Deadly Premonition Review

By Matt Keil - Posted May 12, 2010

Deadly Premonition is that rare game that makes you question just about everything you think you know about what makes a game good. At first glance, it looks like a ridiculously sub-par D-list horror title, and, to a degree, it is. But Deadly Premonition is so joyously strange and uncompromising in its vision of what it wants to be that it transcends the clunky controls and pedestrian combat and becomes something almost elegant.

The Pros
  • Strange and unpredictable story
  • Sharp satire of various pop culture phenomena
  • Tons of content for a low price
  • Twin Peaks fans will love it
The Cons
  • Many (intentional?) minor flaws in gameplay
  • Map is useless
  • Looks like a Dreamcast game

Deadly Premonition is that rare game that makes you question just about everything you think you know about what makes a game good. At first glance, it looks like a ridiculously sub-par D-list horror title, and, to a degree, it is. But Deadly Premonition is so joyously strange and uncompromising in its vision of what it wants to be that it transcends the clunky controls and pedestrian combat and becomes something almost elegant.

Above all, the game is a love letter to David Lynch’s cult TV series Twin Peaks. A young girl is murdered in a rural town, an FBI agent who talks to an unseen companion is called in, and the offbeat townspeople make the investigation anything but pedestrian. You’ve got the eccentric rich guy, the surprise cross-dresser, the lady who carries a pot around town (as opposed to a log), and Agent Francis York Morgan doesn’t even need a phone to contact his possibly imaginary partner.

Deadly Premonition

“This man’s stairs do not reach the attic.”

You play Agent York, whose apparent insanity anchors the entire game. At times he seems barely able to feign interest in the small town of Greenvale and its troubles. He's far more interested in talking to "Zach," the other person in his head, who is strongly correlated with the player. Oddly, nobody seems to find it all that strange that York breaks off in the middle of conversations to discuss things with Zach. There’s even a scene in which Emily, the attractive and fairly normal Sheriff’s Deputy, frankly discusses Zach’s presence in York’s head and comes away from the conversation romantically intrigued in York/Zach. Now that’s a smooth operator.

York is an oddly endearing character considering his arrogant behavior early on. He does seem to be a capable FBI agent, but what stands out most about him is his obsession with movies, music and videogames. While driving around the open world of Greenvale, you can often prompt York to talk out loud to Zach about subjects ranging from the time they saw a Ramones concert together to York’s secret preference of the Richard Donner Superman films over the original Star Wars trilogy. Following that latter confession, he admits that when he hums the Superman theme, halfway through it turns into the Star Wars theme and he doesn’t know why. The sheer volume of references throughout the game is incredible, ranging from direct discussion to more subtle thematic parallels.

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“The old rustic sucker punch, eh?”

In many respects, Deadly Premonition is strongly reminiscent of a really ambitious Dreamcast game. It has a lot of things it wants to accomplish, and almost accomplishes them in most places. It’s fairly ugly visually but has surprising moments of graphical flair. The cutscenes have odd and awkward pauses and the character models smile like sick pumpkins. It has a gigantic world to play in but makes you spend excessive amount of time driving along featureless country roads. The music often seems inappropriately funny for the scene it’s being played under. Deadly Premonition is a heavily story-driven open world survival horror game with comedy elements that could very well have been made circa 1999.

The kicker here is that while just about every element of the game is flawed, it feels suspiciously like the flaws are intentional. The map doesn't zoom out quite far enough to be useful, and the fact that it rotates based on the player’s orientation in the world makes it even more confusing. The combat sequences rely on a control scheme similar to Resident Evil 4’s, but the auto-aim isn't quite accurate enough to be worth using, while free aiming betrays the sketchy hit detection. QTE chase sequences are forgiving enough to be innocuous but slow-paced enough to be boring. The need to eat and sleep to keep up York's effectiveness is just prevalent enough to be irritating.

Deadly Premonition

“After the square dance, maybe we can all take a hayride.”

Yet the game allows you to skip just about any cutscene or extraneous “you got Item X” screen with a press of the start button. A fast travel option can be unlocked early on through the completion of simple subquests. You quickly get the distinct impression that the developers are screwing with your head on an extremely meta level. It's actually a rather ingenius balancing act. Deadly Premonition knows just when to distract you with another weird situation or wacky subquest. York routinely divines his fortune in his morning coffee, often with amusing results. All the town residents have tasks for you to complete, ranging from reorganizing storerooms to beating a long-standing darts score to rushing a crazy lady home before her mysterious cooking pot gets cold.

There’s no shortage of things to do thanks to the 50 subquests and 65 trading cards to collect. It’s surprisingly easy to end up with powerful weapons featuring infinite ammo just by doing a few people simple favors. The game is not afraid to reward you in ways that seem out of proportion to the effort you exerted. In particular, one quest awards you an item bag that expands your inventory from a measly 15 spaces to a whopping 44, completely eliminating any inventory management worries for the rest of the game.

Deadly Premonition

“I am the Sultan of Sentiment”


Despite all the hype and love X-Play has heaped on this game, I offer fair warning: It's entirely possible that you will hate this game. From a pure mechanical and design standpoint, it’s archaic and clunky. To look at it that way, however, is to throw out the presentational elements that make Deadly Premonition what it is. This is a strange and rare treat, and it’s a wonder that something so far out in left field managed to get made at all. For $20, it’s not too big a risk to take considering the potential payoff. If you’re in on the joke, this is the most bang for the gaming buck you’re likely to find this year. If you're a Twin Peaks fan and you remember the horror games of the previous two generations, you’re almost certain to fall in love with the town of Greenvale.

 

Can’t wait to play it? Why not rent it at Gamefly?