Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog

Deadly Premonition (Xbox, 2010, Japan): 25 Hours–and Several Years–Later….
July 16, 2011, 5:50 am
Filed under: Deadly Premonition (Xbox, 2010, Japan)

Oh “Deadly Premonition,” I knew ye and dreamed of ye before your publisher forced that stupid twelfth-hour name change on you. Even though you now sound like an embarrassingly campy soap opera starring Juliet Mills as a small town psychic—a soap opera that was cancelled after a dozen episodes by the way– in my heart you will always be “Rainy Woods.”

OK, I confess. That is almost a word-for-word ripoff of how I began my previous discussion of 2010’s “MorphX/The Swarm,” with a few quick edits. But strangely, the narrative fits just as precisely.

If you’ve read any of these posts before, you know I’ve described myself as a lowly lurker who trawls the cobwebbed archive pages of videogame sites looking for neato screenshots, videos, and titles to vaporware, just so I have at least a little unrequited love in my life for drama’s sake. (Ever visited the website UNSSEN 64 that exclusively chronicles unreleased, unseen videogames? Do yourself a favor and Google it.) At least five years ago, I stumbled across “Rainy Woods” and began pining for its funky strangeness, even though the game had already been given the kiss-of-death “TBA” release schedule.

Like my experience with “MorphX” (which I had three years previously discovered on Russian videogame sites as “The Swarm” then suddenly found myself out of the blue buying it on Amazon for my Xbox in 2010 one day), “Deadly Premonition” seemed to follow the same path. Though the game had been in development, oh, like forever—in fact, originally for the PS2 of all things—suddenly I was playing it with my Xbox controller in my hand, marveling at…

…well, marveling at how much it still looked like a crappy PS2 game from 10 years ago (or more) even though the date on the back of the box said copyright 2010. But here it was on my TV! Rainy…err, I mean “Deadly Premonition!”

To the quickly growing (rabid?) fanbase surrounding this truly unique title, I would be considered a pathetic lightweight. Other than finishing the main story quest (and accidentally completing 3 sidequests early on before I got the hang of the game and knew they were actually sidequests), I only dedicated 25 hours of my life to it. 25 HOURS FOLKS! Yes, like “Fallout 3,” “Oblivion” or any other open-world-grinding-for-pleasure game, “Deadly Premonition” could easily gobble up half of your year, and you might not even know it. The game is deep, long, convoluted, quirky, complex, clunky, and (if you are at all familiar with the title)…extremely difficult to look at given its circa 1995 visuals (which, of course, make some people love it all that much more).

The game’s narrative is too much to explain, and to the folks running the “Deadly Premonition” wiki (yup, it exists), I probably wouldn’t do it justice anyway. But in simplest terms you play as Francis York Morgan, an FBI profiling expert with an imaginary friend he regularly consults on cases (read: borderline split personality), contemplates the creamer in his coffee for clues, and is generally unfazed when surrounded by black and white zombie ladies bent over backwards and crabwalking towards him, as though they just escaped a “Silent Hill” reunion party. Francis York Morgan (“Call me York”) enters the tiny, thickly forested northwestern town of Greenvale (on foot, because he wrecks his car in the intro) to find a serial murderer who stuffs his young female victims with red seeds. York (and don’t forget Zach, his invisible sidekick) have been tracking the killer across the country and is closing in on his or her trail. (One cool thing about Zach that I must mention if you’ve not played the game: Agent York talks to Zach on screen often, by putting a finger to his ear, as if he is listening to an earphone. He will ask Zach questions directly [“What do you think Zach? Should we go to dinner with them?”]. In response, the game will give you a choice to make [Go to dinner? Or Go Back to The Hotel?] as Agent York stands on screen with his finger to his ear, awaiting your response. This mechanic is really quite unique. In these instances, the player is of course squarely and obviously placed in the position of York’s invisible sidekick, which of course you actually are, since you are steering him throughout the entire game! This connects you to (draws you into) the game in a natural way, since the characters are clearly aware of your presence on the other side of the TV screen. It’s really quite ingenious, and I’ve never seen this in a game before. OK, back to the discussion.)

While in town, several new victims appear right under York’s nose, and the case heats up. There may or may not be a supernatural force at work here. At certain times, the town and its rich cast of characters seems sort of normal, albeit quirky as hell. But then areas of the town can transform, especially at night, into a “Resident Evil” meets “Silent Hill” meets “Some Other Generic Japanese Horror Survival Game” environment where the undead stalk you and generally hang around as target practice. The shooting mechanic, not broken but not refined, is not too difficult to master. There’s very little sharpshooting here, and much of the action doesn’t require a particularly quick trigger finger. The shooting is over-the-shoulder ala Leon Kennedy in “Resident Evil 4,” complete with laser target on your gun of choice (there are about 5 or 6 guns, as well as a series of crazy collectible melee weapons), and while aiming, you can’t walk and shoot simultaneously.

In between the “shadow” events (which is actually the only time where I remember combat taking place), you hang or drive or walk around town and “interview” the many characters that inhabit Greenvale to gather info to profile the killer. Thankfully for entertainment purposes, few of these townsfolk are actually what you would call “normal people.” There are more quirky personalities here than in the original “Twin Peaks” (which the game is clearly styled after—in fact, it is rumored that one reason for the game’s elongated production schedule was because development was halted at some point due to copyright infringement concerns, since it so closely resembled that David Lynch property). But you have “Roaming Sigourney,” a rather vacant lady in her 60s, who walks aimlessly around town with a casserole pot whose lid is perptually moving, but no one knows what is inside. George Woodman is the town’s sheriff, a snarling man whose mother beat him violently and repeatedly with a whip made from tree branches to the point of permanently scarring him. Then there’s Thomas Maclaine, the crossdressing deputy who wants to be a famous bar singer like his perpetually drunk sister? Or there’s Polly Oxford, the bent-over grandma who owns and runs the crazily massive, and completely empty, hotel in town who loves to talk, yet can only hear about half of what you say in return. It’s all quite funny, disturbing, goofy, and unsettling at the same time. Oh I could go on, but just play the game if this is your cup of tea. I have to say, getting to know the bizarre characters and their motivations as they tell their stories (some of them are regular folks, of course, including a beautiful damsel-in-distress-love-interest for Agent York) is absolutely endearing and is without question the high point of the game.

From here on during this discussion, I don’t simply want to repeat what is already widely available on the web regarding the game’s content. Opinions are like assholes—everyone’s got one, and they all stink. So, instead I thought I’d answer some unasked questions regarding the structure of the game. What I mean is there were some questions I had before starting the game—like regarding the structure of the quests, or the open-world nature of the game—and how those elements compared to other (more recent) open world sandbox games I had played. I was especially concerned about some of these elements considering “Deadly Premonition” had been in development for so long. These were questions that no one really answered in any reviews I read, and I had to answer them for myself by playing it. For example:

Do you have to eat in the game? Yup. As the hours tick by, you have a sleep gauge and a eat gauge which you have to keep an eye on. (Though, to be honest, I never paid a whole lot of mind to them, since they seem to deplete very slowly—if you hate this sort of mechanic, don’t let this stop you from playing “Deadly Premonition” in this case, since it really is a non-issue.) But if either gets too low, you have to correct the situation by eating something (you can carry all sorts of junk food with you) or taking a nap. You cannot sleep just anywhere. There are designated beds all around–in hotels, in other people’s houses, sometimes in sheds—and they all perform the same function. When you sleep, you have a choice of 4 “modes” (light sleep to heavy sleep), and your eat gauge depletes immediately when you wake up and this usually requires you to eat something right away—again, usually not a big deal.

How “open world” is the game really? Ah, good question. The game’s world is surprisingly large, though you cannot traverse all of it. For example, you can drive the many roads in and out of town, but the forests to your left and right are no-go zones (invisible barriers). There are many hidden paths through the forest though, but you cannot wander around the trees at will. In other words, some of this feels like it is “on rails” and is not the open world of “Oblivion” or “Fallout 3” by a far stretch. You can traverse the entire map on foot or in a car. Concerning this, you have to be a little careful—if you set off on foot and try to cover too much ground and find yourself stranded with nothing nearby but thick forest and your sleep or eat gauge is low, it can be game over. Run out of gas in the middle of nowhere, or slam your car into so many obstacles that it stops running and catches on fire? Get your boots on and start walking. But fear not—there is a “flare” in your kit you can use to call up a police car to rescue you. Extra flares can be bought too. In addition to the woods, there is the center of town, with many buildings—the vast majority of which are cardboard cutout storefronts only that cannot be entered. When I first started playing the game and I drove into town, I was excited at the prospect of going into that store or this bar…only to find out that there are actually only about 5 or so buildings in town you can actually enter (the police department, a diner, a convenience store) and the other 40 buildings are just 4-sided empty structures that you cannot interact with in any way (and actually most of the buildings look worse and worse the closer you get to them). I’m not kvetching; I just thought this may be something potential players might want to know. In this respect, the game shows its true age.

I heard something about having to shave in the game and change your clothes? Yes, you do have to shave and change your clothes, or else your shoddy appearance will draw flies and apparently turn people off from talking to you. And as a main part of the game, you do need to speak with people. Again if “sim-like” mechanics such as this irritate you, don’t let this be a game-changer if you are at all interested in playing “Deadly Premonition.” I sort of barely paid attention to these elements, and I attended to them haphazardly, and I got along fine with no issues. In some cases, it almost felt like a kooky add-on that really did not change (my) gameplay very much.

Considering the open-world nature of the game, what is the draw distance like? How far can you see into the world, and what does it look like? I would suppose that when the devs started making this game way back when, it would’ve been pretty darn impressive. The draw distance is at least…a mile or so? The game really tries its damnedest to show you how big this world is and that it is your (limited) playground. But of course it can’t do it very well by today’s standards. So, while you do indeed see the mountains in the distance or the road stretching out before you….it is these moments when you find yourself gritting your teeth and saying “Oh, my, it looks….old.” Lots of aliasing everywhere, all the time (those jagged edges). When the game’s distance stretches especially far, it begins to look like some abstract painting not resembling the game’s landscape at all. Do you get used to it? Yup, but it requires some breath-holding, at least until you adjust.

How does time pass in the game? Time does pass, and time is used as marker. For example, you may be given a deadline to be in a certain location at a certain time in order for the game’s main story to continue. George, the town’s sheriff, may tell you to be at the town hall at 3 p.m. for a meeting of the citizens. The in-game clock (on your menu) will show 11 a.m. So, that means you have several hours to kill before the meeting occurs. (This is when you are supposed to begin sidequests and that sort of thing, I imagine…including fishing, by the way, to relieve stress, or collecting random human bones buried here and there in the woods…I told you the game is unique). Don’t want to wait or putz around? You can pull out your special cigarettes “that are so good that York forgets time is passing,” or something like that, and as you puff away, the in-game clock speeds up until the deadline arrives. But you still need to be in the appointed place at the appointed time—and you can accidentally smoke your way right past your deadline if you are not careful! What happens if you miss a deadline? I don’t know; I never let it happen. There are not too many of these deadlines in the game though, and as the game wore on, there were fewer of them.

Is there money in the game? Yup. Money is given as your salary (you are FBI, after all), when you complete episodes/chapters. Money is used to buy food, ammo, guns, the usual. Goods are bought from different folks, and at the (one) store in town (that you can actually go into).

How many saves can you have? Unlike the open-world games made by Bethesda and the like that usually allow as many saves as can fit on your hard drive, you can only have ONE save with “Deadly Premonition.” Sorry. Hope it doesn’t get corrupted…

How do you navigate the game? With the astonishingly awful in-game map. With such a large area to cover, the map is an up-close mess that doesn’t allow you to zoom out far enough to get a sense of where you are and where you need to be. (I understand games like “Oblivion” suffer from this same problem. I never played that game, though I spent the better part of a year playing the entire “Fallout 3” canon, including every single DLC chapter, and I never struggled with the map in that game.) Anyway, I spent a good deal of my 25 hours with this game trying to figure out where the hell I was on the map and where I needed to go. So irritating, and again, in this respect I think the game kind of shows its true age. (The far zoomed-out pic here of the in-game map actually does not exist in reality—this was made by a fan of the game and you never get to see the whole map of the area in this way while playing.) Objectives for your current missions are marked on the map, as well as your current location, but making it all jibe locationally is a serious pain in the ass. There, I said it.

How does the dialogue with characters progress? Are there dialogue trees or options a la “Mass Effect” or “Heavy Rain”? The answer is no. In a game like this, that relies on a good deal of interaction with other characters, you talk to these kooky people quite a bit. But the only choices you have regarding dialogue (in some instances) is whether or not you speak to them at all. Otherwise, if you do choose to begin a Q-n-A, it has already been determined what will be said and by whom. You just sit back and press the A button to march through the conversation. This doesn’t mean that there are no choices you have to make in the game—there are numerous choices to make throughout. But typically, these choices are not embedded in the conversations you have with NPCs. The voice acting, by the way, is decidedly good in most cases.

How does the driving mechanic work? Ah, you get used to it, but the tank controls hearken back to an earlier era of game-playing where everyone had sore foreheads from slamming them against the wall repeatedly…again, this was made originally for the PS2, folks. In addition to the aforementioned gas gauge (which will run out if not replenished, and gas is bizarrely expensive at the one gas station in town whose owner is a nasty, brain-damaged jerk who really dislikes you for some reason), there is an integrity gauge as well, for when you start slamming into…whatever. If your damage meter reaches zero, the car will apparently catch fire and blow up with you in it (so, exit before that happens.) Early in the game, you get the “master key” from the sheriff that allows you to drive any police fleet vehicle, and there are many of them scattered around (especially if you wreck one due to the crappy controls). The environments are non-destructible, of course.

I’ll add more oddball specs if I think of any, but that’s a pretty good overview. Overall, frankly, if you wish there were an experience out there that would take you back to a time where playing a Japanese survival horror game was keeping you up at night…well, this isn’t that good. Mostly because it’s not a horror game, strictly speaking (though the ending, which I won’t reveal here, is straight-up, bizarre, otherworldly, supernatural horror, pretty much). While it dips deeply from the well of horror games preceding it (and there are a few “OH FUCK YEAH!” horror moments), it also borrows from other genres (the detective genre especially, with a little sim thrown in), and this effectively dilutes the horror experience, for someone like me. Of course, I was reading on a forum someone expressing just the opposite: “I wish Swery65 (the lead developer) would make more games like this one…except just not with the dumb horror stuff.” But horror is my mileu, and since I couldn’t care less about collecting every goofy melee weapon in the game or talking with every single side character hanging around on the pixelated street corner (wishing instead to be scared right outta my knickers), the game was just okay. But it was clearly a labor of love for those involved who actually saw the development of this oddity through to the end. Good for them, I say.


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