Deadly Premonition is a bizarre miracle; a stupefying freak of nature that has managed to get by in spite of its very apparent flaws. Hidetaka Suehiro’s vision of a small-town murder mystery was plagued with a troubled development, and was originally designed with PlayStation 2 specs before it was ultimately a Xbox 360 game.
Compounded with a platform change, there were several character redesigns to further separate Deadly Premonition from its very obvious inspirations to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. There was executive meddling that mandated implementation of shooting mechanics in a game that wasn’t designed around it.
With all the odds stacked against Deadly Premonition, it has garnered a cult following. Just what is it that has made this quirky and woefully unpolished mess of a game so beloved in the eyes of millions, that it earned a port to the Nintendo Switch and a sequel?
Deadly Premonition Origins (known as Deadly Premonition on other platforms)
Developer: Access Games/ToyBox Inc.
Platforms: Windows PC, Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 3, Xbox 360,
Release Date: September 4, 2019
There is a saying, “personality goes a long way.” This phrase can be perfectly applied to Deadly Premonition. Its personality is all it has going for it, and has carried it through out the years despite attempts to refine its technical flaws. Sometimes just being utterly different can make something interesting enough to endure.
Deadly Premonition was one of the most fleshed-out derivatives of “being inspired by David Lynch’s Twin Peaks,” kind of games. There have been others in its wake since it has become a cult classic; Life is Strange, Kentucky Route Zero, and Thimbleweed Park are all rediscovering the style and aesthetics that David Lynch crafted in his murder mystery show back in 1990.
At times, Deadly Premonition seemingly can barrow too much from Twin Peaks, to a point it is a distraction. Hidetaka Suehiro did not need to lean in so heavily on his influences, because Deadly Premonition shines its brightest when it is being original, and not liberally imitating Lynch’s TV masterwork.
The identity of the murderer and the mystery ultimately take a backseat to the grander tapestry that is the life-sim elements that York has to contend with on a regular basis. There are aspects of Shenmue‘s day and night cycle, side activities, and a wide cast of individual NPCs with bespoke schedules. On top of this York will have to maintain his fatigue, hunger and hygiene.
Deadly Premonition‘s design is as unconventional, as the quirky characters that populate Greenvale and keeping track of these things is simple, and serves the purpose of making things feel real.
With all of these intricate moving parts that make the whole, Deadly Premonition impressively feels alive in ways bustling cities in Grand Theft Auto do not. You can get to know and interact with a lot of the townsfolk, learning their quirks, and sometimes some insight into topics you never thought you’d care to know.
Many of the citizens have side stories to engage with which typically involve a mini-game. It can range from a variety of activities like racing, navigation, puzzles or some light detective work. It is never a challenge, but is always an amusing diversion to keep the experience from getting dull in a peaceful town that gets overrun with zombies when it rains at night.
The attention to detail attempted to realize the characters is slightly impressive, since it clashes with the overall ugliness of the rendering and modeling. All mirrors have reflections, York can spy on NPCs in their homes and watch them tuck themselves into bed, and even though it constantly clips through geometry; York’s tie has physics applied to it so it can sway believably.
Facial animations are horrendously stiff and robotic, and there are several gestures that are recycled constantly through out the game. None of it would be taken seriously, if it weren’t for the voice performers’ dedication to taking the material seriously.
If only the same few musical tracks were not constantly overused and played at abnormally loud volumes that drown out the dialogue, then maybe some of the nuances wouldn’t be lost on casual observers.
Even though this began development as a PlayStation 2 game, it more closely resembles something made with Dreamcast specs. The environmental design is very blocky, and while driving around town with slippery driving mechanics; objects pop into existence, meters away. Textures are laughably flat and low quality, with frequent repetition that emphasizes the low budget that Access Games had to work with for such an ambitious concept.
There is no good version of Deadly Premonition, and there will likely never be. Even on Switch as Deadly Premonition Origins, little was done to address the many flaws of the game. The jerky and slow gameplay animations, abysmal frame rate, slow weapon changing, low quality shadows, and the sluggish gun play are all still here. The only time when it is not tedious to play is when York is walking around talking to ridiculous characters.
The camera system was revised from its initial release to be less up close and locked like Resident Evil 4, to be fully controlled with 360 degree movement like most third-person games.
The problem is Deadly Premonition‘s levels were originally designed with the old camera system in place. As a result, tight corridors with labyrinthine layouts lead to some snarling camera-screws that are headache inducing, as they get caught on low res and low poly objects.
Seeing inanimate 3D characters get dropped from the sky into a setting, only for them to snap into their programmed animations makes it incredibly hard to get invested in the narrative. The impression is that the game is barely held together by soiled scotch tape. Hidetaka Suehiro is not the David Lynch of video games, he is the Ed Wood Jr. equivalent.
Textures are sparse and yet they are intensely blurry. Even the sloppy bump mapping manages to have jagged edges. Confusingly, some details are much more pronounced than others. York’s distinct big vein on his temple is unusually well defined, but the veneer on his suit sometimes looks like it is made of vinyl, and that the folds and creases appear to be painted on.
Deadly Premonition desperately tries to create atmosphere with its setting, utilizing weather effects. Rain is especially prominent and is an important motif through out York’s time in Greenvale.
Only problem is the rain never looks convincing, and looks like milky white noise. Even the stock sound effect sounds like static after listening to it long enough. You don’t get drawn in at all, and it is just confusing and disappointing.
Greenvale is depressing to look at. In some angles it resembles Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing, due to the low quality stock models that pepper the low-poly landscape. The streets are long and locations are spread very far apart, making driving crucial.
This also means having to constantly pause the game, and scrolling to go into the map screen to orient yourself. Zooming out far isn’t possible, so expect to tediously comb over this screen for minutes trying to mentally map a route to a destination.
Hidetaka Suehiro is a man of unique tastes. Like any auteur, he also likes to insert things he enjoys into his work and Deadly Premonition is no exception. When York passionately talks about horror B-movies from the 80s, it is very obviously coming from a writer who truly does have a sincere love for the genre. Suehiro’s interests in punk music, old-timey cartoons and small-town USA permeate this Twin Peaks inspired scenario.
There is a quaint earnestness with the narrative and gradual pacing. Its failings is always its unimpressive presentation, but this is why people have been so easy to ignore its faults. Deadly Premonition makes an ugly first impression, and from the start expectations are low. This makes it easy for some to think that it’s “so bad, it’s good,” because it is hard to be disappointed when the bar has been set so low.
The reality is that Deadly Premonition is just “bad,” but is elevated thanks to its writing and novel scenario. It helps that the story does establish an intriguing mystery early on, and York and Zach are enigmatic characters that make it easy to get absorbed into the atmosphere. It is rewarding to stick it through the rough gameplay, and experience a compelling mystery.
Another strength is that Deadly Premonition does not take itself seriously. It often celebrates that it is a video game and relishes “video gamey” tropes like collectibles, explosive barrels, and even climactic boss battles.
The complete lack of pretenses makes it easier to get into and feels more accessible, since events play out in a very easy to understand way. It is not subtle, and very obvious cues are rarely missed.
Despite the narrative being extremely blunt, it also does have examples of some masterful foreshadowing. Innocuous visual clues that nobody would notice, until you start to look for them become apparent. Details are what can hold a good mystery together, and after you have the answers, you’ll question why you couldn’t foresee it yourself.
The music has several notable tracks. There are not many and they are all overused through out the adventure, even at times when they are inappropriate. There will be an extended scene of a character simply walking across the room, and the chipper whistle theme will switch out to the melancholic guitar theme. When the character is done walking, the mood will whiplash back to the laid back whistling theme.
A lot of the time the music will also play abnormally loud during cutscenes, drowning out character dialogue. Compounded with the music fighting each other, the tone through out becomes utterly schizophrenic.
The extensive use of stock sound effects also is distracting. While it can be used for comedic effect, like the squirrel with the monkey sound, other times it is just highly obnoxious. York’s flat sounding footsteps clap loudly throughout. The very distinctive stock sound of a creaking door opening will be seared into your eardrums. Even the gunfire sounds are extremely weak and lack any punch at all.
Deadly Premonition is so rough that it is a miracle that York never clips or falls through the world. There is never a moment when it feels good to play or doesn’t look profoundly crude. In spite of so many things working against it, Deadly Premonition Origins is worth playing to experience its finer aspects. The scenario and details are good enough to carry the game through the stress of the gameplay.
Deadly Premonition has been released on several platforms, since its debut on Xbox 360. No matter which version you go with, it comes with some technical issues or old flaws. Xbox One backwards compatibility can run the original game mostly fine, but is prone to data corruption and emulation glitches. If you can handle that and the original control scheme, then this is the way to play.
The Director’s Cut on PlayStation 3 is rife with nasty frame rate drops through out the entire game, and has a few extra cutscenes that frame the narrative. Deadly Premonition Origins on Nintendo Switch is almost exactly like the PlayStation 3 port but with the new cutscenes removed, likely due to them possibly conflicting with the 2020 sequel.
When the Director’s Cut came out, nobody expected that Suehiro would ever return to Deadly Premonition. Not that it matters much, since the added scenes that are cut do not add anything and are easily ignored or forgotten.
When people say that Deadly Premonition is “amazing,” it is because it is such an impressively assembled disaster that they cannot help but admire the effort. Hidetaka Suehiro missed his calling in life, and probably should have been a novelist or a screenwriter. Game development is difficult, and there are a huge amount of variables and factors to consider when building a game to be sold as a product.
Maybe the man bit off more than he could chew, and the project spiraled out of control. Perhaps he is blind to the faults of his game and is more interested in getting his point across; which is to stop and take things slow once in a while, and enjoy the little things in life.
Gaming is a bit more interesting with Deadly Premonition existing. It may not function that well, it’s ugly as sin, it’s often frustrating, but it is also is a very personal expression of a guy’s interests. When it is all over, it can feel like you have gotten to know Suehiro on some deeper level than other games could. Another reason why Deadly Premonition is so loved is that it is a very friendly game.
Deadly Premonition Origins was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a personal copy. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.