Deadly Premonition: a charming kind of awful

At the time of writing, SWERY’s Kickstarter campaign for his next game The Good Life has just under a month to go to meet its £450k funding target (significantly less than when it was first launched on Fig late last year) which is just over a third met. The pure low-poly charm of a Japanese developer trying to capture English rural life in a town whose inhabitants become cats and dogs at night was enough of an incentive for me to back it, though the reason other people may choose to back it will be down to Swery’s own work.

Legendary Japanese developers have had success with Kickstarter already, including Yu Suzuki’s Shenmue III and Koji Igarashi’s Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night (both games I have also backed), though it also includes Keiji Inafune’s disappointing Mighty No. 9. The reason for their success comes down to great work they have been known for, which here include ShenmueCastlevania: Symphony of the Night and the Mega Man series. It’d be tempting to add SWERY to that list too, except he hasn’t had quite the same long illustrious career. What he is best known for is his survival horror/murder mystery Deadly Premonition. It’s been cited as the most polarising game of all time, or a rare kind of ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ game that critics somehow find endearing, which has given it something of a cult status. This is just what I’ve heard for the most part anyway, since I had never actually had the chance to play it myself. But once I’d pledged support for The Good Life, I decided to make use of Xbox One’s backwards compatibility support and get hold of a copy of Deadly Premonition to finally experience it for myself.

Well, there’s no way of putting it. This is undoubtedly the greatest piece of garbage I’ve ever played, and yet it’s also utterly bonkers and hilarious, though I’m also wary of calling it ‘endearing’ or ‘charming’ as the more forgiving critics might put it. Like that’s what we might say about Suda51’s brand of crazy unpolished flashes of genius but at least his games work. But trudging through this 20-odd hour whodunnit in small-town America unveils just how terrible it is on every level.

Where to begin – there’s of course the visuals, which might just look acceptable in the PS2 era, with character models only looking as comical as their mannerisms, such as the way FBI Agent Francis York Morgan whips out his badge at every introduction (“Just call me York, that’s what everyone calls me”) or how he taps his chest with his finger during an important bit of dialogue, or how textures are essentially vomit smeared over a flat surface.

Though you’re following a narrative-driven murder mystery, the sleepy American town of Greenvale is also a large open world which you’re free to explore, except in open world terms, it’s actually more like Suda51’s No More Heroes – empty and rough, but even worse because locations are so spread apart and your piece-of-shit police car (with virtually non-existent collision physics) can only drive up to about 50mph. And oh boy, is navigation just awful to the point I’m ashamed to say I was put off from going off the route of following the main story to track down Greenvale’s multitude of bizarre characters to find out more about them and do their sidequests.

There’s supposed to be a Shenmue quality to Deadly Premonition, where each inhabitant follows their own daily routine according to a real-time clock (which by the way moves incredibly fucking slowly, until I found out you can smoke cigarettes to make the time pass) but in all honesty, it was such a chore getting around anywhere I just didn’t really have time or patience to explore. I’ve said before that what makes a game enjoyable to play is usually down to its traversal, how good it feels to get from A to B. Where most people seem to get the most laughs out of Deadly Premonition is in its cut scenes, which really are a laugh-out-loud jaw-dropping display of I-can’t-believe-this-shit headfuckery, but such is the absolute slog required to get to these moments I have a feeling I would’ve had gotten more laughs out of it if I’d just YouTubed the whole thing instead, because just about every playable section is painful.

Which brings us to the survival horror section of Deadly Premonition, or if you will, a poor man’s Resi 4. Obviously, most decent games can’t hold a candle to Shinji Mikami’s masterpiece but even so – my fucking days, the combat sections, which also happen to take place in a parallel dimension that’s never really explained, are the absolute pits. There’s something to be said about how they’re initially creepier than your average zombie, the way they come at you bent over their backs moaning “let me die”, then crying out “don’t want to die” when you do kill them but it quickly gets old when these sections drag out to an insufferable length. At one point, I thought, maybe they should at least change the enemy variety, and instantly regretted it when a new wall-clinging enemy riffing on the long-haired girl from Ring appears with tediously telegraphed attack patterns, and then you have to fight her again, and again, and again. Yup, really should’ve just YouTubed the whole fucking thing.

But let’s get to the cut scenes and the whole bizarre story, which is basically what I came for. I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it. Take Resi 4, I think story-wise it’s the best the series has ever been because it’s quite unabashedly a B-movie horror filled with killer one-liners and just the right balance of nonsense and suspense. Deadly Premonition on the other hand feels like the work of a foreigner who obviously loves American pop culture but doesn’t understand its depths and just throws it all on the walls hoping for something to stick, cue why you have driving sections where York will just talk to his imaginary friend Zach about random bits of pop trivia, which feel like stuff SWERY’s researched and just thought, might as well chuck it in there because why not. The most overt influence is of course Twin Peaks, including the dream/nightmarish sections in the Red Room. I mean, there’s homage and then there’s just taking the idea wholesale, though a more unkind critic would say that Deadly Premonition isn’t Lynchian so much as it lynches its ideas, the wackiness coming across as like a sixth-former’s interpretation of Twin Peaks through its most superficial signifiers. York is the kind of example of character writing where a novice thinks a lot of quirky characteristics make a character interesting – from his coffee premonitions to his love for pop culture trivia to Zach – it undeniably makes him stick out like a sore thumb, but that shit doesn’t exactly provide depth.

And yet I can’t help laughing my tits off with how batshit the tone changes at the drop of a hat. I’m seeing an awful lot of flack given to Far Cry 5 at the moment for its tonal dissonance – mate, you won’t believe the shit that happens in Deadly Premonition. It’s not because of the voice-acting, which is actually quite good (though awful audio imbalances spoil it) but the ludicrous music, which will veer from its mournful theme to a more upbeat country whistling cover of Super Mario World to another completely out-of-place jaunty number that’s used with comic timing to a character shaking their head in disbelief. By the time you get to a section where you have temporary control over York’s love interest, the deputy sheriff Emily, we suddenly get some crazy jazz theme while you’re chasing a dog around for clues, where by then I feel like I’ve just lost my fucking marbles. Having read a post-mortem of the game where the developers talk about how proud they are of the music, I can only imagine they’re either deliberately taking the piss, or swallowed a bunch of red seeds.

You might think I’m being too harsh on what’s after all a low-budget game and missing the whole ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ joke, and like, sometimes I can see where there is a genuine charm and warmth in the characters, while the Profiling flashbacks to the actual gruesome murders themselves are genuinely disturbing by being more suggestive than explicit. But really, there’s just too much shit to wade through that I’m honestly a bit baffled about the game’s cult status when similarly weird narrative mystery thriller Heavy Rain gets little love in retrospect. In truth, it might simply be people find SWERY a more charming personality than David Cage with his whole po-faced ‘feeling emotion’ schtick (and let’s not forget the awful sex scene QTEs), but I’m also not convinced by the defence that Deadly Premonition‘s ropiest elements are intentional.

Nonetheless, Deadly Premonition is a unique experience, though it’s one I played also to try and figure out what it might bode for The Good Life, should it successfully meet its Kickstarter goal. Of course, the problem for other successful Kickstarters is that the expectations are exceedingly high and very open to disappointment, as Mighty No. 9 has proven, while every new dead-eyed screenshot of Shenmue III raises scepticism. But when your best known game is already terrible, surely you’re exempt from the same expectations, right?

From early signs, the deliberate low-poly aesthetic of The Good Life is actually a better fit, while a new genre that focuses on an Animal Crossing-type mechanics of doing odd jobs to pay off a huge debt instead of subjecting us to shoddy combat sequences (apparently forced on SWERY by the publisher) may actually mean a more pleasant way of getting around and getting to know the English countryside town of Rainy Woods. There’s still a murder mystery in there but my only hope is it doesn’t overshadow the rest of the charm it has the potential to be. Besides, it’s not often you see an outsider’s take on English rural life, so we could be in for a pleasant surprise whatever SWERY comes up with. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you if it involves some mad way of reading tea leaves.

 

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