Strictly speaking, Deadly Premonition is the epitome of mediocrity. The graphics, while serviceable, are what one would expect from a $20 bargain bin game, frequently using low-resolution textures. The controls are decent enough, though they are often stiff and unintuitive. While it combines many elements of classic horror games—the combat feels similar to Resident Evil 4, and the various “hide from the killer” segments are straight out of Clock Tower—none are executed as well as they were in their precursors.
And as odd as it may seem, none of these elements significantly hurt the experience, because Deadly Premonition is not about its mechanics or gameplay. Indeed, it is as if Access Games predicted the game’s numerous flaws, creating ways in which the player can bypass large portions of the gameplay. Weapons with infinite ammunition are easily obtained from sidequests, as is the radio, which allows the player to greatly reduce travel time by teleporting to any previously-visited location.
No, the true strength of Deadly Premonition is, strangely enough, its story and presentation. Not to say that either are excellent; both are ludicrous. But they are ludicrous in the greatest way possible, channeling the very best B-movie tropes. Hilariously awful lines are spouted at often inappropriate times as cheesy music blares in the background. Plot points are largely inexplicable. Early on, the protagonist, FBI agent and all-around peculiar fellow named Francis York Morgan, discovers the next clue for his murder investigation in the Pacific Northwestern town of Greenvale by spotting the initials FK in his morning cup of joe.
Aiding York in his investigation of magical red seeds of death and the Raincoat Killer is his confidant and best pal Zach. York and Zach have a long and rich history, which York frequently discusses at length during the many long drives throughout the game. York loves himself some punk rock; the time he and Zach journeyed to the CBGB to watch The Ramones live in concert is one of his most cherished memories, and he wants both you and Zach to know it. At this point I should point out that Zach isn’t what you would call corporeal; he’s an alternate personality contained entirely inside York’s mind. Zach serves as an interesting analog for the player. Along with discussing Iggy Pop and classic ’80s cinema, York relays theories to Zach, attempting to explain the increasingly absurd events in Greenvale. It’s a unique, bewildering way to incorporate the player into the game, and it helps create an unexpectedly strong bond with Agent York.
Despite his speaking to Zach audibly in public, the other characters in Deadly Premonition rarely bat an eye at York’s conversations with the persona in his head. Perhaps this is because the entire population of Greenvale is as quirky and ridiculous as the FBI agent. For instance, there’s Thomas, the timid sheriff’s assistant whose affinity for wacky themes would land him a job at the Raccoon Police Department in a heartbeat. My personal favorite is Harry Stewart, a wealthy, reclusive, wheelchair-bound geriatric who never leaves home without his skull-shaped gasmask. Oh, and his favorite snack is the Sinner Sandwich, a devious dish consisting of turkey, strawberry jam, and cereal. Greenvale is a hell of a town.
Accentuating the peculiar town and its inhabitants are the unique gameplay decisions Access Games have made. While the core elements of the game—combat, driving, and exploration—are mediocre, Deadly Premonition demonstrates that it’s the little details that add to an experience. Along with monitoring York’s health, sleep, and hunger levels, the player must pay attention to his hygiene as well. Wear the same suit for too long and York will begin to smell, eventually attracting the unwanted attention of flies. Refuse to shave and York will gradually develop a scraggly 5 o’clock shadow. With enough negligence, York will resemble a disheveled homeless man rather than a federal agent.
Deadly Premonition is an open-world game, and while the vehicular controls are exceptionally clunky, exploring Greenvale is surprisingly enjoyable. Unlike most sandbox cities, Greenvale is a small town with a close-knit populace. Most residents have their own unique vehicles and routines, and following a citizen from the grocery store to the local bar is not only possible but encouraged, as the game’s numerous sidequests hinge on a familiarity with the community. The term “a living, breathing city” has always been used to describe the various locales in the Grand Theft Auto series, but in some ways Greenvale feels more intimate and alive than Liberty City. Over time, the player develops a bond with these crazy Greenvalians, and their eventual deaths at the hands of the Raincoat Killer are genuinely distressing.
Forcing the player to slog through an dull opening area populated with uninspired enemies, Deadly Premonition makes a terrible first impression. The gameplay is just inoffensive enough to keep the player going. Stick with it, though, and one will find something that has becoming exceedingly rare this generation: a true B-level game. An absurd plot with equally absurd characters combined with odd music and perplexing dialog make for a unique experience not unlike watching midnight screening of a cult classic. Just don’t be shocked if you find yourself becoming emotional during the surprisingly touching final act.
Developer: Access Games
Based on: One man's love of the surreal, a David Lynch-like perspective on the sandbox genre, and the definition of "cult classics."