“Sounds like something you need to check out,” wrote my friend Ben Hoyt of 47Games. “Would love to hear your thoughts.” He was speaking of this.
Ben’s a good guy; a far better writer, and a much crueler – though undoubtedly more genuine – critic than I. Being a game-maker himself, he’s very hard on them. I’ve never known anyone more adept at dissection of game experiences. Ben also knows I like the occasional oddity, so whenever he stumbles across one he tells me about it.
Thus did I buy Deadly Premonition…
…which sat unopened for months, buried under a growing pile of new releases. Intrigued though I was by a game that promised to be an even mix of Twin Peaks, Silent Hill, and Pathologic, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little concerned over some of the more vitriolic vitriol that’s been spewed against the game. Survival horror in general has always had an issue with control structures, and Deadly Premonition – or, as it’s called in Japan, Red Seeds Profile, was apparently among the worst offenders. But the game has garnered an obsessive cult following, and having played for a good six hours I can see why.
As FBI agent Francis York Morgan (“call me York, that’s what everyone calls me,” he says, LITERALLY EVERY TIME HE INTRODUCES HIMSELF, after waving his badge in the face of whoever he’s talking to), you’re a profiler – an expert in the twisted minds of serial killers. You’ve come to the town of Greenvale, Washington to solve the gruesome murder of a local teen. You’re also a little bit crazy.
York is based on Kyle MacLachlan’s Special Agent Dale Cooper from David Lynch’s bizarre 1990s television series Twin Peaks. Cooper too was an FBI agent in the eponymous town, trying to solve the murder of a local teen. And Cooper was also a little crazy. Both Cooper and York carry on conversations with nonexistent people – in the game, York is always talking to an imaginary friend named “Zach,” who we’re supposed to assume is the player. York believes he can predict the future based on the pattern cream makes when poured into his coffee. His methods of investigation are peculiar to say the least. Whereas Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks was odd but likable, York is a socially retarded dick.
Deadly Premonition is incredibly weird, due in no small part to the weirdness of the protagonist. And it’s intentionally weird. The game is very well translated, and the acting is passable – the localization team did a good job of understanding that this game is supposed to be more than a little surreal.
I guess the best term to describe Deadly Premonition is “survival horror.” Here particularly you see a lot of Japanese influence: people bent over backwards, crab-walking toward you, scooped out eyes, shit growing out of the walls, stuff like that. Of course, it’s unclear whether any of these things are actually happening or they’re all in York’s mind. The smart money’s on the latter.
The game’s basically broken up into two things: getting your ass handed to you by monsters, and walking around investigating. They’re wildly different play experiences.
The ass-handed part is pretty standard survival horror, with the addition of even worse controls than you might usually expect. Traditionally in first and third person games, you go where you look – this is true whether using thumbsticks or the keyboard and mouse. Survival horror rarely does it this way. And Deadly Premonition has even stranger movement mechanics than that, but to be honest, once you get used to it it’s really not that hard. The controls are definitely the weakest point of an otherwise fascinating game, and the 360 controller isn’t well-utilized, forcing you to go to the game’s main menu to access stuff that should be a button-touch away. But the first, oh, four or five hours of the game are mostly action (insofar as survival horror is ever very actiony), and it gives you lots of opportunity to get the hang of the controls.
One thing that I do loathe is the game’s occasional dependence on Quick Time Events to manage scripted combats. You’re hounded by… I don’t know, like an axe-wielding evil Jawa or something, for much of the game, and avoiding him sometimes requires QTEs that will leave your thumbs in agony. These moments are very cinematic, but they hurt.
What’s most interesting about Deadly Premonition, though, is that those first four or five hours aren’t really representative of the game. It has survival horror elements, to be sure – but this is a game that refuses to be classified. Once you actually get to the town and begin your investigation, you understand what kind of world the creators have made here, and it’s really quite intriguing.
There are maybe 50 people of interest in Greenvale – some suspects, some just characters, and true to living world form, they go about their daily business. You have to know who they are, how they relate to one another (and the victim), and what each might have gained by killing this girl. Deadly Premonition is a full-on open world, where you roam the town, talk to people, conduct investigations, and search for clues while they conduct their lives. You want to ask somebody something and it’s around noon? Chances are she’s at the diner getting lunch. Need to snoop around someone’s house? Best to do it while they’re at work. You spend a fair amount of time driving around town, running errands, and trying to stay on schedule for scripted events, when you have to be in a certain place at a certain time.
Only seven or so hours in, I can’t tell you yet whether the “living town” aspect is as broken as it was in Oblivion or Fallout 3 or Pathologic. I can tell you that this game’s clunkiness does extend to much of the open world stuff, as you must sleep and eat as well as investigate. You even have to change clothes and send your suits out to be cleaned. Well, you don’t have to, but the game warns you that no one will want to talk to Pig Pen-like character in a nasty suit, shrouded in a mist of flies. And there are times when you go somewhere, expecting to be able to do something (like eat lunch at the diner), and there’s no way to do so.
I think the complaints leveled against Deadly Premonition’s controls are unfair; yes, the controls are weird, but so’s the game. For those who were driven away, I suspect it’s partly the controls, but more likely the increasingly long stretches between survival horror action sequences, when you’re wandering town trying to solve the mystery. That portion of the game can get dull; and it’s made much more unpleasant by a soundtrack that is so incongruous with the action I have to think that some mistake was made and this game got the wrong music.
Deadly Premonition is one of those forgotten games that materialize in the later stages of a console’s lifecycle. If you looked at the box you’d assume that it’s pure survival horror, and the boxy graphics hardly do the 360 justice. This is a game you’d likely pick up to look at while browsing at Best Buy, then put right back down. But for all its many idiosyncrasies, I must say that once again Ben steered me right – Deadly Premonition was something I needed to check out, and I’m glad I did.
Email the author of this post at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Great impressions, Matt. I bought the game a couple months back purely on the similarity to Twin Peaks… and the fact that so many people said it was horrible. I figured $20, at release, wouldn’t be too bitter a pill to swallow if it was really as bad as claimed. I’ve only managed to put in about 45 minutes, but I definitely got that Twin Peaks vibe. I plan to get back to it soon.
Toger, I think both you and Scout (as great fans of odd things) might really enjoy this one. I haven’t played enough to say whether it’s a good game or a bad one, but aside from controls and QTEs what I’ve seen is darned innovative and pretty clever. I’d love to hear the opinions of others.
I’m all for odd things but I don’t have an Xbox (or a PS3). Judging by the games under current discussion at Tap-Repeatedly, PC gaming is dead. Not really but I loved the iconoclastic thrill I get writing that.
I’ve had a soft spot for ‘living’ towns or villages ever since Lure of the Temptress and Beneath a Steel Sky came along with their casts of characters wandering around the environments. I like the fact that these games don’t seem to revolve around the player. I think Blade Runner (the game) was like this and more recently I got the same feeling with S.T.A.L.K.E.R. with it’s A-Life system, though certain characters do stand in the same place forever. I’ve always liked the feeling of being a tourist or visitor to a game and not an arbiter of it.
Anyway, this sounds a bit of an oddity but interesting nonetheless and it does seem a little Pathologic-al but still definitely Japanese. Unfortunately I don’t have a 360 though so- *raspberry*
I think that ‘investigative’ gameplay will have a lot of mileage in it as the game mechanics and dynamics get more refined. LA Noire, Heavy Rain, Pathologic and even to a certain extent Alan Wake before it was downsized all feature discovery and unearthing stuff which I think is a real cornerstone to gaming.
[…] mentioned Ben a couple posts ago, when I wrote about Deadly Premonition. And I meant what I said: never have I known anyone who can […]
This game has my interest, but the following point you make in your article makes me think, “ugh”
“You spend a fair amount of time driving around town, running errands, and trying to stay on schedule for scripted events, when you have to be in a certain place at a certain time.”
I can see why more and more gamers are clamoring for a living and breathing “living world” that makes the game more and more realistic. Yet, I’ve seen it done so bad and clumsy so many times now, that I also get frustrated…especially when it comes to that gotta be at a certain place by a certain time or no luck finding out what that character has to say. Still, how can I complain too much when the monsters all start doing the “crab walk” towards the antagonist when they’re in attack mode, haha.
Well, Lakerz, so far the “be at Point X at Time Y” have been very forgiving (it’s, like, “you need to get to the hospital and check out the coroner’s report before the place closes, and it’s 8:00am”), encouraging you to take some initiative in doing other stuff between required tasks. Of course, this might change further on. You’d really have to be careless to be late for something. I will say you drop dead pretty quickly if you miss a single meal, though, so it’s a good idea to carry some cookies around with you.
As for the crabwalking foes, you’d think that would be to your advantage, but they also do that Japanese-horror staple of zippily and shakily warping toward you, an effect that never fails to make me scream.
As a part of the aforementioned “cult” of Deadly Premonition… I think the positive things many people, including your average garden-variety gamer, have to say about DP are far more telling than the negative press, which tend to be either ill-informed (in that the person spent ten minutes watching an episode of Giant Bomb’s Endurance Run and never bothered to play it) or due to a lack of interest in trying to figure out the idiosyncratic controls. If most of the feedback you’ve been hearing about the game is that it’s horrible, you just haven’t been talking to the right people. Sure, it might seem like a goofy, clunky, awkward Twin Peaks homage at first, but stick with it. It’s got some narrative tricks up its sleeve, particularly in the last six hours, that put most bigger budget titles to shame.
And don’t read this month’s issue of Game Developer. Mild spoilers be contained within.
@Automatic Jack It’s funny you should mention Giant Bomb’s Endurance Run. That’s what convinced me to buy the game. But then, I’m all about the odd and bizarre.
I read this article when you first wrote it, Matt, but was a little confused as to why I had no idea what the game was or why I’d never seen it before. Turns out it’s not even available in Europe yet.. although that is allegedly changing soon!
At a £25 RRP I suspect this may be worth a shot. It sounds similar to Alan Wake in terms of style and setting at least, but sounds like it has an open world aspect that many criticised Remedy for dropping from Wake. I’ll be interested to see how that works in this sort of setting and theme having only just finished the very linear Wake.. as much as I enjoyed that despite the linearity.
Whenever I see this article pop up in the side bar I always spend a moment marveling at the header image. Her vacant stare, his bizarre neck. It all adds up.
And ironically, she’s one of the very few “normal” people in the whole damned town.
You’re right about his neck. I never really looked at it before, and now I feel like it’s looking at me. *shudder*
I still look for this game every time I enter a brick and mortar. Hard to find. Can’t even buy it on Amazon.ca.
@xtal – if you really want it, lemme know. It’s available on stateside Amazon for the low, low price of $12.94.
Thanks, Toger. I’ll keep it in mind!