Thursday, 20 January 2011

Deadly Premonition Review

Is Deadly Premonition a good game?

Deadly Premonition's Anna, strung up on a tree by the Raincoat Killer

That's the sort of question that a review is supposed to answer, but Deadly Premonition transcends notions of "good" or "bad" to the point where most of the reviews of the game are meta-reviews which point out how impossible it is to review the game. Because this review is talking about meta-reviews, it's a meta-meta-review.

Before we go any further, let's have a couple of quotes from reviews and meta-reviews:

IGN: "Awful in nearly every way."

Destructoid: "Pretty close to perfect."

The Telegraph: "Deadly Premonition ... is bloody awful"

Eurogamer: "Rambling and incoherent, a bit of a mess and not much to look at."

Somethingawful: "Simply the most incredible game released for any platform in years"

The worst reviews are fixated on the fact that Deadly Premonition features some of the most dreadful gameplay ever to grace the XBOX 360, whereas the best ones celebrate the game's ingenuity and balls.

Is Deadly Premonition a good game? Who cares? It's creepy, sweet, disturbing and silly in equal measure, and if you've got the patience to overlook the atrocious combat/driving/graphics/music/controls then you'll probably enjoy the ride.

Review over.

Well not really, but if you want to know whether I think you should buy this game, the answer is yes, please support the developer so that director SWERY (yes, that is his name) can make more games as idiosyncratic and wonderful as this.

Actually, it's almost a blessing that Deadly Premonition's gameplay is so woefully deficient - story is really all there is to talk about. Because big videogame releases typically have budgets larger than most films (and tend to dwarf their profits), reviewers and players alike have grown accustomed to dazzling visuals. Of course this is a good thing, but photorealism and ragdoll physics shouldn't be a prerequisite for a good game, especially since they require huge amounts of money and time which developers don't always have. After a year of technologically dazzling blockbusters (Bayonetta, Mass Effect 2, Red Dead Redemption), it's actually quite refreshing to discover a game so preoccupied with the little things.

Little things like protagonist Francis York Morgan's invisible friend Zach, who lives in his head.

Deadly Premonition Francis York Morgan talking to Zach

Zach is one of the most brilliant narrative devices ever to appear in a videogame, and knocks pretty much everything on this list into a cocked hat.

York is an eccentric F.B.I. agent sent to the small town of Greenvale to investigate the mysterious death of Laura Palmer-esque Anna, seen at the top of this article hanging from a tree. So far, so Twin Peaks. Although York initially appears to be Dale Cooper in all but name and pointy chin (he too is preoccupied with coffee and pie), he transcends his probable origins by circumnavigating the fourth wall.

I'm sorry, what?

According to SWERY in an interview with, "the relationship between Zach and York actually [...] ties the player holding the controller to the character inside the TV. There is a large gap between Agent York, the investigator on a case in Greenvale, and the player sitting at home eating popcorn, and there needed to be something to bridge the gap. In other words, Zach IS the player."

You see, whenever York talks to Zach, he's actually talking to you. Various games have tried to explain away the disparity between the player at home on the sofa and the character inside the television, but few have done it with such aplomb as Deadly Premonition. York talks to Zach out loud and frequently in public: the fact that most of Greenvale's residents never mention this is a recurring joke.

Exception to the rule is the rather lovely Emily, one of the most endearing love interests in videogame history (I'm not being hyperbolic here, she faces precious little competition).

Whilst the other characters either ignore or fail to notice York's conversations with Zach, Emily politely asks York about their relationship. Later in the game, when York is driving around Greenvale, he asks Zach whether he is attracted to Emily. Thus follows a bizarre one-sided conversation in which York assures Zach that their friendship is more important to him than anything, and should Emily express a preference for Zach then he would step aside.

The extra-corporeal love triangle which emerges between York, Zach and Emily is probably the most interesting and touching story thread in the game (though it features some stiff competition), and the resolution makes a strange kind of sense. You'll never see it coming, for a start.

Obviously I'm so keen for you to buy this game that I'm not going to include any spoilers. You will have to play to find out what happens to York, Emily and Zach.

Or look it up on Wikipedia.

As I've already mentioned, the overall design is heavily influenced by David Lynch's surreal lumber-town murder mystery Twin Peaks. (I'm pretty sure Emily's meant to look like one of Lynch's latterday muses, Naomi Watts). The diner looks almost identical to the one in Twin Peaks, and each member of the eccentric cast seems to have an analogue in the television show. Even the music sounds similar.

Although SWERY has spoken of his creative debt not only to Twin Peaks but to Western horror as a whole (he and the development team are Japanese, by the way), it's reductive to view Deadly Premonition simply as a homage to someone else's creative vision. There's just too much going on for a start. Where Twin Peaks deploys unsettling restraint, Deadly Premonition wades in with a genre-bending combination of factors which shouldn't ever be seen in the same game (fishing, zombies, cabaret, horticulture, flying dogs, cross-dressing, and a guy who looks like Blanka from Street Fighter) but that somehow manage to come together to create one of the most joyfully inventive games ever.


Because it features slow moving zombies, Deadly Premonition was marketed as a survival horror game. I suppose that's as good a bracket as any to place it it because the game defies categorisation. It's an open world game with driving like Grand Theft Auto, it's got creepy monsters like Silent Hill and it's a mystery like Professor Layton. Alright, it's nothing like Professor Layton, but it is a mystery.

When Anna is found strung up between trees at the beginning of the game, a chain of events is set in motion which culminates in York running a race against time to save the other women of Greenvale from suffering a similar fate.

In order to solve the mystery, York frequently has to wander into a parallel world and fight zombies. Now, there's no point beating around the bush here: Deadly Premonition's combat is dreadful. Its flaws range from the annoying to the downright unforgivabe.

Most of the issues clearly emerge from the game's low budget. There are only about five kinds of enemy, and they don't possess any AI. I'm glad that the game's resources were channelled into writing rather than fighting, so I didn't really mind the fact that the enemies all looked the same. But there were a couple of instances of unbelievably poor design.

Most notable here was a wall-crawling enemy who was only vulnerable when attacking, but who only attacks a couple of times a minute. Even with my most powerful weapon, it took about ten minutes to kill her. And no sooner had I done that then another one appeared. And then another. These triplets emerged about four times throughout the game, and killing them accounts for nearly three hours of my life upon planet Earth. I hope the fact that I didn't actually burn Deadly Premonition at this point demonstrates quite how much I wanted to know who the Raincoat Killer was.

The fact that Deadly Premonition's absurdy is coupled with rock-bottom production values have seen it dismissed as "so bad it's good". This does the game a disservice, not least because the term it is an oxymoron (well done Mary).

"So bad it's good" invariably refers to works which cannot be judged on the normal scale by which we like to think we can measure art or literature. Standard notions of believability, production and coherence are irrelevant to Deadly Premonition. It simply cannot be measured against games that are "good" (Red Dead Redemption, Mass Effect), and it cannot be measured against games that are "bad" (Wet, Earache Extreme Metal Racing) because it doesn't appear on the same scale. Comparisons between Deadly Premonition and more conventional fare are pointless.

Deadly Premonition is entertaining, intriguing and (most importantly) unique. Its story and cast are unlike any which have appeared in any medium, and whilst its lack of polish will probably see it overlooked as a classic, I hope that it influences future game developers, designers and writers as to how stories can be told in the interactive medium. In a recent interview with Edge, Alex Garland (script writer for Enslaved) says this:

"The games industry has some very serious problems to address. It seems to me that what’s happened is that in its organic development, it has leapfrogged some key stages and has jumped straight to bloated Hollywood megabucks, mega-resources-type products. That’s really dangerous."

Although the unprecidented acceleration of technology has done wonderful things for the scale of games, it hasn't necessarily done storytelling a lot of favours. Limitations tend to breed creativity, and the more resources you have at your disposal, the less imaginative you have to be when deploying them.

So perhaps its unsurprising that Deadly Premonition's innovation goes hand-in-hand with its tiny budget. With more money comes greater accountability, and it's likely that SWERY may have come under pressure to remove Deadly Premonition's more idiosyncratic elements had the financial stakes been higher.

Really, I can't put it any better than SWERY himself.

"We love every part of our game, even its flaws, so maybe it's fine how it is. The cutest children are the ones we have the lowest expectations of."

Deadly Premonition's Emily

Isn't that right Zach?

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