Occasionally while on one of my expeditions to my local Gamestop, I will come across a title that somehow managed to slip by me undetected prior to it's release, Deadly Premonition is one such game. At the time, I had no knowledge of it's troubled development history, nor was I aware of SWERY, the game's enigmatic director. There was just something about the box that caught my eye, a hooded figure with glowing red eyes and an axe resting on his/her shoulder. It's the kind of ridiculous in your face cover art that you just don't see anymore. I immedietely knew that this was the game for me.
Honestly, all I expected as I popped the disc in the tray, was a half-decent survival horror game to kill some time with, perhaps a few plot twists here and there to keep me on the edge of my bucket. What I actually got was one of the most insane, hilarious and downright brilliant gaming experiences I have ever had in my life. There is simply nothing else out there like Deadly Premonition, the graphics are PS2 era at best, the controls are clunky and unresponsive and the combat is unforgivable, but believe me, underneath the ugly exterior lies a truly special videogame with a heart of gold.
In Deadly Premonition, you take the role of Francis York Morgan (or just York, as he insists on being called), a coffee loving FBI agent with a split personality named Zach whom he openly speaks to at length. At the beginning of the game, York is on his way to the remote town of Greenvale to investigate the murder of a local woman named Anna Graham. Shortly after he arrives, it becomes clear that all is not quite as it seems in Greenvale, zombies stalk the streets at night and there is an axe brandishing lunatic on the loose whom the townspeople have affectionately branded 'The Raincoat Killer'. I was all like "Yo, that's the dude from the cover" but there was no one else in the room to give me a high five.
The game plays like the lovechild of Resident Evil 4 and Grand Theft Auto. The town of Greenvale is an expansive sandbox that you're free to explore at your leisure. There are hidden trinkets dotted around the map and almost every supporting character will have a unique side mission for you. The main missions normally unfold in building interiors and this is undoubtedly when the game is at it's weakest. Running down nondescript hallways while futilely trying to avoid hoards of zombies was never going to set the world alight, but luckily these sections are short and rarely troublesome. I would urge you to play the game on the easy difficulty as that will help a great deal and you would only be sacrificing one measly achievement that your friends probably wouldn't notice anyway!
So the gameplay is dated and the graphics would upset a blind man. What is it then, that makes Deadly Premonition so special? Well it's all down to the characters and story. Comparisons to David Lynch's fantastic TV series Twin Peaks are seemingly endless, but Deadly Premonition still somehow manages to feel utterly unique. Each and every resident of Greenvale (and there are alot of 'em) has their own name, backstory and idiosyncracy that makes them stand out, like Roaming Sigourny, who carries a pot with her everywhere she goes or Harry Stewart, who's face is always hidden behind a gas mask. On top of that they each have a routine that they follow throughout the day, there is alot of fun to be had in following your favourite characters around town to see what they get up to, you may even stumble across some very suspicious behaviour from certain characters if you're in the right place at the right time.
York himself is a wonderfully realised character. While driving to missions, he will normally start a one sided conversation with Zach about his favourite eighties movies and the various punk bands that he listened to when he was a teenager. In these conversations we assume the role of Zach as we quietly listen while York tosses around factoids at an alarming rate. The relationship between the two personalities is always facinating but it's also a clever trick to allow York to narrate the events of the game without coming off as cheesy, a la Alan Wake. By the end, York feels more like a trusted friend than a fictional character in a videogame, that in itself is quite an achievement.
The overarching narrative has it's flaws, but for the most part it's a well told, well executed tale. Best of all there is no Heavy Rain misdirection bulls*** when the killer is finally revealed, if you were paying attention you will know who the killer is long before the final boss battle, which by the way is so insane, that you will have trouble sleeping for weeks afterwards. As I mentioned before, each supporting character has their own back story that you can piece together from speaking to them throughout the game, the deeper you go the darker it gets; voyeurism, child abuse, sexual orientation, Deadly Premoniton doesn't shy away from the more complicated subjects and this adds a geuinely disturbing sense of realism to the otherwise bat-s*** crazy town.
Special mention has to go to the soundtrack, for you couldn't find a more inappropriate collection of songs for a horror game if you spent the rest of your life trying. When you think of music in horror movies and games, you usually think of detuned pianos and pizzicato strings, but Deadly Premonition goes for bright acoustic guitar riffs and jazzy sax solos. It adds to the charm but it does feel like the music was an afterthought.
When all is said and done, I can't really explain why I love this game. It gets so much wrong but try as I may, I just can't stay angry at it. All I can say is that Deadly Premonition is a truly original experience that will linger in the mind long after the end credits have rolled. If you belive that gaming can be something 'more' then I urge you to at least give it a try. What have you got to lose? Apart from your mind of course.