‘How I Ended Up In This Padded Cell.’
There are no words descriptive enough to convey the sheer lunacy of the game I’m about to discuss. Suffice to say that if you find yourself sat at your kitchen table crying into an un-stirred cup of coffee, then it’s due in no small part to Deadly Premonition.
It was unleashed upon the Western World following a wake of mixed reviews. Some people thought it was a cult hit in the making, a unique gaming experience that must be seen to be believed. Others deemed it an untested pulp of pointless gaming vomit. Many more, however, just stared at their consoles, slack-jawed and expressionless as the torrent of glorious madness killed their brains.
You take control of FBI Agent Francis York Morgan, a man with a penchant for strong coffee, chain-smoking and talking to his imaginary friend ‘Zach‘. He comes to the town of Greenvale to investigate the brutal murder of a beautiful young woman at the hands of an axe wielding ‘Raincoat Killer‘, and is charged with the task of smoking out the perpetrator (which, given the amount of cigarettes York gets through, is probably a literal term). The games premise has a basic enough foundation, upon which an illustrious palace of nonsense is built. It sets out to follow a psychological thriller/ horror path already well-trodden by Silent Hill and Heavy Rain, but somewhere early-on it wanders off into Bat-shit City and never comes back.
Deadly Premonition is a game that demands to be reviewed in-depth, covering all aspects of the experience, and as a result it’s difficult to know where to start. So we‘ll keep it simple and start with the technical side of things first. Here goes nothing.
The fact that Deadly Premonition hardly even had a budget is evident quite early on. It will take a long while for your eyes to adjust to the frankly aggressive imagery that slips through the screen. Most of the backgrounds appear blurry and unfocused, as if a small layer of cling film has collected over your eyes. Even the character models themselves have a strange inhumanity about them. Having said that, once the shock of a ps2-era engine invading your shiny next-gen console fades away, you start to notice the underlying ambition that struggles so hard to escape but never really makes it out. An ambient, dream-like atmosphere is competently maintained through the whole game without you even really realising it, and the Silent Hill style ‘Other World’ is just dark and brooding enough to un-nerve without actually frightening you.
Let’s get one thing straight, this game could easily drive a person to homicide if it was left to game-play alone. Agent York moves with all the ease and grace of a wardrobe full of sand. The button set-up is clumsy and counter-intuitive, for example, during combat you have to hold RT to aim your gun, LT to lock on to a target and A to fire the gun. It feels wrong, and if it was play tested while at least semi-conscious they would have noticed.
The driving mechanics were almost certainly designed by a sociopath with absolute chaos on his agenda. No vehicle is even in the slightest way manoeuvrable or within a human beings capacity to control. You’ll find yourself engine deep in shrubbery every time you take a corner, and it’ll take an extremely skilful ten-point turn to free yourself. Deadly Premonition also utilises (at many, many points) a clumsy Quick Time Event mechanic when you’re being grappled by an enemy, or when you’re trying to escape from the ‘Raincoat Killer’, that at worst is unresponsive and repetitive and grinding at best.
One of it’s saving graces, however, is the bonkers and often unintentionally hilarious soundtrack, which features everything from free-form progressive Jazz, to melodic haunting guitar, to the frankly legendary ‘Whistle Theme’ that will live in your memory for the rest of time. Three or four of these songs are laid out in a constant bed behind any dialogue, driving you almost to the point of wishing Jazz itself was never invented. It also has an uncanny ability to drop a jaunty, upbeat number into extremely inappropriate places, such as the discussion of bodily mutilation or mass slaughter. It’s about as jarring and awkward as playing Yakety Sax at a funeral.
Sure, nothing written so far sounds like the ingredients of great Game Pie, right? Right. But here’s the thing: In terms of gameplay, sound, control, presentation and execution, Deadly Premonition is a resounding failure. In terms of originality, charm and character? It’s a total success. Nutcase developer SWERY has achieved something magical in that a game this frustrating to play is somehow so endearing that you forgive almost all of the faults it has. It certainly helps that above everything else, Deadly Premonition is crazier than that old lady with the cats who lives down the road.
The lead character of the game, Agent Francis ‘York’ Morgan, is a man who you could easily fall in love with. He is perpetually smoking or talking to his imaginary friend Zach about obscure 80’s movies, and he leaps headlong into combat with ghostly apparitions without so much as a raised eyebrow. At first, you’re not sure what to think of his eccentricity and bizarre mannerisms (such as the way he taps his shoulder when he thinks) but as the game trundles on, you grow more accustomed to it.
One thing Deadly Premonition manages well in hindsight is the character development. At first it’s pretty heavy-going with the unique townsfolk and the nonsensical occurrences it throws at you, but give it a few hours of your time and you genuinely start to care about York, Emily (the sheriff’s deputy/ love interest) and the rest of the gang. Sure, not all of it makes sense, but maybe that’s my fault for not being Japanese or insane like SWERY. It’s a dark and macabre tale of murder, with a thinly veiled subtext of bondage and sado-masochism, laid on top of a main course of Schizophrenia, served with a side of immortality and a light sprinkling of demonic possession. And your beverage? Coffee that can tell the future, of course. (That’s not even a joke, York’s’ coffee seriously can tell the future.)
It’s difficult to pinpoint what I love the most about this game. Is it York and his deranged smile? Maybe. Is it THAT ending, which makes the whole ordeal worthwhile? Possibly. Or is it simply the fact that, while it may not be technically good, it’s pretty damn unique, and that counts for a lot in my book. Simply put, you won’t play anything quite like Deadly Premonition for a long time. Or, at least until SWERY gets out of his cell again.