Deadly Premonition Review—Something in the Coffee

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Deadly Premonition is a game fully dedicated to being strange. I didn’t get a chance to play it when it was initially released for the Xbox 360, but I distinctly remember everyone I knew telling me that I had to play it. The caveat here is that no one could really tell me anything good about it. Everyone was pretty emphatic that it was one of the best games of the year, however. Now that I’ve actually had a chance to play the Director’s Cut on PS3, I know exactly what they mean.

You play as U.S. F.B.I. Special Agent Francis York Morgan. Call him York, that’s what everyone calls him. York is a criminal profiler that specializes in serial killers, and he’s on the trail of a killer who places mysterious red seeds in the mouths of his victims. York is accompanied by his partner Zach, who is invisible, imaginary, a voice in his head, or a neo-shamanistic physiological construct that allows York to be in better touch with his own subconscious.

Anyway, when they aren’t having one-sided conversations about ’80s movies, York pretty much defers all of his important decisions to Zach, and the game leaves the choice up to you. Whenever the game needs to share important information with you, York tells it to Zach. So, in reality, I guess you actually play as Zach—the better half of a somewhat-functioning schizophrenic, riding around in a socially awkward York suit.

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The game opens with York and Zach on their way to the rural town of Greenvale. Greenvale is a fading lumber town with a dwindling population of people who are mostly insane.

There’s the dude who runs the general store who dresses like Billy Idol and dances in place to loud rock music only he can hear. The town’s only doctor is named Ushah; he wears a massive gold chain around his neck, is a millionaire, and spends his days in the morgue doing research. The town gunsmith is either a hit man or an international arms dealer, or both. There’s a morbidly obese man named Raging Bull who is pretty much perpetually angry at you for no reason. His wife dresses like a stripper and speaks only in sexual innuendo. Raging Bull and his wife run a gas station together. There’s also Sigourney, an old woman who runs aimlessly around town holding a crock pot.

Anyone who appears normal and doesn’t possess an immediately apparent and non-threatening mental illness is either violently insane or carefully hiding deep physiological scars that define their entire existence. The whole town is owned by an eccentric capitalist who wears a gas mask and is pushed around in a wheel chair, by a man servant who wears guyliner and who speaks for him. His servant addresses everyone by their full name, and ends his rhyming conversations by standing at attention and proudly proclaiming. “So says Mr. Stewart!”

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The actual gameplay of Deadly Premonition is more or less divided into two sections. The first is an open world sandbox where you can drive around town in a police car, visit with the various citizenry, stop at the diner, go to one of the town’s two bars, play darts, go fishing, race cars, and do various side quest that allow you to explore specific characters in more detail.

The second part of the game takes place in “The Other World”. This is a Silent Hill-style parallel reality that turns your immediate surroundings into a grimy shooting gallery full of shambling horrors. These monsters alternately beg for their lives or apologize to you and ask you to kill them while trying to choke you to death. It’s the second half of the game where things kind of start to peel at the seams.

The enemies in Deadly Premonition come in three flavors and all three use the same five character models. This wouldn’t be that big of a deal by itself, but even the different types of enemies don’t really behave in a way that alters the way you deal with them: you just have to carefully aim for the head and fire. They usually give you plenty of time to take your shot, and only move toward you in a straight line.

If you move through an area carefully enough you can usually pop your enemies in the back of the head before they even see you coming. You can also avoid them entirely by just running around them. They pose no threat to you, so after a while dealing with them starts to feel like a chore. The only way these monsters will be able to kill you is if you aren’t paying attention.

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99% of your deaths will come at the hands of a character I like to call Quick Time Event Man. We’ll say that I’m calling him that to avoid spoilers, when really, I just like saying Quick Time Event Man. Now, I’m not the kind of person who adheres to the idea that quick time events are inherently bad. I remember a time when everyone thought they were awesome.

That said, Quick Time Event Man is a case study on how not to implement a quick time event. They happen abruptly, give you almost no time to react, and nearly always result in an instant death that forces you to replay sections of the game before trying again to hit the button fast enough to not die. The button changes each time, too.

Every interaction with Quick Time Event Man gets longer and more complex as the game progresses. Even running away from him requires you to react to on-screen prompts while wiggling the left analog stick. The game already has a run button! Having a quick time event for that doesn’t even make sense!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MAyYq1h1lQ8

I did enjoy playing Deadly Premonition, however. In fact, I love this game. I haven’t played something so willing to blend genres and experiment (even if not everything works) in this entire console generation. It feels like you’re playing a video game. It’s full of video game concepts that require suspension of disbelief, that exist only to improve the game play, and the game is willing to do this at the expense of even aesthetics or an appeal to realism.

You get points for things like remembering to shave, for talking to people, and for collecting trading cards. You lose points for forgetting to change your clothes or by running out of gas. Also, you can carry a ham in your pocket or take naps on a bed in the middle of the cemetery. The overall weirdness of the game and the narrative work together to deliver an experience you can only have playing a video game.

This version of the game comes with PlayStation Move Support, as well as support for 3D televisions. The waggle controls do work well and feel a bit better than something that was just tacked on. I still don’t feel like they added a lot to the experience, and I still preferred using my DualShock 3. But if you’re a fan of PlayStation Move, this is another game to add to your collection.

Similarly, while I do actually own a PlayStation 3D TV, I have learned that I actually don’t like playing video games while wearing dark glasses. The 3D effects are noticeable, and the motion control and 3D options certainly don’t take anything away from the experience. They’re nice bonuses, there for those who want them.

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I think Deadly Premonition, more than any other game we’ve reviewed so far, is the kind of game our kind of reader will appreciate. It isn’t pretty; the controls are awkward; the music, sounds, and voice acting are sub-par; the story is intentionally confusing; and the characters are deliberately bizarre and not relatable. Still, it’s a special game that offers a singular experience.  It very clearly draws on games like Silent Hill, Shenmue, and Flower, Sun, and Rain, but it isn’t like them at all. It’s its own creature.

Deadly Premonition is a game that doesn’t do any one thing spectacularly well, so it’s kind of hard for me to tell you to buy it for any one reason. Most games, even games I don’t enjoy, usually have at least one thing they do really well. That simply isn’t the case here.

However, I did enjoy it. Deadly Premonition was one of the most interesting, memorable, fun video games I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing in a long time. It’s a testament to the idea that a game is greater than the sum of its parts. Deadly Premonition: HD Director’s Cut is available now for PS3 and hits the PC on Halloween.

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John Sabin

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