I finally bought a copy of the Twin Peaks DVD boxset a couple of weeks ago. It’s partly because I want Kim to see it (so no talking about details here please) and partly because there’s nothing else like it anywhere. Why am I telling you this while I’m supposed to be reviewing Deadly Premonition, one of the latest European releases for the Xbox 360? Well, the game pays more than a passing tribute to the old TV series. It too is set in a small American logging town up in the mountains, it too starts with the discovery of a young girl who has been murdered, and it too puts an FBI agent in the town to try and figure out what happened. The similarities to Twin Peaks don’t end there. The town is full of weird and wonderful personalities, each with their own role to play in the investigation into the murder. There’s the gas station owner who talks to hundred dollar bills (when he said that I thought he was after a bribe, but it turns out that he does talk to them and you can glean some information by listening into those conversations), his wife who gives you the “special service” when you get your car washed at the station for the sixth time, the Pot Lady who walks around clutching her pot of stew and fills the same role as the Log Lady in Twin Peaks, the wheelchair bound Mr Stewart who speaks only in rhyme and wears a gas mask as well as a cast of other equally weird people in the town.
As weird and wonderful as the people of the town of Greenvale are, they’re nothing compared to the main character of the game – Agent Francis York Morgan (“Call me York. That’s what everybody calls me.”). You see, York is crazy. Actually, let me rephrase that – York is batshit crazy with a side of doolally in a whole heap of insanity. He’s king of the crazy tree and he knows it. Coffee talks to him and tells him his future, giving him important clues in the case that he follows without question. This is a fact he casually mentions here and there as the player listens in disbelief before screaming “Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat???” at the screen.
Then there’s Zach, York’s imaginary friend who he has no problem talking to out loud in front of other people and usually about those other people. While Zach is no doubt meant to be the dramatic embodiment of York’s inner workings and profiling skills, he comes across as yet another reason why the FBI would never have allowed this man through the psychological screenings. Agent York has no problem with flipping his car and leaving it in flames in the middle of the woods, telling a sheriff’s deputy that he had a small accident and that it’s nothing to worry about (Hello! Forest fires anyone?). In the middle of dinner with the small town sheriffs talking about the worst crimes they’ve had to deal with he’ll tell them that he too hasn’t dealt with anything all that different to the shoplifting kids they regularly have to sort out then launch into a charming anecdote about a guy who killed his victims and then used their bones as kitchen and bathroom utensils before finishing with a story about a student who raped 800 women. Yeah, not too different at all eh? Then there are the Japanese horror inspired monsters, eyeless humans who bend over backwards, move slightly out of synch with reality and like to stick their entire arms down York’s throat. He’s the only one that can see them so far and he doesn’t mention them to anyone else. I have the sneaking suspicion that they represent his personal demons as he battles past them to figure out what is going on in this case but they may have just been added to give the game a more action-oriented feel. Either way they add to the feeling that York needs rubber wallpaper and fast. I haven’t finished the game yet but if you sat me down and told me that Agent York is actually the killer he’s trying to catch then I wouldn’t be surprised as he’s just that bloody nutty.
The fact that this game has been badly translated from it’s original Japanese doesn’t help with that either. “Look at them both standing there” says York as the camera centres on two witnesses who are sitting on a log. The bad translation permeates all aspects of the game, with an examination of most doors pulling up “Looks like it wasn’t locked” so often that my voice is hoarse from shouting “Isn’t!!!” at the screen. It’s not just the translation that’s shoddy though. The graphics are from the last generation of console and wouldn’t have stood out much on that. Even with the extra graphics power of the Xbox 360 behind it, the game still pops these rudimentary copy and pasted textures in as you travel through the world. The animation is cheaply done with each character having about two unique animations and three stock ones that are shared (The voice acting is what defines these characters and, whether by design or incompetence, they come across as characters from a soap opera in the 80s and it really fits with the tone of the game). Basically, this game is as badly coded as Agent York is insane.
It’s strange then, after writing a few paragraphs talking about how bad and insane the game is, that I have to admit it’s also an original and quite amazing game. From the start of the investigation you’ll find yourself with free run of the quite large town and can visit shops to buy new items, investigate houses, tail people, find collectable items, and take on fifty sidequests built into the game. While doing all that you have to manage your health and cleanliness. If York gets too hungry or tired his health will start to drain so it’s best to keep of top of things and keep a small stash of items (food to combat hunger and coffee to combat tiredness) on you. Over time his beard will grow and his suit will start to smell resulting in your pay being docked, so you can change suits and send ones you aren’t wearing to the cleaners for a price as well as shave at any of the sinks around the world. It sounds like a hassle when you first hear about the feature but it’s easily managed once a day, there are plenty of opportunities for you to catch up if you’ve missed one, (even taking a quick nap while a psychotic killer is roaming through a house looking for you) and it adds to the feeling of living out of your suitcase and being a crack FBI agent. New suits can be bought around the town at different times as well as food items and places to take your lunch. When you first arrive in Greenvale you’ll be limited to driving the police cars around the town but a certain individual will sell you a new car quite cheaply if you can find him and then the game feels a little more stylish as you travel around it’s quite massive game world, and you can customise them so they don’t need to be filled with gas so often (run out and you’re stranded, but you can always let off an emergency flare to summon a patrol car to your position), and most missions helpfully give you unlimited petrol. You can tail people through the town and see what they get up to in their private lives, even peeking through windows to watch what they do when they think no-one is watching. This seemingly innocuous feature is enhanced by the many secrets the game’s characters hold and, as you find out more about each of them, you’ll want to know even more. It’s compulsive, a guilty pleasure, and yet it fits with the multiple personalitied FBI agent you’re playing. Once you’ve gotten the hang of the game and are trying to fill time between the time activated mission start points (you can always wait at them and smoke cigarettes to make time shoot forward much more quickly if you prefer) you’ll be glad of the multiple distractions that open up along the way, as well as the opportunity to just explore and find new aspects to the story off the beaten path. As you settle into the pace that the game sets it’s many problems fade away and even the glaringly bad graphics and animation become a part of it’s charm that you wouldn’t want to change.
Like the Twin Peaks series that it bases itself on, there is nothing else quite like Deadly Premonition. It’s failings and it’s genius are the same things to different people and it’s style is like nothing you’ve ever seen before yet so familiar you’ll be trying to place it all through the game. The setting is Twin Peaks mixed with a little Crossroads (if you’re from the UK you’ll have no doubt suffered through that awful series at some point) but the gameplay is a hybrid of Silent Hill, Resident Evil 4 and Clock Tower (a sadly missed series in which a powerless protagonist is chased by a monstrous killer and must hide and escape from it). It takes the best bits of those games along with the worst and randomly hurls them at you amongst it’s own innovations. I’ve got to get past a load of the creepy eyeless creatures before solving a puzzle. I can fight them or I can hold my breath to stop them seeing me (they see breath of course…) as I sneak past, but this raises my pulse rate and when that gets too high I wont be able to run or hold my breath for a while, plus my basic movement speed will be reduced. This mechanic adds tension and tactical play to what would otherwise be a pretty boring if tough shooter. Oh, here comes the terrifying Raincoat Killer (the main antagonist of the game) with his glowing eyes and his axe. I’ve got a load of ammo left so I should be able to shoot him right? Wrong, this is where the screen splits to show his view and I have to hide before he breaks the door down and kills me. While I’m hiding I’ll be seeing a cinematic view of him hunting around the room for me and will have to hold my breath when he stops to listen or he may find me. All the while my in game pulse rate is rising and I can hold my breath for shorter and shorter periods. Oh no, he’s found me again! This time I have to run from him by hammering buttons, waggling the joystick (stop snickering) and hitting the right button to evade when he catches me up. These events are pure pulse pounding moments of terror where one mistake can mean certain death, and they make the need to unmask this killer much more personal. There’s a lot to dislike about Deadly Premonition and, if you’re the sort who values a game on graphics alone or if you like your story to be spoon fed to you then you’re not going to like this game. It’s as simple as that. However, if you’re the sort who wants to spend time in an unbelievable world, has no problem looking around for clues and uncovering secrets piece by tiny piece then Deadly Premonition is the only one of it’s kind that can offer you that experience.
So all that remains is to rate the game, and that’ll probably be the most surprising part of this review. How do you rate something that is at once the best and worst examples of game design on the system, an unexpected gem and an abortion of game at the same time? How do you give a numerical value to something that has a genius moment of horror followed immediately by an unintentionally comic aside to the main character’s imaginary friend about the movie Jaws or a nod to his coffee having warned him about this happening? On an arbitrary numerical scale where zero is the worst game ever made and ten is the best game possible, there’s only one score that this game really deserves and I think everyone who has played it will agree with me when I tell you that it’s the only sensible score to give this game.
You know what… I’ve just finished this game and I stand by my score.
It’s a very well put together story with some nice twists and a few brilliant stand out sequences. Rather mature towards the end as well, because the developers decided not to go for the cliche ending and stuck to their guns instead. Sure, the story itself is a little silly when you figure it all out (what games aren’t?), but the way it’s told and the twists that the main character has to deal with in his life is something that many video game writers could learn from.
I have to say, if this game were developed in the West (so that it had no bad translation and no anime style boss creatures) and had a higher budget to allow for more music to be used (the same few stings are used repeatedly and rather randomly too) and better graphics (which I don’t actually mind, but ) then I fully believe it would have had rave reviews and gotten ten out of ten on every site.
Well worth playing for anyone who has the opportunity and like nothing you’ve ever experienced.