The tone is set for the game from the intro sequence, which involves two young boys plucked straight from the Uncanny Valley stumbling across a semi-naked woman, chained to a tree, covered in blood – don’t worry censorship fans, her nipples are covered by her hair, so it’s all okay. It’s a testament to the low quality visuals that the boys look completely unsurprised by this turn of events – in fact, they look more astounded at a ladybird flying off their hands shortly after. As you’ve probably guessed from this, there’s been a ritualistic murder in town, and it’s your duty as an FBI agent to investigate the crimes – as you seem to take an unhealthy interest in the grotesque murder of young women. Everybody needs a hobby.
If that wasn’t enough to tell you, our protagonist is a little on the unusual side, and probably the most interesting video game lead in years. He falls into none of the gaming cliches – he’s not a steroid pumped meat-head, a suave special agent with a line for the ladies, or even a partially clothed and chest-augmented woman. Francis York Morgan (“Call me York, everybody else does”) is a rude, socially obnoxious FBI agent who has interesting mental health quirks. Throughout the game he talks to Zach who, as far as the player can tell, doesn’t exist. Very few characters in the game acknowledge this eccentricity, but it is constant throughout. Even on long car journeys you have the option to start York chatting at Zach, reminiscing about punk rock, and his encyclopedic knowledge of the kind of B movies that clearly had some influence on the game itself.
So what does the game actually involve? At least 15 hours of open world exploration (though a lot of it is cutscenes), conversations and scripted action sequences influenced by the likes of Resident Evil 4. There’s even races, fishing and darts to keep you busy when you’re not on the main adventure, or one of the game’s many side-quests. If you’re thinking this sounds like a dream combination of Alan Wake, Grand Theft Auto and Resident Evil, prepare for reality to hit hard – while the game has elements of all three, it has the polish of none.
The cars handle like bricks strapped to skateboards, randomly veering off the road whenever they feel like it. They’re capped at 60mph, and you can collide head-on with other vehicles and just bounce off, and for some reason they have a petrol meter, meaning its possible to run out of gas in the middle of nowhere. True, this seldom happens (and you can buy flares – the survival item, not the fashion accessory – to signal for help if it does), but its a bizarre concession to reality in a game that strays well clear of it with its barmy plot. Equally, you’re expected to eat and sleep throughout the game – failing to do either will result in your health plummeting rapidly until you correct the situation. For that reason your inventory quickly begins to resemble the contents of an National Rifle Association picnic basket as cans of pickles and steak dinners sit uncomfortably alongside 12 gauge shotguns.
The action segments are distinctly unpolished too. The camera hovers at a particularly unhelpful angle, right behind York, which means enemies regularly spring from nowhere, and being surrounded becomes a nightmare in all the wrong ways. When the camera does change as you head downstairs, the game completely disorientates you, sending you straight into a wall.
The game defies convention and ties aiming of weapons to the right trigger, locking York from moving and becoming a clumsy aiming mechanic, where headshots are often given despite there being clearly no headshot in sight. On top of this, a light arc seems to permanently stick out of York’s chest rather than out of a flash light as reality favours, and melee weapons break after a handful of hits, while the pistol ammo is infinite.
The game breaks down in to Quick Time Event sections, where you need to press buttons before something nasty happens – but the twist here is the nasty thing turns out to be a game over screen. With only one save slot, the annoyances quickly add up. In short, it feels accidentally counter-intuitive at best, and bloody minded at worst. In these quick time event chase scenes, you sometimes have to go from frantically waggling the analogue stick to pressing buttons to push a crate out of the way, watching the painfully slow animation take shape as the nightmarish creature casually creeps up behind you. The oddest thing is the attention to detail in absolutely meaningless ways – despite all of these faults which could have been fixed, somewhere a developer ensured that York will gradually grow a beard as time passes if you don’t shave, and that flies will hover around the “stinky agent” (their words, not mine) if you don’t change and clean your clothes.
Probably the game’s worst offence though is that it doesn’t seem to have a clue about pacing, and certain segments really outlive their welcome. This is particularly true of the boss fights, which seem to take far longer than necessary – you can have worked out exactly what to do to resit taking damage, but you’ll have to repeat the same gestures for a good 10 minutes each time – and one slip up sends you straight back. The game actually knocked a whole mark off its rating with one such section, which required you to waggle the analogue stick for a good 5 minutes at high speed, while occasionally tapping out QTEs on the face buttons. After the 10th restart on the cruel section, my arm had had far more of a workout than your average Wii Fit session provides.
But here’s the surprise – after a few hours, none of this seems to matter. You accept all of its quirks, and, if you’re anything like me, you can’t stop thinking about it when you put it down. Perhaps it helped that I wasn’t playing anything more modern that might put it to shame (for example: any PS2 game), but I actively looked forward to returning to Greenvale, with its cast of well drawn characters and intriguing storyline. All of the occupants have daily routines depending on the weather, and tracking them down for the many side quests can be a full time job in itself.
Fortunately, unlike Dead Rising, while all of the tasks require you to be places at specific times, there’s no penalty for missing them and going back the next day. Doing these side quests can be hugely beneficial, giving you perks like a radio which eliminates the need to endure the horrendous driving scenes (though also York’s chats with Zach), or extra powerful weapons with unlimited ammunition. True to form though, the game makes no effort to highlight the existence of side quests or even the ability to wander off on your own, and it’s only around day 4 that you figure it out for yourself, meaning you have to replay older chapters while ignoring the story’s instructions to get some of the best perks.
The game also delivers a few shocks and frights along the way. It made me jump a few times, and some of the sections with the Rain Coat Killer (a legendary serial killer who may or may not exist) are quite tense, and require you to hold your breath at the right moment so as not to be heard. The story certainly earns its age rating as well, with many overt sexual references as well as some gruesome descriptions of ritualistic killing. If the phrase “he chewed off her tongue” turns your stomach, then you may be better off looking for something less graphic. The story itself is thoroughly intriguing in a Twin Peaks kind of way, with plenty of twists and turns along the way to keep you guessing as to which of the cast members (the ones left alive, anyway) could be the mysterious red coated villain. Though true to form, it does lose its way badly in the final fifth here, but no worse than, say, Heavy Rain did.
I’ve already touched on the presentation elsewhere, but to recap it’s no oil painting – unless said oil painting was punctuated with low draw distances, plain textures and screen tearing. Animation is equally terrible with a series of stock movements incorporated on a loop with various characters – making York run resembles a drunk man miming ‘slalom skier’ in an incompetent game of charades. Bizarrely the facial animations are pretty good considering, and you can see furrows on eyebrows when characters are concerned and shock on the faces at other times, which often leads to more hilarity.
In particular, one scene where over dinner York discusses a past killer who decapitated women, collected their skulls and used them as both urine and drink containers is made all the better from the shocked expressions on the faces of his dining companions. Sound is equally hilarious, though this time perhaps unintentionally. Not only do the otherworld zombie-spirits in the action segments have only two phrases (“Don’t kill me” and “Kill me now” in a typical moment of contradiction), but the game only has around 3 pieces of music in its soundtrack, which it plays seemingly at random – meaning you can have a jazz number playing over the top of a gruesome autopsy. It goes without saying, of course, that the music is mixed in such a way that sounds routinely drop in and out – it’s a good thing the game has subtitles, as the speech is often drowned out in the face of incongruously jaunty jazz riffs.
But I have to stress that none of this seems to matter if you’re as hooked by the story and characters as I was. Deadly Premonition is an absolute mess of a game in almost every way imaginable, but somehow it works – doubly so if you find a bit of B-Movie budget quality endearing in a sector that often relies on over-serious battles of space marines and monster shooting. It would be misleading of me to give it any more than a 5 – it’s just too broken to recommend to most gamers, but if what I’ve said has intrigued you, then I urge you to hunt down this budget title and give it a go. If you can stomach its many, many issues, then Greenvale is an amazing place to visit. Just be glad that gaming technology has come on long enough that you don’t have to live there. Isn’t that right, Zach?
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