Deadly Premonition is a supernatural psychological thriller that draws heavily on David Lynch's Twin Peaks for inspiration. Players assume the role of Zach, the split personality of the irrepressible FBI Agent York who's been drawn into a remote rural community during the hunt for a deranged serial killer. Solving the case requires hunting for clues for Zach to assemble into a profile of the killer, exploring the town of Greenvale, meeting its diverse inhabitants and frequently engaging in survival horror action stages against hordes of nightmarish creatures.
York and Zach are a quirky and charismatic crimefighting duo rolled into a single person, with the wacky investigator frequently talking to his analytical alter ego about the case, 80s film trivia, and everything under the sun. He reads the future in his coffee- and can influence gameplay depending on his predictions. He suffers from bizarre dreams and hallucinations. He frequently needs to shave, sleep, smoke, chow down on bizarre foodstuffs (Pickles and Smoked Salmon, anyone?) and change his clothes to function effectively. York/Zach is a deeply flawed and witty human being rather than an implacable cardboard cutout, and is one of the most impressive lead characters that you'll ever command.
Everything about Deadly Premonition is as left-field and bizarre as Agent York himself (himselves?), and this provides the main draw of the game. The cast of characters include a mischievous coroner, an masked old man who speaks in rhyming couplets and an overt reference to Twin Peak's Log Lady. Trust me, watching the interactions between Greenvale's denizens is hilarious, engrossing and frequently surprising thanks to brilliant scripting and capable voice acting. Players will be able to take a break from the timed investigation missions to explore the town and engage in a little fishing or darts to pass the time. A range of weirdly inappropriate sidequests are also up for grabs to earn players a little extra scratch for weapons, ammo and all-important pickles.
Don't expect that this cynical quirkiness hides a mediocre narrative, though. Whilst you'll delight in watching the colourful cast of characters and enjoying Agent York's hilarious rambling monologues, the storyline is absolutely incredible in its own right. The hunt for the Red Seed Killer is macabre, compelling and full of twists that continually challenge players to change their preconceptions of the case. Frankly it's one of the best narratives I've experienced in a videogame, ever.
So far so good, but here's where things take a turn for the thoroughly divisive. The stonking storyline, kooky setting and masterfully-crafted characters would have conspired to create one of history's greatest cult television series (Twin Peaks included)... as well as an empirically great game if they were complimented with competent mechanics. Unfortunately almost every other aspect of Deadly Premonition is shoddy to the point of being completely broken.
The control scheme is clunky and cumbersome, revolving around single-stick movement that harks back to the bad old Resident Evil: Code Veronica days. York shambles about like a drunken freshman and aiming weaponry is an absolute chore. This makes getting anywhere a complete hassle, especially when coupled with awkward collision detection and deeply unresponsive vehicle handling that tops out around 60 MPH. It's especially noticeable in the survival horror sections, though at least it provides you with a good reason to keep your distance from enemies!
These action stages are deeply linear and overlong corridor crawls. Whilst they often succeed at creating a tense atmosphere, they also display some seriously basic flaws. There are only a handful of different foes in the entire game that usually resemble slow, stupid zombies that can easily be sprinted past or avoided once you've mastered the painful controls. Each enemy also only has a couple (literally, a couple) of sound effects that soon start to grate on even the most patient player. Disbelief needs to remain in constant suspension to ignore a number of glaring oversights: for example- but not limited to- the fact that the flashlight beam shines inexplicably out of York's chest, and the impotent standard handgun has infinite ammo on the regular difficulty modes. You'll frequently use it to shatter fences and boxes while saving bizarrely fragile steel pipes for use on enemies! Even bumping into the terrifying "Raincoat Killer" is a wasted opportunity because chase scenes devolve into quick time events long before they have a chance to get going. Still, the horror will make you jump every once in a while- and it's worth pushing through the action stages to reach the juicy exposition that lies beyond.
Deadly Premonition goes on to commit several dastardly crimes against considerate game design. Insta-fail Quick Time Events? A single save file that can lead to dead games? Abrupt changes in camera angle and movement direction? An useless map that still has to be checked every few seconds? Unintuitive menus? Weak tutorials? Unstackable achievements? Deadly Premonition is guilty on all counts, and many more besides.
Finally, the graphics and presentation are primitive to the extreme. The visuals resemble a low-end PS2 title; exhibiting pathetic texturing, frequent dips in frame rate, short draw distance, screen tearing and jaggyness galore. Whilst the audio fares far better, the surround sound mixing is utterly broken and results in many lines of dialogue being completely lost even through stereo speakers. At least plentiful subtitles pick up the slack.
- One of the most compelling stories ever told by a videogame
- Characters (especially Agent York) are spot on
- Frequently creepy and disturbing
- Clunky, primitive, repetitive gameplay
- Abjectly poor graphics and broken surround sound
- Downright shoddy production values; complete lack of polish
The Short Version: Viewed objectively, Deadly Premonition is undoubtedly one of the worst games to have been released in recent years. But if you 'get' it, you simply won't care. The story and characterisation are strong enough to force open-minded players to forgive each and every one of its numerous flaws. As such, I'd urge every Xbox 360 owner to give Deadly Premonition a weekend rental and stick with it for several hours. Most of you will hate it- with good reason- but invested gamers will discover a genuine cult classic that has no equal on the system.