Deadly Premonition is a game like no other. Ridiculed and loved in equal measure, it is a game full of personality and imagination. In the first of a two-part feature, Matt Reynolds tells us why you owe it to yourself to play it. Isn’t that right, Zach?
“FBI Special Agent Francis York Morgan. Please, call me York. That’s what everyone calls me.”
In 2010, small Japanese developer Access Games – known for little other than a couple of Ace Combat sequels, quietly released a survival horror game called Red Seeds Profile in Japan. It was eventually released in Western territories under the moniker of Deadly Premonition, and received extremely mixed reactions from the games press. In fact; the game holds the (rather specific) Guinness World Record title for ‘Most Critically Polarizing Survival Horror Game’. Review scores literally ranged from zero to ten out of ten in varying outlets. Anything that can divide critics and gamers to such a degree must be doing at least something right…right?
I’d been following the game with interest for quite some time before its release. Being a game coming from a small developer meant that Deadly Premonition was hardly receiving stellar magazine coverage; but it was creating a sizeable buzz through word of mouth. It was upon discovery of game footage on YouTube that my interest was truly piqued – the graphics were terrible; the characters moved like robots and spouted ridiculous dialogue; and the music…dear god, the music. This game was a survival horror? It was the first game in the genre to be accompanied by an acoustic guitar whistling song. It took me a fair amount of time to track down a copy – titles like Deadly Premonition seldom if ever take pride of place at the front of Game stores – but when I did, my excitement was palpable. I didn’t really know what to expect from the game itself; and so with trepidation I loaded it into the disc tray and pressed start…
“Do you feel it, Zach ? My coffee warned me about it.”
Deadly Premonition is not a survival horror game – that’s just marketing claptrap coupled with lazy journalism. At its heart, the game is a murder investigation that takes place in an open world. It is very surreal in tone; mixing minimal horror elements with a lengthy, compelling whodunnit storyline, surrealist humour, romance, and a surprising amount of pathos and emotion. You play unhinged FBI Agent Francis York Morgan, who has arrived in the quiet American town of Greenvale to investigate the brutal murder of beautiful young woman Anna Graham. The MO of the murder is consistent with several other killings that have happened across the country, along with the appearance of strange red seeds at each crime scene. Assisting ‘York’ are two members of the local law department – Sheriff George Woodman, and eerie Naomi Watts lookalike Emily Wyatt; who York develops a shine to. The three proceed to investigate the crime scene, talk to the locals, and go for dinner at various junctures. York soon begins to rub everyone the wrong way with his dismissive attitude, bizarre behaviour and constant interruptions to have lengthy conversations with an imaginary friend he calls ‘Zach’. Soon more women are murdered, victims of the feared ‘Raincoat Killer’ who only strikes when it rains. The plot becomes more and more convoluted as York races to discover the killer’s identity before it’s too late…
If some of this sounds like cult TV show Twin Peaks to you, then you’d be right. Quite how the game hasn’t managed to infringe countless copyrights I have no idea. Hilariously, the game was originally called Rainy Woods but the studio caved in to demands that it was ‘too much like Twin Peaks’, and they even re-recorded all the dialogue and made the protagonist different to make it less like the show. If you can find me a better example of a half-arsed attempt I’d love to see it – the game could easily fit in the TV show’s universe.
“Taking a shower might clear our thoughts, Zach.”
Mechanically; the game was extremely ambitious and its a real shame that game creator Hidetaka ‘Swery’ Suehero’s almost limitless creativity was hamstrung by the company’s modest budget. The town of Greenvale and its surroundings operate on a 24 hour day-and-night cycle, where eight real-time hours equate to one day in the town. Its residents all have full daily schedules such as eating breakfast; heading out to work; going to the local bar for a few beers; going grocery shopping and tucking up in bed for the night. They are constantly labelled both on the in-game map and by text floating above their heads so that York can keep tabs on who is where. Certain events, conversations and missions are only contextually available at the right time of day, so time management is paramount, much like in Dead Rising. When it starts to rain; the monsters come out. Unfortunately they all pretty much look the same, and repeat a badly acted, monotonous mantra of ‘I don’t want to diiiiiiieeeee…’ every time you dispatch one.
It is your job as York to interrogate everyone in town, tail people, and look for clues. Conversations and cutscenes are often accompanied by what first seems to be horrendously mismatched music such as lounge, jazz and rockabilly. Once it all clicks for you though, you begin to realise that tonally at least, nothing in this game is accidental. If the music seems stupid, or the script weird, its supposed to be. At the end of each day you can return to your hotel room and go over the evidence so far. It’s an extremely compelling story, one of the very best of the generation in fact. It will take you between 20-30 hours to get through and is full of so many unexpected twists and turns that it will keep you guessing until the very end. It takes in murders, cross dressing, mute geriatrics with rhyming carers, monsters, government conspiracies, Elvis aficionados, 80s movie trivia, and awkward love stories. By the time you reach the game’s tragic, moving conclusion you will have been spun in so many directions you won’t know up from down anymore. There isn’t a story like it anywhere – but the real heart and soul of the game, the reason you come back for more, are the characters; led by FBI Agent Francis York Morgan.
– Matt Reynolds. You should follow him on Twitter @thelostmoment, right Zach?