Deadly Premonition has already achieved cult status within the gaming community for being truly unlike anything else. Sure, it plays like everything else but somehow it's so bizarre that no one ever believed it'd work. You'll either love it or hate it.
You play as FBI Agent York, who's visiting the town of Greenvale after a bizarre murder takes place. You've been following cases of murder all over the US where signature red seeds were left at the crime scenes. Wait, that's actually a lie. `You' play as Zach, Agent York's alter-ego with whom he regularly converses in public with. This is a moment of design genius. You're not playing the character directly, but the voice in his head that tells him what to do. Slowly, you warm to York, becoming a close friend and so the emotional impact of the story is much higher than a regular game. Together, you'll discuss the merits of B-movies like The Deadly Spawn, help York write his daily report and tell FBI tales to townsfolk, including how unsanitary it is to piss in a human skull and then use it as a cup. Oh, and there's also a few conversations about the benefits of cereal in sandwiches and the fortune telling abilities of good coffee. I can't discuss the story too much without spoilers and I'm sat here like an awestruck child wanting to divulge all the game's twists, funny moments and surreal events.
You arrive in Greenvale by car. Driving, lighting a cigarette, talking on a phone and working on a laptop. Agent York is the king of multi-tasking, until he crashes his car. Following this vehicular mishap is the game's first scene of combat, dream sequence and then a 500 yard jog down a motorway. Yes, that's right. You have to jog for 500 yards with no music and absolutely nothing happening. You run onwards with only the sound of your footsteps to accompany you. This gives you time to fully take in the information dense first sequences of the game. And just who was that guy in the raincoat?
The whole story takes place in the small town of Greenvale. Your first task is to visit the recent crime scene where a young girl was sliced open and tied to a tree in a religious manner. From here you will explore the town, speak to its inhabitants and obtain clues. At key moments in the plot you will enter buildings in Greenvale to hear the music dramatically shift as York finds himself in an alternate version of reality. Red tree vines cover everything as undead creatures appear from the ground and walls. As you fight your way through, you discover key clues that then let you profile what's happened. The profiling works really well - static covered images are presented to you and are revealed as you collect more clues to each crime. Once you find the last piece of evidence, you're presented with the profile; what Zach (that's you) believes has happened. There's then a flash of light and York is stood back in reality at the crime scene - welcome to the world of Deadly Premonition.
Whilst the story and characters are brilliant the same can't be said for the game design. Big Flaw Number One: Combat. The combat occurs in an over-the-shoulder view where you can't move and fire at the same time. It is terrible - enemies take their body mass in ammunition and prove to be nothing more than filler to the story. Luckily for the player, you'll rarely die in combat, limiting any real frustration. It's not a difficult game; it's just not exciting ploughing through room after room of the shuffling undead. It is little harsh to brand it terrible, as it's no different to Resident Evil 5 (ugh). Also, fortunately, the combat isn't buggy and you won't be throwing your pad in anger. It's just dull and repetitive. Health packs can be purchased from the hospital and the infinite ammo machine gun will hold anything back, even if it does take 100 rounds to down an enemy. By collecting spiritual maps, you'll discover underground areas of Greenvale in another dimension. These areas see parts of Greenvale transformed in a Silent Hill-esque way. Repetitive battles await as you fight through to get to the unlimited ammo weapon at the end of the dungeon. Dull, but a necessity if you don't want to struggle with ammo later on.
Big Flaw Number Two: The Map. Greenvale is a huge town that is open for you to explore. You can peek through windows, get your car washed, visit the diner for a $99 turkey sandwich, see who's in jail and do a spot of fishing. This is all a great achievement, much unlike the map. You see, you can't zoom out on the map and it changes position depending upon the way you're facing. It's like getting lost in rural America with a damp A-Z. Then you realise you are no longer using the map - you've learnt where everything is. You know Greenvale like it's your own town.
Big Flaw Number Three: Presentation. Deadly Premonition looks goddamn awful parts. In fact, the opening introduction has the WORST graphics in the whole game and possibly, of the whole year. This will instantly alienate a lot of gamers who now expect cutting edge technology. Yet, as gamers are we not defenders of the underdog? Aren't we the ones who fight for individuality and imagination? Yes, damnit, we are!
Where Deadly Premonition truly shines is in its characters and story-telling ability. Hands down, this is one of the most well-told videogame stories ever. No matter how bonkers it gets, it never lets you down. The script is incredible and was designed to sound/read exactly like it does. Conversations are bizarre in content with certain phrases seemingly misplaced. This is on purpose and it never breaks from the other-worldly feel of Greenvale. You feel truly involved in everything that happens and want to play through the next swarm of enemies to see when happens next. There is a great reward in completing a chapter and seeing what happens next.
Split into chapters within episodes, DP plays out like a cross between Twin Peaks and The X-Files. Wake up after a night's sleep, change your clothes, have a shave, re-arm yourself, get some breakfast, drink a coffee (or have it tell your fortune) and you're good to go. Jump into any police car or a car you've purchased and you're free to drive around and explore Greenvale as you wish. You can rush through the story or decide to take three days off to go fishing and complete one of the fifty side-quests available. This grants you a freedom that you'll only realise once you get closer to the game's conclusion. Agent York is a detective free to roam the dog-shaped town of Greenvale.
Deadly Premonition lets you play detective in a sandbox world. When leaving one area I noticed one of the possible suspects walking down the street with two kids who found the first murder victim. I approached them and started a side quest which provided more depth to the story. It led me back to the original crime scene and allowed me to join the dots between some of the games' main characters. I stumbled across this purely because I was in the right place, at the right time. The game doesn't punish you for missing a main objective. You simply have a night's sleep (or smoke cigarettes to pass time) and then go to the objective the next day instead. Timing is the key within Greenvale, not speed. Without investigating Greenvale items of great help can be missed. One early side mission, that is easy to miss, will reward you with a police radio to quick travel to any previously visited location. There's still so much to be discovered within this game; it's huge in ambition. Just remember to have a shave and change your work clothes or you'll be docked pay for being a `stinky agent'; seriously.
A filmmaker once said that a movie only looks as good as it sounds; and this is where DP's presentation does shine through. The soundtrack is brilliant and changes depending upon the emotions Agent York is experiencing. In one scene a character has been killed and downbeat music is being played. Then a dog bursts into the room, barks for attention and leads Agent York to the next piece of the puzzle - all to a jazzy detective theme. It's these wild shifts in music that some may find to be nonsensical or `ironic' (you can't be ironic on purpose). What the soundtrack does represent is York's view of the world and how he can jump from one extreme of emotion to the next... he's essentially a child at heart.
It's deeply flawed and one of the best games I've had the pleasure of playing. Deadly Premonition offers a deep red, rich story with wonderful characters that'll have you thinking about it long after the credits role. If this had the budget of Alan Wake it would be universally acclaimed and granted Game of the Year. Purely as a gamer and not a journalist, this is top spot with Mass Effect 2 for GOTY. It really is that good. In a purple, creeping mist of FPS clones and yearly sequels, Deadly Premonition is an absolute gem. Give it a year and no one will be talking about this year's version of COD or FIFA. They'll be talking about Deadly Premonition.
F... K... in the coffee indeed.
+ Incredibly well told story
+ Agent York is one of gaming's greatest characters
+ Landmark in sandbox gaming; Real time world
+ Real time beard growing
- Repetitive combat
- Poor visual graphics
- 2005-era User Interface