Review 2- Deadly Premonition: The Director's Cut- for Playstation 3
This game has not been on the backlog for very long, and is one of those games I have always wanted to play, more or less entirely thanks to it's cult status, and because of Destructoid's own Jim Sterling and other staff members singing it's praises. However, I never had an Xbox and was unable to play it, until the Director's Cut came out. After seeing it for a bafflingly generous discount only days after release, I picked it up and got to playing it.
Deadly Premonition is framed as a murder mystery investigation, with a beautiful young girl being brutally murdered in a small, rural American logging town, and the player takes the role of the FBI Special Agent sent in to investigate.
The opening cutscene of the game, which rolls before the title screen and depicts two young boys and their grandpa finding a body in the woods, is kind of a microcosm for the rest of the game. The first thing you'll see are some truly terrible graphics, followed by some pretty awkward animations on fairly low polygon character models, and also some amusingly inappropriate facial expressions. However, the scene being depicted is so unusual, and is presented in such an interesting manner, to be oddly compelling. The image of the body in particular, which has been gruesomely opened at the belly and posed naked to a tree in a crucifix pose, immediately made me beg the question "what on Earth happened here". This epitomizes the game for me- despite some serious flaws, the game kept me wanting to know what was going on, and from this moment on until credits roll, keeps presenting more and more things I just wanted to dig deeper into, from the mystery itself, to smaller details.
The game then starts in earnest. You are introduced to the incredibly affable Agent Francis York Morgan, who you'll be playing throughout the adventure. His introduction is very well done, and surprisingly got across quite a lot of character information about him right away, while also doing what this game does best- confusing you. York talks to an invisible friend called Zach, who may or may not be real, and seems to be at once very professional and efficient while also not taking anything very seriously. You find out more about him as the game progresses, and I found myself becoming extremely attached to and invested in this coffee guzzling, cartoon loving oddball (as my Avatar perhaps gives away).
The trustworthy face of our hero. You will come to love it.
All this before the gameplay even starts! Let's discuss that, shall we? The actual game itself is split roughly into two sections. Your first experience is with the action sections, where you must navigate through a fairly linear environment whilst fending off creepy zombie-like creatures that boil from the shadows. These enemies start out quite creepy, but you'll be seeing the same ones almost exclusively throughout the game and their charm wears out after a while. You can deal with them with firearms, where aiming will root York to the spot and allow him to use his laser sight, or use melee weapons, which allow you to move slowly while swinging and are more damaging, but make you get closer and can break.
The combat actually has a little bit of depth to it, in that guns have an auto-aim that goes centre mass, but you can also free aim to try and get slightly trickier headshots which takes enemies down quicker and gives you bonus points. The melee weapons offer a risk-reward proposition due to forcing you closer to enemies. Unfortunately, this depth is not really explored too much, due to the lack of enemy variety, their low threat level, and the fact that you'll get indestructible melee weapons if you do only a couple of sidequests that more or less break the combat. These sections also tend to be unrelentingly linear, and the odd puzzle is just a mask, since you just have to keep going and find the clearly marked item that will allow you to come back and open the locked door, or occasionally solve a really simple numerical or block puzzle.
Far more successful in these segments are intermittent encounters with the Raincoat Killer, the mysterious, glowing eyed antagonist of the game. You never actually fight him as such, but he occasionally chases you down a corridor and you must perform quick time events to get away, or he will corner you in a room and you must hide to avoid him. For the most part, these encounters are very tense, even if some of the quick time events can be awkward. You will quickly have a Pavlovian fear reaction to the sound of axes grating as they are dragged along the floor.
Fortunately, however, combat is not really the point of the game, and is more of a roadblock to the other sections of the game. Most of your time is spent in what could be referred to as exploration sections, where you are free to explore the town of Greenvale more or less at your leisure. York can walk or drive about the rather large town, which is a sandbox environment in which the supporting cast live. They have rather impressive routines built in that see them going to work, doing their shopping, and stopping to prepare or go out for meals. Some of their behaviour even changes depending on the weather. Very few games even attempt this level of fidelity in terms of having their setting and characters make sense logistically, and it pulls off quite a good illusion, especially since it will take players a while to truly grasp just how detailed the routines of the characters can be, and how it even occasionally can allow inference or deduction of character information.
Fishing is one of a few side activities. Of course, it's as surreal as everything else.
Navigation is a bit problematic to begin with, as the map is quite useless. It necessitates opening the menu a lot, and even then the orientation of the map can be inconsistent, meaning looking at it can make you even more lost. In a weird way, this kind of works to the overall feel of the game, though. In the plot, York is a city-slicker outsider for the first while, and it oddly makes sense that he'd have trouble getting around at first. The town has enough land marks that by the time York becomes more acclimatized in the plot, you'll know your way around. That said, it's hard to imagine that this was by design, but as I'll elaborate on further, this is one of those things that ought to be an issue and yet the game convinces you to overlook it and even appreciate it.
Speaking of the plot, this is delivered mostly in "mission" segments, which begin by having York attend a certain place at a certain time of day. This usually triggers a cutscene and will advance the plot in some way. I won't elaborate on any details, but these scenes range from awkward to hysterical to genuinely disturbing, and as the game goes on and the stakes are raised, become gripping and emotional, even as the game throws more and more silliness at you. Although the story itself is linear and the player has little agency, it is surprisingly well told with a lot of detail, and offers up sufficient information and intrigue to keep you asking questions about what it all could mean. Many of the characters also slowly reveal themselves to have interesting depth and motivation, despite initially seeming one dimensional or stereotypical, with York himself undergoing quite the arc. The plot is one of the two pillars of the game for me, and is what keeps you wanting to forge on.
This grisly murder acts as impetus for the plot
The other pillar is harder to describe, but I suppose it could be summed up as "charm". This game has so many moments that are strange, baffling or weird, and above all just so different from what one normally sees in games, or in any other media really, that it quickly engenders a comforting feeling. Cute little things like York being perfectly willing to eat smoked salmon he finds in a haunted lumbermill, to a weaponized guitar, to a set of keys themed after non-differentiable squirrels add to the charm. Even at its darkest, the game never broods or feels like it is taking itself too seriously, and this underlying tongue in cheek tone, combined with a growing sense of familiarity with the town and the characters, and with York himself, culminates in making the player feel a sense of belonging that is extremely rare in games. This is bolstered further still by odd yet thoughtful details, such as York's beard growing in real time if you don't shave, and his suit getting dirty if you don't change and wash it.
Presumably York carries all of that $6541.24 as loose change
I'd also like to give special mention to the way in which we learn about York. As mentioned, York speaks to an unseen friend, Zach. Well, he talks to Zach even while alone, meaning you'll hear him pontificate about a lot of topics while you drive about town. The driving on it's surface is quite slow and boring, even as you upgrade your car, but I found myself wanting to drive everywhere, even after getting a teleporting radio device, to hear more about York through his conversations with Zach. Not to spoil anything, but this feature means you'll know a lot more about York's tastes and inclinations than you otherwise would. These optional dialogues are similar to the codec conversations of the Metal Gear series, and achieve a similar level of success in fleshing out the characters and adding to the endearing nature of the cast.
I'd normally talk about the graphics and sound and all that jazz, but to be honest, I kind of stopped caring about those things. The aforementioned charm of the game made these things stop mattering, and occasionally their ineptitude even enhanced the game by providing amusing moments where the soundtrack doesn't fit the scene, or where York will display a hilarious devil-like grin. It's kind of hard to justify allowing this exception, but once this game get's it's hooks into you, it really does defy objective analysis.
Much like this unbelievably delicious turkey sandwich, it's all about taste
To sum up, this is a game I began to enjoy in an ironic manner, much like one would with a "so bad it's good" movie like The Room. However, as I kept playing, kept uncovering more plot details, kept seeing more strange events, and learned more about the odd cast of characters, the irony slowly faded and I was left with nothing but genuine affection for this game, and the unique experience it ultimately offers up, with a plot that keeps you wanting to know more, and exploration sections that allow you to learn more about the characters if you choose to take the time to do so. Like Columbo, even though it is pretty scruffy and might ruin your day occasionally, you really can't help but love it and appreciate what it can do.