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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.
On the whole Deadly Premonition’s combat feels like Resident Evil 4 made on a budget of 50p – which, come to think of it, probably isn’t that far from the truth. The flaky controls initially suggest that they’re going to be a big problem, but before long you’ll find that they’re easy enough to use – they’re nowhere near as botched as the driving mechanics, that’s for sure. Provided that you take the time to go for headshots, the zombie goths offer little resistance, leaving you free to scour the area for a predetermined number of clue items. As you stumble across these trinkets, York will start to “profile” the scene – filling in the gaps in an initially-shrouded chain of images. It’s largely these moments, rather than the presence of monsters, that give Deadly Premonition its edge.
And make no mistake: you may come into this thinking it’s all a joke, but by the end you’ll probably be more than a little disturbed. For all its humour, this is most certainly a horror outing – one that contains some of the freakiest images I’ve ever seen as a gamer. Twin Peaks is utterly ransacked as a source of inspiration, but despite this it’s clear, right from the bewildering opening cinematic, that SWERY is a director capable of his own shocking visions. It’s this creativity, combined with a hugely endearing sense of humour that will keep you coming back for more.
Or at least, it will if you can stomach the technical shortcomings to be found at every turn. Deadly Premonition is an amazing experience, but as a game it’s distinctly rough. The best I can say about the combat is that it doesn’t really get in the way of the story, and the driving, as I’ve already mentioned, is appalling. Some of the side quest rewards – like the radio that warps you around town, or the infinite ammo weapons – can go some way towards easing your pain, but uninformed players will probably miss them. The non-story elements get quite repetitive over the course of 20 hours, and this often makes you realise the flaws in certain mechanics. The Clocktower-style sequences, in which you must desperately hide from the raincoat-wearing killer, are quite effective on the first encounter, but they get old quickly.
And perhaps most damningly of all, the in-game map is utterly useless. Any logical map designer would keep the layout fixed, and then use an arrow to show the player’s location and direction. Here the, player indicator is always fixed, while the entire map revolves around them, so unless you ensure that you’re always facing the same way, you’ll completely lose your bearings. Oh, and you can’t zoom out to see how your position relates to the rest of Greenvale – you have no way of seeing what the overall town layout is. Ever.
It is without doubt the worst map I’ve ever seen in a game, bar none. But – and this is a big but – I found this shoddiness quite endearing. I also love that the phrase “Raincoat Killer” is misspelt on the back of the European box. The fact that I like these things confirms that I am a member of the Deadly Premonition cult.
I’m proud of this, as it happens. Because somehow, for all its flaws, Deadly Premonition is strangely magical. Embrace the weirdness, and you’ll notice that the voice acting is really good, and that much of the music is superb (although the levels for both are all over the place, by intention or otherwise). The whodunit plot will disturb you, make you laugh and ultimately clamour for a revelation – and the ending will knock you for six. And above all else, who could not love Francis York Morgan – a man who drives to a crime scene while discussing, with his imaginary friend, the brilliance of Kevin Bacon in Tremors?
Yes, Deadly Premonition is flawed. It’s unhelpful, outdated and highly irregular – and I should probably give it a lower mark, but I’m not going to. Instead I’m going to thank Rising Star for bringing this game to the UK, and I’m going to suggest that if you’re even remotely curious, that you give it a pop. You can find it online for less that £20; you might love it, you might hate it – but I guarantee you won’t forget it.