No score, just premonitions
Before I launch into the meat of my review of Access Games and Rising Star Games’s PS3 release of Deadly Premonition: The Director’s Cut, I need to give you a little background information. I’ve been a gamer for a long time now. Hell, I was a gamer before the word ‘gamer’ even entered the lexicon. I played games on the Atari 2600, where I had to read the blurb on the box in order to discover that the weird, jaggy blue and red blob I controlled was supposed to be a fireman. I spent many an hour of my formative years in dingy arcades, where the strangeness of the games didn’t hold a candle to that of the patrons. I currently own over 200 games from the current console cycle, and that doesn’t even include downloaded titles or DLC. In short, through the course of my life I’ve played a lot of games. So, when I tell you that Deadly Premonition is quite possibly the most baffling, confounding and bizarre game I have ever played, you should take me seriously.
Let me be clear: as a self-respecting gamer (or a gamer who’s not filled with self-loathing, at any rate), I should absolutely detest this game. I’ll get into that shortly, but the crucial point is that, for some reason I’m not even sure I can explain, I don’t. In fact, at this point I have purchased and played through this game in its entirety on both the 360 and the PS3, even going so far as to get the platinum trophy. So, without further ado, let’s get into it, and maybe… just maybe, the mystery of why this game is so deceptively alluring will be solved. And buckle up, folks… it’s gonna be a long ride…
You’re cast in the role of FBI Special Agent Francis York Morgan (just call him York… everyone does), sent to the pacific northwestern town of Greenvale. York, along with his imaginary friend Zach, is tasked with investigating the brutal murder of Anna Graham, a waitress at the local diner. It’s not long before you discover the mysterious red seeds, which have been cropping up at crime scenes around the country, and the hunt for the Raincoat Killer begins in earnest.
Deadly Premonition is part murder mystery, part survival horror (well… horror anyway. Survival really isn’t an issue.), and part open world adventure. The town of Greenvale is a bizarre, sprawling affair in itself. The hospital is set miles away from the town center, and is absurdly large for a town of a few hundred people. Similarly, the town is home to a ridiculously large art gallery, even more isolated and inaccessible than the hospital. In fact, the entire layout of Greenvale is sprawling and implausible.
The unintuitive layout makes navigation… let’s say “awkward”. There’s no GPS or anything along those lines; merely a marker on the horizon indicating the direction you need to go. Getting on a road that appears to point directly at said marker is, however, no guarantee you’ll actually reach your destination. There are numerous winding and unconnected roads that don’t actually lead where you think they will, often forcing you to do a lot of backtracking until you learn the terrain. While in a vehicle, you have a mini-map, and one of the changes in the director’s cut is that you can now expand it on the fly. Sure, it’s a bit too opaque, takes up way too much of the screen, and still only shows an area of about three blocks around you, but it does come in handy on occasion.
Speaking of maps, one of the strangest design aspects of the original game remains unchanged in this iteration: There is absolutely no way to view the whole map in-game. When you bring up the map on the pause screen, it only shows your surrounding area, and because of the rambling nature of the municipality, your objective is often quite a ways off screen. Your best recourse is often to find the waypoint, then carefully backtrack to your location in the hopes you’ll be able to retrace your footsteps. I should mention that there is a sidequest that can be done fairly early on (if you can find it), which rewards you with a fast-travel item, making navigation far less taxing.
Driving has been dramatically improved in the director’s cut, meaning that if you want to turn a corner you only have to plan for it about half a block ahead of time (rather than the block and a half required on the 360). The best comparison I can make is that the cars in Deadly Premonition steer like the boats in Grand Theft Auto IV, only without the choppy water. As there’s no analog acceleration, cars essentially have two speeds: Go and Stop. There are fewer than a dozen vehicles to choose from (purchased from the scrapyard), and most of them top off at about 65 mph (and about 10 mph in reverse). The exception is York’s own car, unlocked after a series of sidequests. It gets up to a whopping 85 mph, but has an unfortunate tendency to abruptly pivot around one tire (as if it were suddenly glued to the road), slamming you into guardrails and the like. (I actually exited my vehicle at one point and discovered that it was balanced on one tire… the other three were hovering about six inches above the ground.)
At specific points in the investigation York is transported to an ‘other world’ version of the area, and this is where all the combat takes place. There are many different firearms and melee weapons within the game, and though ammo is plentiful, the melee weapons degrade and break over time (if you choose to use them… which you probably won’t). The combat is slightly more refined than it was in the original, but the need to stop in order to shoot still makes it pretty clumsy. That hardly matters, though, since the combat is ridiculously simple in spite of the somewhat wonky controls, particularly if you complete the sidequest which grants you a submachine gun with unlimited ammo (oddly one of the earliest sidequests available). There are no difficulty settings in the director’s cut, and the default is the equivalent of playing on Easy on the 360 version.
There are roughly a dozen enemy types in the game including bosses. Most of them amount to black and white zombified versions of random townsfolk. They pose little threat as they shamble towards you, moaning out “Don’t kill me” and “I don’t want to die”, all in the same sepulchral voice (whether they’re male or female). I can’t discuss the bosses at all, despite how badly I want to, because it would be virtually impossible to do so without revealing significant spoilers.
Outside of your investigation, there are 50 sidequests to complete, many of which can only be acquired at certain times and may also be dependant on whether or not it’s raining. They aren’t marked on your map, so you really have to speak to everyone in town at various times and places in order to sniff them all out. A few of them provide more background to the story, but most are just excuses to interact with the quirky denizens of Greenvale. The tasks run the gamut from answering multiple choice trivia about the town, to rearranging boxes in a storeroom, to driving a woman home before her “pot gets cold” (while she perpetually berates you for driving too slowly). Completing each task grants you a reward which is usually one of the 65 game-related trading cards, but can occasionally earn you something quite useful. For example, there are three sidequests which garner you special weapons, though these annoyingly cause permanent waypoints to be added to the map and the horizon, even after completing them.
The graphics are subpar at best, and downright awful at others. There are numerous textures within the game (particularly in the forested areas) which look like they were lifted right out of a PS2 game. The vehicles on the road are boxy, minimally detailed and come in about three different colors, one of which is exactly the same as the pavement, rendering them virtually invisible (particularly at dusk). Oh, and no matter how hard you crash into them they take no damage… in fact, they don’t even alter their course. Some of the character models are actually fairly good, such as that of Deputy Emily Wyatt, though all are inexpertly animated. I was quite astonished to see a mo-cap studio listed in the credits, since the character movements often seem more like jerky stop-motion, rather than fluid motion capture fare. Facial animations are particularly creepy, with mouths that are far too pointy at the corners; making friendly smiles appear evil and malicious.
The voice acting is passable, though much like the animation, it often feels clunky and disjointed. The music is one of the stranger aspects in a game already drowning in ‘strange’. For a game filled with brutal ritualistic murders and supernatural horrors, the tunes seem largely out of place. One in particular, a jaunty ditty with an acoustic guitar and whistling, seems like it was lifted out of a Banjo-Kazooie game. This song often plays at times when it makes absolutely no sense, and completely contradicts the tone of the scene.
The plot has been compared by many to that of Twin Peaks. I’ve never been a fan of David Lynch, so I really can’t address that. I will say the story is bizarre, convoluted, and falls well outside the realm of plausibility. There are many unexpected twists (mostly because they make no sense), though the big reveal at the end really shouldn’t come as much of a shock.
Everyone seems more like a caricature, rather than an actual person, except the aforementioned Emily Wyatt. This appears to be a deliberate decision in order to make her a focal point of York’s visit. There are dozens of other characters you’ll interact with, and nearly all of them are over-the-top weird. I’m not going to expand on that more than this, since discovering these quirks is one of the best parts of the game.
Most of the as-yet unmentioned changes in the director’s cut come in the form of additional cut scenes at the beginning and end of the game, as well as in-between chapters. Even if you never played the original, you’ll easily be able to pick them out, as their visual fidelity is significantly better than the rest of the game. They still fall far short of today’s standards, but they definitely illustrate that the team has gotten better at their jobs. Other than the graphical upgrades, there are some other glaring inconsistencies, both with the game and within those scenes themselves. Then again, in Deadly Premonition, that’s kind of to be expected.
There are so many other aspects of this game which deserve attention. What about the world’s easiest fishing game, amounting to pressing X when it tells you to? Or the ‘races’, which only present even a nominal challenge because the cars are so unresponsive? Or the fact that the in-game clock is one-quarter speed, so one full game-day takes six real-world hours? And let’s not forget the five minute long 25 mph low speed chase. Still, I’ve barely scratched the surface of its oddities.
But here’s the thing: In spite of all the flaws, all the missteps, all the inexplicable design decisions made, somehow it all works. There’s a strangely compelling aspect to the game that’s beyond explanation. I found myself almost inexorably drawn back to the town of Greenvale, and that attraction didn’t fade, until I had uncovered all the secrets it had to offer. The final cutscene, added to the director’s cut, makes it clear that a sequel based around New Orleans is in the works, and so help me I’m actually looking forward to it. The weirdest part? I hope they don’t fix too much.
There is no way to accurately reflect this game with a numerical value, as you could make an argument that virtually any score reasonably reflects the game. Ranking it as a 3 would be every bit as legitimate and justifiable as giving it a 7. By the same token, ranking it as a 5 in order to imply balance between the good and bad aspects would be a cop-out, and not a fair means of rating the game. In fact, trying to sum-up Deadly Premonition in a pat score is I feel quite literally impossible, so for the first (and quite probably only ever) time since I started reviewing games here at P2R, I’m not assigning a score.
Tested on PS3