Cult games, in the truest sense of the term, are comparatively rare animals these days. You'll occasionally hear non-gamers applying the label to franchises like Portal, Tomb Raider, or even World of Warcraft - but all of these games are massive success stories, with millions of fans. A true cult game should be the equivalent to a Roger Corman movie: unconventional, divisive, and perhaps even flawed - but with a select army of supporters who love it none the less. And this description fits Deadly Premonition like a glove - a six-fingered glove with a caffeine problem.
Despite its budget-title status, Deadly Premonition has already had quite a bit of attention, from both European critics and the American press, who got their hands on the game earlier in the year. Opinions and review scores have varied wildly, but most people are agreed on one thing: it's a damn weird game, even if you're a massive fan of David Lynch's Twin Peaks - the TV show that's clearly been used as the primary source of inspiration.
Deadly Premonition follows the curious adventures of FBI Agent Francis York Morgan; he'd rather that you simply call him York, and points this preference out to everyone he meets. York isn't your typical suited investigator: He's brash, arrogant, and boasts a twin addiction for coffee and cigarettes. The latter are lit via a Zippo emblazoned with an ironic No Smoking logo; the former are used as steaming hot fortune-telling devices. By glancing into a hot cup of Joe, York is apparently able to divine the future. York is accompanied at all times by his best friend Zach, who appears to be a figment of the imagination. York doesn't let this fact prevent him from conversing with Zach in public, however - often conducting one-sided chats, even when he's in the company of others.
York (and Zach) have come to the quiet American town of Greenvale in search of a murderer: someone has sliced open one of the local girls and then left her to die in a tree, and York believes the killing has a link to several other deaths, committed across the States. It's a grizzly way to start a story, but nothing can truly prepare you for the wonderful, outright oddness that follows. It's no small understatement to say that Deadly Premonition's plot deals in themes and imagery that few games have dared to touch upon. The game itself is equally unconventional, partly due to the imagination of its director - Hidetaka "SWERY" Suehiro - and partly due to the fact that a lot of the core mechanics are all over the place.
Structure-wise, this is a game of two halves. For much of the story you'll be driving around the open world playground of Greenvale itself, chatting to the town's inhabitants. Many of the locals are as odd as York himself, though few are so instantly lovable. There's a surly ex-con running the local gas station, a man who refuses to help the police but who'll happily chat to the image of Ben Franklin on a $100 bill. There's also a terrifying, reclusive tycoon in a wheelchair, and his assistant - a man who speaks via rhyming poems. Other inhabitants include a cadaverous gravedigger, a manic lady obsessed with her cooking pot, and a seductive but callous woman who runs the local art gallery. The Sheriff's office is also home to a trio of reluctant allies for York - a gruff weightlifter, a nervous masterchef, and a sharp young woman who's the spitting image of Naomi Watts.
The story unfolds in absolute real time, and specific events will only take place at certain times and locations. Rather than the intense pressure of something like Dead Rising, however, you're usually left with several hours to get to where you need to be - in fact, you'll have to speed up time by smoking cigarettes (they do that, so I hear). There's ample opportunity to complete the 50-odd side quests that are dispensed by the oddball NPCs - and if you do this, you'll gain unique items that make your life considerably easier, for reasons I'll explain later.
Even if you happen to miss a deadline, the game lets you repeat the event the same time the next day - even in situations where a suspect would invariably flee to the hills and never be seen again. Incidentally, none of these mechanics are ever really explained to you; you have to work everything out for yourself, bouncing off lumps in the game design - much in the same way that York's car ricochets off the scenery when you're driving around down. The vehicle mechanics in Deadly Premonition appear to have been culled from an early PS2 release - which is not hugely surprising, as that was originally the game's intended platform.
Eventually, when you've spent enough time crashing into concrete banks of grass in your painfully slow car, you'll end up in one of the game's Silent Hill-style sequences. Here the normal scenery morphs into a horrible doppelganger of its normal self, and York is forced to battle panda-eyed zombies, who tend to walk backwards towards him. If one of these blighters gets close, they'll attempt to climb down his throat, arms-first. When successfully killed - either via firearm or degradable melee weapon - they tend to wail "I don't want to die!" in a mournful voice. These foes rarely pose much of a threat, but they're also quite unnerving - or at least they would be, if they didn't constitute 95 per cent of the enemies in the game.