Publisher: Rising Star Games
Genre: Survival Horror / Police Procedural
Reviewer: Marcus Way
Overall: 8 = Excellent
Within the first few minutes, Deadly Premonition: The Director’s Cut, a re-release of 2010’s Deadly Premonition for the Xbox 360, proved to be every bit as strange as I had heard over the past several years. It’s so thoroughly bizarre that I have had a devil of a time trying to piece together my thoughts for this review, but after a few cups of some very intuitive coffee, I think I’m finally up to the task.
Murder is afoot in Greenvale, USA, and it’s up to FBI Special Agent Michael York to put an end to the killing. These aren’t your average murders, but York—as he prefers to be called—isn’t your average agent. Joined by Zach—a personification of the player, an imaginary friend, call it what you will—with whom he converses and shares his hunches, and so helps players keep pace by recapping events, York sets out on a curious investigation into the Red Seed Murders. It’s an involved case, and one made all the more confusing by the actors involved.
At first blush, it seems as if York might be insane. His initial references to Zach come out of nowhere, and anything remotely addressing who or what Zach might be isn’t directly addressed until much later in the investigation. That the game just throws out something as weird as the protagonist chatting and consulting with a subconscious personality without much concern as to how it comes across is indicative of the Deadly Premonition experience. Things will simply happen throughout the game, either intentionally or unintentionally, that won’t make sense at the time and might not actually ever make sense, and it all depends on how players react to this that will determine what they get out of York’s time on the case.
These “things” cover a wide array of events and activities, most of which I have never experienced before in a game. The game’s structure, however, is surprisingly benign. A frame narrative sets the story up as a flashback that is broken up into chapters, punctuated from time to time with jumps to present day, and each chapter is segmented into several episodes. Each episode, as well as each loaded save file, begins with a recap that summarizes previous events. The episodes themselves consist of two play styles: investigation and combat. While it might seem that combat is where things get weird, what with all of the haunted buildings and near-death escapes from a crazed serial killer, it’s during the investigation portions that the game cuts loose.
York is the grounding rod of these segments. He is at turns humorous, inquisitive, and truth be told, something of a prick. He will make an incredible discovery based off of a hunch one second, and the next, reprimand someone for idle chit chat shortly before going into detail about the producer of one of his favorite B movies. It’s as if David Duchovny’s Fox Mulder was sent on an assignment in Twin Peaks and sustained a head injury en route while sniffing glue. York frequently tests the patience of the three Sheriff’s Department officers who are working the case: Sheriff George Woodman, whom York dubs “Monarch,” and Deputies Emily Wyatt, a dead ringer for Naomi Watts, and Thomas, a fey gent who happens to be an amazing cook. The trio reluctantly accepts the eccentric newcomer, and eventually come to find him a valuable asset in the hunt for the Raincoat Killer.
It takes them a while to come to grips with his unorthodox methods. Not only does York frequently verbally address Zach in front of others, but he also prefers to start his day with a strong cup of coffee for both the caffeine boost and for the fortune he reads in them. He also insists on driving, even when he doesn’t know who he is supposed to see, where he is, or how to get anywhere in town. His non-sequitur-laden, often sarcastically cocky responses are as bewildering and infuriating to the officers as they are hilarious to the player.
Some of his coworkers’ frustrations are alleviated when they give him a master key to all of the patrol vehicles parked around town, which allows him to go off on his own. It’s during these free-roaming portions, whenever York is collecting evidence and questioning townsfolk, that the game’s personality really comes to the fore. As strange as York is, the citizens of Greenvale are frequently much stranger. One of the standout features of Deadly Premonition is that everyone in town has their own schedule, and everything operates on a day-and-night cycle. If a store closes at 5 p.m., then it closes at 5 p.m.; if York is inside at that time, he will have to leave and return when it reopens. It goes further than that, though, as players can then watch the people leave the store and follow them to wherever they go next. Characters might go for some food, go for a drink at one of the local bars, or head home. At each of the places they go, York can peer into the window to see what’s going on. Tailing them involves utilizing one of the Sheriff’s parked vehicles. These are clunky to maneuver, but they have a few features that offer that extra touch of immersion, such as blinkers, windshield wipers for when it rains, and sirens that blare when the pedal is floored. The characters tend to follow the rules of the road, even if York doesn’t, putting on their blinkers and using turn lanes. It can be surreal to realize that the few cars and people seen around the sparsely populated, sprawling town aren’t just doing something but are actively going about their lives.
York also has rules he must abide by. Just as the other people in town have to eat and sleep, so too does he; otherwise, his health plummets as starvation sets in and flies begin to swarm when he becomes too rank. Food can be purchased at bars or diners for immediate nourishment, or taken on the go as snacks from ridiculously expensive vending machines and treats left around areas. York being York, he can sleep in several spots outside of his hotel room, including jail cells and sheds. The man isn’t picky—except about his coffee. He is only loosely kept in check by his Agent Honor. Pulling guns out on civilians, destroying property, and failing to keep up appearances will reduce honor, and since that is a large portion of his income, supplementing his meager salary, that means less means with which to purchase food, ammo, dry cleaning services, gas, etc. The bureau must have a very liberal policy when it comes to honor, though, because its application makes little sense. Running over a street sign is a problem, but slamming into another car head-on is not. Despite vandalism being frowned upon, shooting explosive barrels and destroying crates is not only perfectly fine but frequently rewarded with floating medals that add honor. Then again, that makes about as much sense as the rest of the game.
Deadly Premonition is also very reference-heavy. Sometimes they are overt, such as York chatting to Zach about his love of Jaws, Sixteen Candles, and Tremors, while others are less so, such as the subtle nods to Access Games’ Spy Fiction and York’s obsessive need to flip out his badge whenever meeting someone, similar to Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut. The long car rides are worth taking just to hear York reminisce about going to his first punk show or how DVDs of movies from the 1980s lack proper bonus features. The first two-thirds of the game, in which exploration and interaction are so featured so prominently, is also when players can take on any number of side quests. Activities are offered only at certain times, and are dependent on what’s been done beforehand. A local grocer will offer discount cards for assistance, but the inventory they need moved around can only be handled during store hours. Other multi-step activities involve bringing the nervous Sigourney back home before her shaking pot goes cold, and picking out upgrade parts in the junkyard for Lysander. Quests are marked on the main map, but the characters might not bring up the topic if the time isn’t right; as an aside, the mini-map can now be enlarged, but players unfortunately still have to switch to the larger one in the inventory screen for quest details. Even when just killing time between the major plot points, the game is always surprising and incredibly engrossing.
The fact that the game can be as engaging as it is despite how terribly it performs is downright astonishing. Although this is the Director’s Cut, performance hasn’t much improved, and players should prepare themselves for a number of problems: slowdown, polygon clipping, improper audio mixing, improperly loaded character models, muddy textures, a lagging camera, erratic animations, sharp shadows, pop-up, missing words and typos in the subtitles, and problems with hit detection. These aren’t one-off issues, either, as all are prominent throughout the game. Sometimes the technical glitches and the game’s generally erratic nature collide into moments of accidental brilliance, like whenever a weird character animation hits perfectly with the delivery of a bizarre line for an absolutely hysterical response. But then there are those moments when a character is driving their car from outside the vehicle, two feet above the ground…although that almost seems normal in Greenvale. Almost.
As gloriously ridiculous as the investigative portions are, the same cannot be said of the combat sections. The story is propelled by profiling scenes that take place in the Other World. This is a plane inhabited by the violent spirits of deceased townsfolk and the Raincoat Killer. Each portion begins with York unable to get a read on the scene and having to track down several pieces of evidence. Every time he finds a new piece of evidence, he can engage a profiling sequence that starts to reveal what happened at that location. Getting from one piece of evidence to another requires battling the vengeful spirits, which look like gray humans with black holes for eyes and large black mouths. There are very few enemy types, with most being either a standing or crawling type that warp towards York. Some of the spirits wield shotguns, others gardening utensils and pipes. York can arm himself with similar instruments, as well as weapons either purchased from a local gun store—by a proprietor who dislikes gun violence, mind—or found in the world. Combat is fairly basic and easy to come to grips with, despite a slightly sluggish camera. The difficulty levels from the original release have been merged into one level that, according to publisher Rising Star, is in-between the Easy and Normal modes. The difficulty level, in combination with an autoaim feature and submachine gun that holds a whopping 180 rounds a clip, completely neuters combat. There are still problems with hits registering when York is too close to an object, which can lead to enemy hordes landing back-to-back attacks, but by and large, encounters boil down to simply letting rip every few feet.
There are some instances when York must run and hide from the Raincoat Killer. These clunky and frustratingly drawn-out chase sequences are laden with lame quick-time events. The left analog stick must be slammed left to right for prolonged periods of time until a box has to be pushed or a pallet stepped over. York is incapable of quickly jumping onto and off of objects for whatever reason, and must instead slowly step up and off of them. It’s also never explained why York immediately makes a run for it, given the fact that he generally walks around armed to the teeth with assault rifles, magnums, shotguns, and swords. Chases end after York reaches a room with several hiding spots that he must tuck into before the killer breaks down the door. Once the room is reached, the game switches to a dual perspective, with a small window displaying the killer’s viewpoint and a larger window displaying York’s. After making it into the room, the killer will walk around and periodically stop to smell for York’s breath, at which time players must hit a shoulder button to cause him to hold it for a moment. The breath-holding mechanic is a non-factor throughout the rest of the game because, aside from the effectiveness of the many weapons, it uses the same stamina meter that is better utilized for running. These scenes are especially prone to framerate dips, which negate much of the building tension. After making his escape, York will typically find the last piece of evidence and engage in a final profiling sequence that will tie everything together so that he can move forward with the investigation. It’s always a relief when that happens because that means it’s time to exit the Other World.
And then that pattern stops. Around two-thirds through the game, the story locks into place, and the open-world shenanigans that make the game so delightful are tossed aside for a very linear last act. The last few hours can be downright painful. The revelations are great, and everything comes together for a story that, beyond all odds, is genuinely interesting and an excellent cap to the investigation. What isn’t great are the extended combat sequences that are the very definition of filler. It’s as if the level designers copied and pasted the same room and hallway over and over. Anything that should take two minutes to do suddenly takes 10 to 15. It’s almost unreal how long the innocuous sections are dragged out. One combat sequence does perk things up, but it’s also confusing in its execution. The only upside is that the normal world—normal being relative, of course—can be revisited before engaging the new epilogue, and players can go back to the simple pleasures of fishing to a hauntingly charming whistling tune and driving through the rain, wipers and headlights on and (of course) proper turn signal usage, to a local bar for a game of darts and conversation. The epilogue adds a bit more closure, but it also leaves a few tantalizing hints at what the future might have in store. I hope to rejoin York on a future case.
Deadly Premonition: The Director’s Cut is laudable not for what it improves, which can be generously described as modest, but for bringing the game to a new system and a new audience. Some of the changes are incredibly helpful, such as being able to enlarge the mini-map and more responsive combat controls, but the inclusion of Move and 3D support took time that could’ve been better spent addressing some of the game’s myriad technical problems. The core of the game, however, is so wonderful and goofy and surprisingly captivating that the graphical and audio glitches and blatant filler that bogs down the last act can be overcome through the sheer force of charm. Access Games has managed to create a unique title that is at once silly, bad, great, funny, surreal, ridiculous, and most importantly, memorable.
(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)