Deadly Premonition is a game that betrayed my expectations in many ways. I remember seeing it on the racks of the game store quite a while ago. The gruesome woman screaming on the front cover was quite difficult to forget. I had thought it was either a zombie game or perhaps a survival-horror game. After all these years, I finally managed to play the Director’s Cut, and I was surprised to find out that the cover had given me entirely the wrong first impression. Sure, there are zombie-like monsters in the game, but this is hardly the focus.
Through the game, you control Francis York Morgan, a quirky, socially awkward yet charming FBI agent working to track down an elusive serial killer that has been taking lives across the US. York’s search has taken him to the quaint, remote town of Greenvale, where the life of a teenage girl was recently claimed, since he suspects it’s the murderer’s newest victim. However, the situation immediately goes awry as, after a violent car crash that wasn’t entirely his fault, he has to trek his way to Greenvale on foot, and wouldn’t you know it, the way is filled with monsters.
Already, there are hints of strangeness. Who is this Zach that York keeps talking to? Are you Zach? The game seems to imply from the very beginning that you are not, in fact, playing York but instead playing an alternate personality who takes over during times of action. This is an interesting storytelling mechanic since it allows you to act as the character while still pretending the character is yourself despite his lines of dialogue.
There is also a bizarre Red Room that seems inhabited by two “angels” with the faces of twin boys you’ll meet later (and indeed are the discoverers of the body in this murder), and, of course, the monsters that seem completely out of place in a seemingly normal – if unsettling – game.
The cadaver-like beings are Shadows, which appear only in certain segments of the game. In fact, Deadly Premonition can almost be completely cut into two halves—the investigation portion and the shooter portion. I feel that much of what is wrong with the game occurs only in the latter part of the game—poor controls, repetitive gameplay, lack of difficulty, and little monster variety—and it was by no means something I looked forward to every time such a section popped up. I will admit that it provides a change of pace, but on the flip side it serves as a sometimes frustrating distraction to the meat of the game.
But that’s enough of that. What I really like about the game can already be seen in the first few moments of the game, which you can see in the video below.
My favorite aspect of the game are the “meaningless” details you come across, and the game is rife with them. This simple conversation already begins to establish York’s habits and personality in just a couple minutes, though it holds little importance to the grand story. You even have a glimpse of some of York’s habits and mannerisms, which serve to solidify him as a defined person in your mind.
Another example of the details in the game comes from the side characters and their side quests. As York investigates, he will come across many colorful characters that seem like they could be real, but are on just that side of “out there” strangeness. Each of them has their own personality and side stories, which you can learn about through the side quests should you choose. In addition, they have their own schedules through the day that shift depending on where in the story you are – if you should choose, you can stalk a person through the day to see where they go.
All of the side quests are completely optional, but the game rewards you handsomely for exploring on your own. There is never any indication that there are even side quests to worry about. An example of this is how, right after you wake up at the hotel on the first day, York was told he needed to head over to the police station to review the murder. However, already you can forgo this and start embarking on your own investigation. You can head over to the victim’s house and talk to the mother, or you can question other suspects in the town. All of these are done at your own volition and have no bearing on the murder, but after completing some of the longer quests, you’ll find yourself with weapons and items that will greatly help your time in Greenvale, such as a device that lets you travel from one location to another instantly.
Another example is the seemingly meaningless actions you can take. For example, as you drive, you can turn on the blinkers and wipers. Though these obviously don’t affect how you drive (in a video game!), they are provided. You can have York shave, or you can let him grow a beard as the days pass on. You can have him drink coffee when you wish. You are encouraged to change your suits regularly because they’ll grow dirty and ragged over time. If you don’t, you’ll earn yourself a cash penalty for letting yourself become a slob, but this doesn’t really affect the game since there is very little you need to spend money on. You can make up for it easily anyways. I suppose the flies you attract can be distracting, but it isn’t a necessary component of the game.
This also extends to optional dialogue and scenes. After each chapter, you can talk to people and learn about their thoughts of the events, or sometimes you’ll just learn a bit more about the person. You can hear York’s one-sided musings about 80’s movies to Zach as you’re driving, or you can have lunch with the police you’re working with on the investigation and hear their (often hilarious) conversations.
It is amazing how these seemingly pointless accessories to the game enrich your experience. Perhaps this is because how they’re passively presented to you. It is all up to you whether you want to take the opportunity to explore or not. To me, it really shows how much effort the creators put into the detail and, as a side effect it helps make the game seem more “real” despite the strangeness, giving Deadly Premonition its unique atmosphere. However, should you wish, there is no need to do any of this. This, I think, makes all of these factors feel less like “fillers” and more like “additional content”.
Thankfully, most of the faults of the game are also non-critical. While I have a high tolerance for graphics, even I have to admit that these models aren’t the prettiest, and sometimes they even act up and glitch out. I’ve seen York’s tie poke through his back and half his suit go missing until the next loading point. The weapons and item storage system is a bit outdated, and sometimes the map won’t upload properly.
There are only two problems I had with the game that threatened my gaming experience. The first is the town map. Now, Greenvale is a very big place, and these West Coast towns our location is based off of are rather sprawling. Unfortunately, the town map you are provided with doesn’t zoom out. In addition, it rotates in the direction you are facing, making finding anything on the map a hassle unless you familiarize with the geography fast. It is actually suggested that you find an external map. (You can also purchase this map on your iPad for the iBook app with the newly released Deadly Premonition: The Director’s Cut – The Official Visual Companion.)
And then, of course, there is the frame rate and loading rate. Luckily, this never bothered me during action scenes, so I was never in danger of dying. However, it really brings you out of the experience when dialogue stutters in the middle of a line. Fortunately, I heard that this was only a problem with the PS3 version and not one with the old Xbox 360 original and the newly ported PC release.
I suppose the reason most of these faults don’t bother me so much because they rarely affect the core of the game – the investigation. In fact, I came to view some of the faults like the strange smile York had as a charm of the game (and even somehow fit it into the personality of the character).
Even the long shooting sections don’t bother me as much as they could have because I was always looking forward to the investigation afterwards. Deadly Premonition has a clear focus and it knows what it wants to do, and I believe the reason I enjoyed the game as much as I did despite its faults is because it achieves and, indeed, overachieves this goal – learning about Greenvale, getting to know the inhabitants there, growing to care about them, and learning about York.
Food for Thought:
1. I absolutely love the voices for this game. Interestingly, the Japanese version also had English voices.
2. There are a couple differences between the Director’s Cut and the original Xbox release for Deadly Premonition, but they didn’t affect my difference any. There are some extra scenes (that I’m not a fan of), but other than that, it’s just a more intuitive control scheme and updated graphics that make Greenvale seem more colorful than before.
3. The PC version apparently comes with the PS3 version DLC, which includes new suits, cars, and York’s very own house.
4. You’ve probably heard of this by now, but Deadly Premonition is essentially a love letter to the cult hit TV show Twin Peaks. References abound and it’s very hard to not attribute most of the strangeness in the game to influence from the TV show. The style of humor is also very similar.
5. Finally, there is one bug that I never encountered but is game-breaking. In certain chapters where you pick up a story key (chapters 5, 9, or 23), you can’t save and quit the game to replay previous chapter. Doing so will erase your story key and prevent you from continuing the game. As such, the only way around this is to just avoid replaying previous chapters during these chapters.
6. Am I the only one who feels bad about driving on the wrong lane of traffic in this game…?