Halloween Special – Deadly Premonition

Since Halloween’s coming up, I figured I’d take a break from writing about Final Fantasy XIII to take a look at a horror game instead. Don’t worry, this one will be a fair bit shorter; I’m not planning to write another full series until this current one is done.

Many years ago I was in London shopping around for games I’d never heard about before (this wasn’t hard, since I tend to live under a rock). One of the two games I picked up was Divinity 2, an excellent RPG that I spent far too much time playing. However, the other game was to have perhaps an even greater impact on me – Deadly Premonition.

The cover gave me mixed quality messages – on the front, it boldly proclaimed a “Perfect” 10/10 review from Destructoid, while on the back it managed to misspell the mysterious murderer’s name as the “Raincort Killer”. Still, I was in the mood for a new horror game, it was set in a rural town, and the story was based around a murder investigation, so I was sold. I liked other horror games in such settings, like Silent Hill, and enjoyed crime stories too… so this couldn’t go wrong, right?

Well, that wasn’t really how I felt once I’d given it a first try.

The game starts you off with a lengthy cutscene showing a man and two boys stumbling upon a murdered woman in the forest, before zipping away to show various people around town crying awkwardly. I wasn’t too sold by the acting, and while superb graphics are not something I require to enjoy a game, everything felt a little faded and bland.

Still, I wasn’t going to give up just based on that. After that cutscene, you can start the game from the main menu, at which point you join the main character, Francis York Morgan, in a weird dream room that is, well… take a look for yourself:

This room sets the mood for the game, and also serves as a brief tutorial on how to interact with or inspect objects. With that done, you return to the real world, at which point we have a proper introduction to our protagonist as he’s driving to Greenvale for an FBI investigation. I won’t spoil his opening conversation, but it was a great way to display his personality in a short space of time.

In the habit of many a horror game protagonist, he swerves to avoid someone in the road, crashes, and stumbles from the wreckage into a strangely nightmarish forest. It was here that I began to lose hope. The controls are quite twitchy, your character’s movements aren’t the most fluid, and there were various anti-atmosphere features that put me off. For example, every time you pick up an item, you get yanked out of the game to be shown the item before being returned to your character.

That may not seem bad by itself, but it does get annoying when it happens with every item. Additionally, you can find floating FBI symbols around the area to earn $5 for each you pick up. I’d have expected floating, rotating score items in a platformer, but not in a horror game. Regardless of how unsettling the location and ambience were, these small details were getting in my way, and I wasn’t immersed at all at this stage.

So this doesn’t seem like the biggest endorsement of the game, and indeed I put it down once I left the forest. You reach a road in a rather less grim version of the town, with blue skies and infinitely fewer zombies, but I’d had enough and saved and quit at the nearest available phone.

That was it for Deadly Premonition for at least a couple of months, but eventually my curiosity got the better of me, and I put it on while chatting with someone on Skype. As I continued to play, my commentary on the game became increasingly more baffled, until at some strange point I realised I was actually hooked. How exactly did this come about?

After you head down the road where I previously quit the game, and meet the local police, you check into the hotel for some well-deserved rest. Another sequence in the red dream room follows, and after you wake up, you can explore your hotel room, check out the facilities, and have breakfast with the quirky owner.

I like to talk about immersion, and how I find a lot of games fail to manage this. Deadly Premonition, with this simple sequence of daily life at a hotel, succeeded. I found it funny, charming, and creative, and was compelled to continue onwards.

You’re then invited to meet up with your police contacts at the Sheriff’s Office, and get to experience the game’s driving. I loved that you had the full town to explore, and the basic idea of driving around it is great.

Unfortunately, like the shooting mechanics, the driving is quite wonky, from the way the car bumps off scenery to the twitchy turning that can often result in your car doing some impressive slides on its side. You also have your fuel to watch, a mechanic that I don’t always appreciate, but which is mostly fine here. As another nice touch, you can get one of the garage owners to personally fill up your car’s tank, and I highly recommend asking Jack to do that for you.

Once I was done with business at the Sheriff’s Office, I headed over to the hospital to get the autopsy report. After a chess-based puzzle and an energetic cutscene, I was hooked. Even the ensuing shooting section didn’t dampen my spirits. Despite its unsteady opening, the game introduces all sorts of features, with side missions, minigames, and just general exploration, though certain story checkpoints do limit what you can do.

So there’s a lot to occupy you, and I found various features to be quite immersive, but is the game scary? I wouldn’t say so, exactly, but at the same time certain parts of the story did get under my skin. The latter part of the game is intense as far as I’m concerned, and I felt it managed to pull off a satisfying ending without having so much closure that it spoiled the atmosphere. There’s plenty of story and questions to dig into, making it tempting to revisit the world every now and then to look for anything new you didn’t notice before.

Additionally, the characters were compelling enough that I feared for them as things got more dangerous later on. The quirky humour contrasts nicely with the darker side of town, making things feel that bit more oppressive when you leave the fun behind.

So in summary, Deadly Premonition is more than the sum of its parts. It has dated graphics, wonky mechanics, and questionable voice-acting at times, but it also has creativity, energy, and charm, and I wholeheartedly recommend giving it a try.

Just perhaps not the PC version. That’s the most horrific part of any of this.

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