One of the most divisive video games ever made is released on Switch for the first time but is it worth playing before the sequel?
Deadly Premonition really is one of the oddest video games of all time. Some of that is on purpose, since the game is a supernatural thriller inspired by Twin Peaks, and some of it is not, because the game is riddled with technical issues and half-broken gameplay. But Dead Premonition is absolutely not a game that’s ‘so bad it’s good’. It is instead an experience whose already peculiar atmosphere is actually enriched by its control and graphical issues, or at least it was the first time round.
If we were forced (and it’d have to be at gunpoint) to participate in an argument about games as art Deadly Premonition has always been our exhibit A submission. Parts – significant parts – are hilariously incompetent and you’re often sat playing it in sheer disbelief at what you are seeing and hearing. But the emotional range, from traditional survival horror scares to farcical comedy, are unmatched by any other title. To be capable of such player manipulation you begin to realise that this is far more than the shambling disaster it so often appears to be.
The game casts you as FBI agent Francis York Morgan (York to his friends or indeed anyone that will listen to him), who arrives in the rural town of Greenvale to investigate the ritual murder of a young woman. York is a thoroughly bizarre character who enjoys winding up the local hicks and appears to have a split personality that he refers to as ‘Zach’.
For the purposes of the game Zach is you, the player, as York cuts off conversations mid flow to discuss the case with you or rambles on about his favourite DVDs while driving around the countryside. York’s other eccentricities include soothsaying by staring into a cup of coffee and openly admitting to skiving off work when he can’t be bothered. He doesn’t even seem to be in the town of Greenvale on official business, but simply practising his profiling skills.
York’s fragile state of mind soon leads you to question whether the zombies he keeps shooting are only in his head, but in reality he’s still one of the saner characters in the game. From your nutty hotel landlady to the town’s gas mask-wearing millionaire and his rhyming assistant nobody in the game is either fully rational or what they first appear.
The third person combat sequences are clearly inspired by Resident Evil 4, with a similarly clunky control system that refuses to let you move and shoot. Some good sound design and purposefully unreliable weapons gift the combat a similar sense of foreboding to Capcom’s classic and it’s arguably scarier – even if it’s nowhere near as fun.
But the combat is just one relatively small element of the game and for much of Deadly Premonitions’ generous playtime you’ll be driving around in your car (which handles like a broken roller skate) following up leads – or simply exploring and talking to Greenvale’s unhinged inhabitants. They all move about and interact with each other regardless of your actions, so many of the mysteries and side quests are only revealed if you’re in the right place at the right time.
Plenty of other games have an open world setting but these often prove to be sterile environments that have clearly been constructed purely for the player’s benefit. Greenvale though feels far more like a real location and offers not just the freedom to explore but to choose whether or not to shave in the morning or take the day off and go fishing.
We still can’t decide whether the voice-acting is purposefully bad or a reflexive reaction to the oddly constructed dialogue, but somehow it all works in context. Similarly, you assume the developers are purposefully playing inappropriately chirpy music as you explore a brutal murder scene, but the game never quite lets you in on the joke.
However much of Deadly Premonition’s charm was planned and how much is the happy accident of its translation is impossible to be sure, but you’ll quickly grow to love the cast of oddball characters. York in particular is one of the most memorably charismatic in all gaming, and although it’s perfectly reasonable to wish he was in a game with state-of-the-art presentation we find it impossible to separate the man from the game.
Others though will simply judge this based on its looks (it was originally intended to be a PlayStation 2 game and it shows) and its combat, which is unfortunate but understandable – especially for this disappointing Switch version. For some reason, Origins is based on the original version, not the director’s cut, and while we were never big fans of the new narrative content the director’s cut did at least brush up the visuals and controls a little.
There seems to be some attempt to do that for the Switch version too, but the car controls are especially bad and the graphics are so murky it really does look like a PlayStation 2 game now. And despite there having been a major patch to fix the widely reported sound issues there are still problems with both the audio and frame rate.
Origins is the worst version of the game to have been released so far and hardly the sort of introduction that would lead anyone to be excited about a sequel. It’s neither unplayable nor unenjoyable but it asks too much of its players in terms of making excuses for its technical faults. So we’d instead recommend seeking out the PlayStation 3 director’s cut or even just the original Xbox 360 version.
Deadly Premonition is still a great game and if you play your role as Zach properly you begin to appreciate a game that is genuinely innovative in its approach to narrative and character. Despite all the many influences it isn’t trying to be a movie at all, as it leaves it up to you rather than the cut scenes to dictate how much time you spend with characters and side details.
But the game’s key strengths remain its bizarre atmosphere and cast of characters. Rather than being defined by ordinary technical standards you’re still not sure what is intended by the script, what is an accident of design, and what is solely in your own head. David Lynch would be proud.
Deadly Premonition Origins
Deadly Premonition Origins review
In Short: As unique a vision as video gaming has ever seen and one able to use its many incompetencies – including an unfortunate number of new ones – to entertain and surprise.
Pros: Some of the strangest characters and situations in all gaming. A huge range of hidden secrets and some very effective horror sequences. Peculiarly appropriate presentation.
Cons: A terrible port that is undoubtedly the worst version of the game so far, with murky visuals, unreliable frame rate, awful controls, and minor audio problems. Some cut scenes are a bit too long.
Formats: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Toybox Inc and Access Games
Release Date: 5th September 2019
Age Rating: 18
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