What are you getting when you purchase Deadly Premonition? You are getting sub-PS2 graphics, archaic controls, a sparsely populated open-world map and some of the most inappropriate background music of all time. You are also getting a game with a unique soul and character. It is easily one of my favourite games of all time despite everything listed above.
You control Francis York Morgan, a split-personality sufferer, coffee-reading psychic (you'll see) FBI agent with an invisible friend named Zach. He is sent to Greenvale in order to solve the brutal murder of a beautiful (although you wouldn't be able to tell by her character model) young woman called Anna. What follows is a bizarre story littered with intrigue and full to the brim with eccentric characters and set pieces.
The game is essentially an open-world murder mystery. You drive from set piece to set piece across the mostly deserted map finding clues and piecing together the murder. Every now and again you will enter survival horror locations akin to Silent Hill and Resident Evil (from the PS1 era) where you must battle Sadako-from-The-Ring style baddies in order to find clues and progress to the next chapter - you'll also want to avoid going out after midnight if you know what's good for you.
The game starts out in one such situation and this beginning set piece is probably enough to send most gamers running wide-eyed and screaming from the game, never to touch it again. Within the first ten minutes you will realise the graphics are appalling, the game mechanics and controls are seriously lacking and the sound effects are seemingly rehashed from Mega Drive (or earlier) games. Why a five star rating then, you may ask? Because if you stick with the game you will be massively rewarded. Seriously.
The game borrows shamelessly from Twin Peaks. That in itself might be enough to pique the interest of a lot of people. Locations are shamelessly lifted including the waterfall and the red room of Dale Cooper's dreams. Agent York himself bears more than a passing resemblance to the aforementioned TP investigator. The story is similar too, lurching from one surreal segment to another with the occasional dream sequence throw in to break things up. The story has a little of everything: humour, shocks, scares. It ends with one of the darkest bombshells in gaming history, transforming a game that is often light-hearted and whimsical on its head. This powerful and varied storytelling is the real winning element of Deadly Premonition, but not the only one.
As the story unfolds you will uncover Greenvale's many eccentric residents as well as the township's darkest secrets. Both range from the sublime to the ridiculous. Character-wise you will meet some of the strangest creations in gaming history. From Harry Stewart, a wheelchair-bound, mask-wearing billionaire who speaks in rhyme via a tidily dressed carer, to 'Roaming' Sigourney, a senile, one-shoed old woman who wanders the map aimlessly complaining that the cooking pot she steadfastly carries is growing cold. They will simultaneously have you laughing heartily and scratching your befuddled head. Most of the town knowledge you uncover is gathered by playing the game's 50 side-quests. Most characters have a special side-quest which upon completion unlocks a reward, a trophy and a (often hilarious) piece of information. You have to drive Sigourney home before her pot grows cold from random locations. You have to tidy the convenience store's back room. You have to collect and return some dog-stolen bones to the rather spectral-looking grave tender. You catch a legendary fish. Honestly.
The map is quite large. Imagine a Grand Theft Auto open-world done on a shoestring budget. You can fish, stop off at a bar and play darts, visit the mountaintop viewing point and take in the (terribly rendered) scenery. The only problem is everything is spaced so far apart that it can often be a chore to get from one place to another. But is it boring? No. Why? Another master-stroke from the developers. York, it turns out, is an avid fan of 80s B-Movies. As you drive you will be prompted to engage in a number of lengthy eulogies including praise and facts about such classics as Jaws and Tremors. Who said games weren't educational? Sadly, you can miss out on these brilliant tidbits by unlocking a special item from Sheriff George's side-quest. Which would certainly be a shame.
The musical side of Deadly Premonition should be a disaster. Often, as York gives a lengthy speech about how one of the characters had her tongue bitten out, or how he dealt with a serial rapist, inexplicably cheery music will play in the background. Laughably bad music. One track is actually whistled. Yes, whistled. But, instead of making you reach for the mute button, the more you hear it, the more it will grow on you. It's strange, you should loathe how bad the tunes are, but such is Deadly Premonition's strange charm and magic, you will find yourself humming them long after you finish playing.
One thing I should mention before closing is how the PS3 version (which this review is based on) differs from the 360 one (yes, I have played both - my friends often call me a sucker for punishment!). There have been a few tweaks here and there: York can now walk whilst attacking with melee weapons and he controls slightly differently from the original Xbox version, too. There are some additional story elements that have been added but I must admit, I don't think they should have been put in there; they only seem to detract slightly from the cracking story that was there before. The port has not been transferred smoothly, either. There are some moments of sounds and music jumping and volume levels in spoken sections changing without warning. The graphics have apparently been tweaked and improved but I honestly think they look marginally worse as a result. In a couple of houses the light shining in from outside was bright green instead of the intended and more realistic white. Not sure if that one was intentional or not, mind you... There is also noticeable slowdown on occasions, most notably when you pick up items and are awarded with a lovingly (if needlessly) rendered image of a rotating onion, donut or can of pickles. When there are a number of characters in one area often their animations will play out strangely; I observed Kaysen undertaking some sort of slow motion floating walk on numerous occasion. More things to add to the 'overlook these problems and you'll love it' list, but hey ho. These quibbles were minor to me and I soon learned to look past them. Still, the QA team should have picked up on these problems and the programmers should have at least attempted to fix them.
Overall, Deadly Premonition is a masterpiece that amounts to far more than the sum of its parts. If you can get past the ancient controls and graphics, past the hit-and-miss voice acting and the shabby port translation, you will find a bizarre diamond in the rough that just begs to be loved. What the designers lacked in funds, they more than made up for in terms of memorable characters, scenes and unforgettable scenarios. I dread to think what Swery65 could achieve with sizeable funding behind him.
A classic in the vein of those memorable B-Movies York adores so much. I urge you to give it a try.