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Deadly Premonition (Xbox 360) artwork

Deadly Premonition (Xbox 360) review

"Itís a game in which you want nothing more than to see whatís thrown at you next, just so you can eagerly ramble about the amazing things that have just happened, and share theories with friends who are also playing. Itís so effective in stirring discussion, in fact, that it took me a while to realise I was enjoying talking about the game a great deal more than I was playing it."

In Greenvale, the rural town at the heart of Deadly Premonitionís mystery, no one goes outside when it rains. You donít know why to begin with, and itís only when you make a trip into town to grab supplies or a bite to eat that you start to notice. Shops pull down their shutters, restaurants close, and everyone retreats to the safety of their houses. You notice because itís a massive inconvenience to the unprepared: in Greenvale, itís always bloody raining.

As FBI agent Francis York Morgan, youíre here to investigate the murder of a beautiful young woman. Why were the FBI called in to investigate a crime in a small rural town? They werenít exactly, York says. Itís just a personal interest of his. That interest, too, isnít explained for a while. In fact, very little of anything is explained at all, leaving Deadly Premonitionís opening hours feeling absolutely bonkers mental, laced with seemingly incongruous elements, in a game which doesnít appear to know what it wants to be.

Itís a survival horror game. Or is it? After a clumsy opening, itís suddenly an open-world adventure, laced with sprinklings of detective story. But youíre essentially funnelled through the first day - a few hours of in-game time - without much opportunity for diversion. Only you can divert as much as you want, and the game will wait for you. It just doesnít explicitly tell you that yet. And once you work this out - and particularly after a certain event which will probably happen a few days into the game - the most extraordinary number of opportunities open up before you. The drive of the story heads inexorably back to its horror roots, but there is simply so much going on in Deadly Premonition. The game is categorically huge.

Many games are a game of two halves. Not Deadly Premonition. This is a game of countless fragmented pieces, cracked and battered, glued together with junior school PVA. Itís a game where lightning reflects with a haunting elegance from the rain-sodden road, before the camera pans around to reveal a lake which looks like itís made of badly placed floor tiles; a game in which York frequently talks to an unseen friend called Zach, who may or may not be you, the player. In Deadly Premonition, when you try to turn your police car to the right, youíve to lean the analogue stick a reasonable way over. Tap it to the left and it gets stuck, the car swinging wildly across the other side of the road, usually smacking head-first into oncoming traffic, or some visually remedial shrubbery. (This isnít a problem with my controller or console. Iíve checked with other players, for whom it happened as well.)

Itís bizarre from the opening moments. Every character you meet appears to be insane, including your protagonist. Dialogue is unrelentingly weird, acted in such a way that you canít quite tell whether youíre supposed to be nodding in sullen agreement, or belly-laughing Ďtil tomorrow morning. The music - oh, the music! - pays absolutely no attention to the events on-screen, often playing jaunty jazz or upbeat pop rock during horrifying or emotional scenes. You can absolutely see where all the ďso bad itís goodĒ comments have come from, as the gameís numerous holes work to create something miraculously different from anything else youíll find. Except the more I played, the more I veered away from this sentiment. The surreal nature of the whole thing adds a unique flavour, certainly. But after a while I began to realise that below Deadly Premonitionís problems, and hiding behind its quirky exterior, is a game that isnít just weird: itís smart.

A big part of this is the story, which, for all its hysterical strangeness, actually holds together with a surprising amount of cohesion. While it pilfers a lot from a number of other fictional works - youíll recognise a lot of Twin Peaks, a dash of Pathologic, a smattering of Metal Gear Solid and just a tiny pinch of American Psycho - it plays with such themes in its own manner, and by the end becomes its own twisted tale. Once you get used to the writing style, it too begins to impress, adding heaps of character to every single NPC in the game. And what characters! Oh, so many fabulously deranged minds dwell in Greenvale. Discovering each of them is a thrill you deserve to experience first-hand.

Furthermore, there are so many layers of needless mechanical complexity, incorporated for no apparent reason other than to add depth and character to the game. Thereís no particular challenge to eating, sleeping and managing your finances, as youíll have to do to stay alive throughout the game. Nor is it too much of a hassle to keep your car topped up with petrol. But it all gives you a sense of having to actually live in Greenvale while conducting your investigation. Thereís a fast-travel mode and guns with infinite ammo, but theyíre hidden away as rewards for side-quests you probably wonít even find. The necessity to change your suit every morning, and book your dirty one into the dry cleanersí, seems like a hilarious level of obsessive detail - until you also notice that if you donít shave for a while, you begin to grow a beard in real time. If you donít change your suit, people will notice youíve started to smell, and the FBI will fine you. Grow a beard and it has no bearing on anything whatsoever - but once again, itís the sort of incidental touch that adds a whole universe to Deadly Premonitionís soul.

Meanwhile, as the story begins to very slowly clunk into place, jarring juxtapositions begin to feel more natural and fluid. The survival horror game and the open-world adventure start to gel more closely together, and you realise there was a reason for the lack of cohesion before. This is a remarkably purposeful piece of game design, uncommonly involved, with so much to see and do. And all the while, youíre drawn further into the secret heart of the fascinating Greenvale, dragged helplessly onwards by the plot as it drip-feeds information with an exceptional, modest precision.

Itís a game in which you want nothing more than to see whatís thrown at you next, just so you can eagerly ramble about the amazing things that have just happened, and share theories with friends who are also playing. Itís so effective in stirring discussion, in fact, that it took me a while to realise I was enjoying talking about the game a great deal more than I was playing it. Thereís a rather stinking problem with Deadly Premonition, and itís what might initially have led you to the ďso bad itís goodĒ conclusion. Unfortunately, eventually, you come to accept that the core mechanics of the game... well, theyíre just plain bad.

And this is the thing. Deadly Premonition is simultaneously the best and worst of gaming. Itís a fascinating, brave and frequently beautiful experience, often fabulously designed. But so many of its great ideas are countered by an ever-lasting ineptitude that works against you at every turn. I love this game so, so much. Why does it hate me?

The three hands-on pillars of Deadly Premonition are talking, driving, and battling contorted, shifting enemies. But dialogue, while well written, still manages to be a mess, with captioning typos, fluctuating volumes, and even horrible distortion in places. Youíll get different dialogue depending on when you choose to speak to a certain character, but once youíre there itís almost exclusively noninteractive, and while the cutscenes are generally strong (aside from some genuinely laughable animation), itís a shame that there are so few opportunities to shape the direction of individual conversations.

Meanwhile, vehicles handle with a ferocious incompetence (a problem exacerbated by a map system that needs to be fired into the sun), and although the survival horror sections are disturbing at times, they stretch out far too long to maintain their effect. Not only that, the controls - Resident Evil gone wrong, basically - are a complete catastrophe. And thatís without even mentioning the gameís gruesome visual quality. Or the incessant loading screens. Or the absolutely ridiculous sound effects. So much of Deadly Premonition is so awfully executed that it boggles the brain.

During my playthrough, I went from loving the game partly because of its atrocious construction, to loving the game despite it. Eventually, I found myself wishing its persistent hopelessness would just disappear, at least long enough for me to get on with enjoying the clever storytelling and layered design. Thereís a good 30-plus-hours of fantastic ideas here, so much to do and explore, and its plot leads to some genuinely evocative revelations in the latter half. But youíll need kilos of patience to get that far.

I cannot, in all good conscience, recommend you buy this. I secretly hope youíll ignore my lack of a recommendation.


Lewis's avatar
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (October 27, 2011)

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SamildanachEmrys posted October 27, 2011:

I'd been cautiously eyeing this anyway, and now you've sold me on it. I'm a sucker for games that are interesting.

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