simple and lacklustre. The movement of hands and faces, even walk cycles, just aren’t convincing enough for a current generation game. Cars and environments are basic too – serving their purpose, but never possessing great enough detail to make any of the locations stand out as impressive. The Great Lake, Waterfall and National Park are all underwhelming and simply don’t measure up to other games in the genre.
Enemies would be quite inventive in their design – lost souls with Joker-style grins who stagger towards you whilst bent over backwards, before trying to force their arms down your throat – were it not for the fact that there is next-to-no variety in your foes. Sure, some are fatter than others and there are both male and female varieties, but that is where the differences end. Bosses aside, every enemy in the game is the same and that just comes across as laziness.
As I mentioned, bosses show some variety and it must be said that your arch-nemesis, the Raincoat Killer, does pack a punch as the villain of the piece. Simply modelled and animated, the character is ominous and disturbing. These areas are certainly the most exciting, both in terms of gameplay and the graphical filters/effects that are applied when he appears. The changes made to the graphics (split-screen camera views, grainy picture and image shake) in these areas help them take on an even greater sense of dread and panic, and add to the atmosphere.
SOUND: Unfortunately the sound too stands out as being below-par. Voices range greatly from average to dire and delivery of lines never seems to pack the right kind of punch needed for the situation. Some of this may be intentional though, as Agent York frequently displays his lunatic tendencies by bringing up 80’s films whilst carrying out an autopsy or discussing the rape of 80 children over a hamburger. You can never quite tell whether the voice directors wanted the delivery to be so tongue-in-cheek or not. In line with this, lip-syncing is almost non-present and on-screen character models rarely match-up with the lines being spoken. Every character in the game is voiced to some extent, which is impressive, but many will only speak during major scenes and text will be used for smaller conversations. A huge issue is the fact that voices seem to go up and down in volume, often resulting in them being drowned out by the music. I tried to alter the volume balances, but this seemed to make little difference.
Music and sound effects don’t get away lightly either. The game features possibly only 5 or 6 different pieces of music, which are used ad nauseam throughout different scenes. This does lead to such strange occurrences and a slightly seedy Jazz saxophone solo playing when something creepy is happening on-screen, or a jolly tune playing when you wouldn’t expect it. This again, may be being intentionally used for added comic effect – but you have to wonder. The music itself is of a fairly bad standard and definitely brings back memories of much older gaming systems. Sound effects too are unconvincing, and often occur at the wrong times. Walking sounds will sometimes continue after you stop moving, and other sounds seem to come from nowhere.
GAMEPLAY: Now I know what you are thinking. A game which looks awful and sounds awful must have to play great right? Well, not necessarily. It is in the gameplay that the real gems of the game lie, but there are plenty of issues too. The game is split into two man sections; open-world investigation and survival-horror action areas.
Firstly, the investigation sections afford the player a huge choice and freedom in what to do. This is a real shining light. The game operates on 1/3 day scale, where days pass in 8 hours of real time. It also features a dynamic weather system that will change how characters act in-game. Shops will close when a storm closes in and people will be outdoors enjoying activities when the sun shines. You can explore the area in your own time. Main story elements are set a time of day when they are available, but you can leave them and come back to them on any day you wish. You could – in theory – spend a week playing the fishing mini-game, playing darts in the bar and participating in street races, before you go back to complete the next section of the story.
As all of this occurs, the townspeople will go about their daily duties automatically. Each town member is marked on the map, so you can keep track of where all of the suspects are, in case you want to question them, search their home or just peek at them through their window. As I touched upon earlier, these AI characters will, in certain situations, ask for your help in side missions. These are triggered at certain points of time or in certain places and, again, can be completed as and when you wish. You will be rewarded with hard-to-find weapons, money or important clues (just to name a few) for carrying out these tasks. All of them greatly improve the depth of the characters and the in-game universe. This is truly a living breathing town.
To live in the town you will need to manage tiredness and hunger levels for Agent York. Eating and sleeping at regular intervals is required otherwise stamina and health will be adversely affected. You can even sit down for lunch with the Sheriff, his Deputy and their assistant Thomas – during which York spends a long time extolling the virtues of Thomas’ baking. It is this sort of quirky humour that typifies the game. Considering a packet of crackers costs over $35 in Greenvale, York will have to earn a lot of money while he is there. Money can be earned for finishing missions, finding secret items and interviewing suspects for example, or even for much more mundane things. Save your game by phoning the FBI office once a day? Get some bonus pay. Keep your suit clean and make sure you shave every morning? Have some more bonus pay. Let your suit become smelly though? You are a stinky agent and you lose $22. It’s safe to say, the in-game economy is a little bit loopy. Even checking the weather report will earn you a cool $13 each time.
It is these little idiosyncrasies that have made the game a cult hit. Ignore the technical shortcomings and the game is REALLY funny. Growing a beard in real-time is surprisingly fun. Listening to Agent York reminiscing about Jaws whilst you drive from place to place is amusing. The way he seemingly has no idea about the right time and place to mention his horrific past cases can make you laugh out loud. Get past the irritants and this game is really funny. The fact that the game can switch from comedy to horror so quickly is disarming and frankly, a nice change of pace. Too many horror games are too stoic. It is a welcome variation on the genre and you can appreciate the vision that the games’ designer SWERY had. This game really stands out from its competition for a lot of bad reasons, but also for its amusing sense of humour.
Action sequences employ a very Resident Evil-like stop and shoot style. You cannot move whilst attacking, as in the RE series. The areas are populated by lost souls who you must shoot repeatedly to kill and there is not a lot of variety in any of these sequences. They are unfortunately quite monotonous and not especially interesting. The most interesting mechanic at play here is the breath meter. Holding your breath makes you invisible from enemies, but only for a limited period. Do it for too long, you will begin to lose health and you also have to wait for the meter to re-charge. This adds an interesting layer to combat, the ability to disappear, but in practice it was not something I employed very often.
What really works are the times in which you encounter the Raincoat Killer. Sequences involving this character are perhaps the most successful sequences in the game. There are three main varieties on the theme. Some are quick-time-events, where the Killer has found you and you need to press the right buttons to escape his grip. These are punishing, as they get quite long as you progress further and the amount of time given to press each button is tiny. The second variety is the chase. The killer will be following the player, as the screen splits in two. One screen shows your view forward, the other shows the view of the killer. By waggling the stick and pressing the corresponding buttons, York makes his way past obstacles and through corridors in order to out-run the Killer. This is an intense and tiring mode, where you can get truly anxious and worried. The final type of encounter with the Killer is the hiding mode. This happens when you know the killer is nearby and York has but seconds to find a suitable hiding location. You hide, whilst holding your breath and hope the killer doesn’t find you as he stalks around the room. There are usually a few hiding place options, with only one being successful. This can require some trial and error, but the scene usually follows a save point, so it is quite forgiving. These sequences create a real sense of panic and suspense that is sadly absent from the normal fighting areas.
The biggest issue I had with the game was the lack of a quick-travel option. The game-world is very large and some destinations are very far from one another. You can only travel by foot or by car, and your cars all have a top speed of around 48mph. Turning on your sirens will allow a speed boost of approximately 4mph, so this isn’t really much help. It seems crazy that in a title where you have to drive a lot, the cars would be so slow. Add that to the fact that the cars handle terribly and you aren’t going to enjoy your travelling. This really adds a lot of time to your gameplay as it simply takes ages to get from one side of the map to the other. Completing one optional side mission will unlock a radio which can transport you back to your previous location, but this side quest can easily be missed out entirely and there is no other way to acquire the item.
LONGEVITY: The game is solely a single player experience with no real online features other than a nonsensical leader board. But what a colossal single-player mode it is. This game will easily last you in excess of 25 hours. Put that closer to 40+ if you wish to fully explore all of the areas of the town, complete as many side quests as possible and other such optional extras. I would qualify this however with the fact that much of your time will be taken up with irritations. Going through a door always produces a slow door-opening animation, which gets quickly irritating. I would have enjoyed this game quite a bit more if there had been no doors on buildings! Also, loading between sections and screens can sometimes drag. With the addition of the laborious driving sequences, this game has a lot of factors that pad out your game-time unnecessarily.
VERDICT: As you can deduce, this game has more than its fair share of issues. Technically redundant it may be. It is also clunky and unfriendly. The majority of games players will probably give it a go for an hour or two before giving up the ghost. I didn’t find myself really getting into the game and enjoying it until at least a good 5 hours in. This is once you have got past the initial hurdles the game presents you with. Graphics and sound are never the be-all and end-all for me, as long as the gameplay is there. Under several layers of wonky vehicle handling, an outrageous amount of travelling and repetitive enemies, there are some elements that Deadly Premonition really delivers on.
The game reminds me of Shenmue in regards to the sheer scope and ambition of creating a living city. If the game had been released alongside the famous Yu Suzuki title, it would have stood up favourably. Ten years down the line it still shows us how few games really implement this strategy though. The characters in the game each have their own life and the town takes on a personality of its own. Combat is poor, but boss sequences redefine the possibilities of what a boss fight should be. The boss battles in Resident Evil 5, for example, were utterly forgettable for me. The Raincoat Killer searching for me under a desk and in a locker is something I will remember though.
Deadly Premonition is a laugh-out-loud title for both the wrong and right reasons. The story is so strange and complex, and the humour so unique, that it keeps you interested and wanting to play more, so you can uncover the mystery that surrounds Greenvale. Released at a budget price point, you can certainly overlook some of the shortcomings, but it won’t be to everyone’s taste. Perfection it may not be, but there is much to appreciate within Deadly Premonition. In fact, some “modern” games could learn a thing or two from this particular title.