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Wot I Think: Deadly Premonition

Inside The Black Lodge

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Deadly Premonition is fascinating, broken, bizarre, enormous, boring, brilliant and absolutely unsuitable to play on my PC (Durante’s fix helps though). I’ve laboured through more crashes than SID-H3, as well as wrestling with awkward mouse and keyboard controls. Eventually I resorted to playing in a window because that seemed to cause fewer collisions with the desktop. I wouldn’t have persevered for a lesser game, even though, at times, this is the least of games. Here’s wot I think.

For those who have been living under a Rock, Paper, Shotgun for the last few years, Deadly Premonition may be an unknown quantity. Originally released on one console and eventually ported to another console, it’s taken a long time to find its way to these hallowed shores. Unfortunately, it arrives in a rubber dinghy and has used the seat of its own trousers to patch the most obvious holes in the vessel. Bare-bum to the breeze, Deadly Premonition makes Dark Souls’ PC port look like a bottle of 1855 Taylor Fladgates Scion. While the latter could have been described as ‘functional’, in the sneering way that Jeremy Clarkson might describe a Vauxhall Vectra, Deadly Premonition sometimes doesn’t manage to function.

Admittedly, not everybody has had quite such a horrible experience with the game, but I can’t start the engine of a car without the game locking up, unless I’m playing in a window rather than fullscreen. In a game that is based in an area that contains large empty pieces of nothing between important objectives, side missions and odd discoveries, that’s a problem.

If I travelled everywhere on foot, poor Agent York would be exhausted and if he spends the whole day sleeping, I’ll miss out on meeting some of Greenvale’s most interesting people and becoming involved in their unusual lives. Deadly Premonition, you see, is an open world survival horror comedy, a sweet-scented pop culture potpourri that occasionally farts out the rancid odour of a serial killer’s unwashed drainage system. At times, its contents are far stranger than even its swollen reputation might prepare a newcomer to expect but it can also be painfully ordinary, presenting a repetitious blandscape to navigate, using awkward controls and mapping.

The dips and troughs in quality and interest are difficult to measure, given the freedom of all but the opening hours and the disordered nature of all but the key missions, but I can say one thing with certainty – this is a game that begins badly, blunders often and ends beautifully.

The opening has all the subtlety and grace of a piece of Twin Peaks fan fiction, smugly conceived by somebody who hasn’t understood anything about Twin Peaks except Coffee, Lumber, Dreams, Dead Young Woman and FBI. Nothing is explained, so the player is left to wonder if flickering static and garbled images are intended to portray psychic profiling or investigative abilities, and whether the nasty locals with flexible spines and hollow eyesockets are possessed, hallucinated or the living dead. York, our wax-faced hero, doesn’t shed any light on the matter, happy just to shoot them and celebrate every headshot with a contented yelp.

Rather than inspiring curiosity, it’s frustrating, like Alan Wake on a hundredth of the budget and wearing a self-consciously wacky hat. The voice acting and animations are wooden, there’s a linear path to follow, full of cloned enemies, and York can only progress by switching on generators to open locked gates. In hindsight, the introductory scenes are reminiscent of the distancing effect that takes place in Silent Hill 2’s opening meander, during which expectations of immediate horrors drain and tension builds. Deadly Premonition begins with a level of weird that is banal and expected in the context of third-person survival horror. It keeps players at arm’s length for a good while, and what big arms it has, but gradually it reels them in and shows its true hand.

A few hours after York’s arrival in town, he’d spoken at length of his love for Spielberg’s ‘panic movies’ while alone in a car, always addressing the unseen Zach. He’d shown up at a meeting in the middle of the night, only to find the community centre closed, and he’d then wandered the streets looking for a jar of pickles to eat as his suit became drenched with rain and sweat, and his stubble threatened to blossom into a brambling beard. Forget hunting the killer. I needed to shave and do some laundry

Without fully explaining the accruing features, Deadly Premonition ceases to be what it was and becomes a compressed RPG, in which the player character’s hunger and exhaustion must be managed, in which NPCs follow routines, and can be tracked, trailed and spied on in their own homes. At a certain point, just over a couple of hours into the story, York is left to interpret the case on his own and while there’s always an objective to follow, most of what the game has to show is away from the main path, taking place at odd hours of the day, in houses, cafes and seemingly abandoned places.

Greenvale isn’t a ‘living world’ in any sense. It’s more like a fairground attraction, a ghost train in which animatronic figures shudder in and out of position as their timers tick down. York is a mechanic and a spectator inside a broken funhouse machine, attempting to fix the world inside by understanding it, which he can only do by being in the right place at the right time.

While it’s possible to miss sideplots, characters and some of the game’s strongest parts of the game’s script, advancing the main storyline is simple enough. Go to the designated location between certain hours of the day and a cutscene will occur, often followed by some basic exploration or one of the many lengthy combat interludes, which can be laborious but never managed to repel me entirely.

There’s usually something of interest to see, even when corridors and puzzles warp and repeat like the reflections in carnival mirrors, but the actual process of killing weird apparitions is dull. Aim, fire, aim, fire, back away, aim, fire, reload, switch weapons – all at a slow pace. And then there are chase sequences that might as well be taking place underwater, with all participants wearing concrete shoes. Buttons are hammered – Daley Thompson’s Decathlon in a rusty tunnel, a red-eyed serial killer at the back of the pack.

Flitting between all of the fractured elements, the story and characters are the glue that holds Deadly Premonition together. Whether it’s York’s darker and smarmier Dale Cooper or ‘King’ George the sheriff, the people of Greenvale all find their way to demolish fourth walls, playing to the camera like the denizens of an unscreenable sitcom, or acknowledging their lack of agency and the weird rules of the world that has been created around them.

The game sometimes fits the story it’s telling like a two-dollar suit wrapped around the six million dollar man, and normally that’d cause me to lose interest faster than the victim of a payday loan, but the shabby jacket is a necessary part of Deadly Premonition’s persona. Interactivity is introduced in layers – first of all, York can run, strike and shoot, later he can drive, eat and sleep, eventually he can independently investigate, learn and explore. Actions and interactions are in a process of evolution.

I’ve tried to avoid typing these four letters in sequence, but META. META META META. There’s an argument to be made that Deadly Premonition is a game entirely about itself, a ludological conversation, or perhaps a joke. My favourite punchline had nothing to do with the script – I was driving across town, bored of sticking to the roads and keeping to the speed limit as I’d been instructed to by the sheriff, who sat at my side. There are controls for the indicators, for windscreen wipers, horn and lights – I followed the rules, even though we’d only passed a couple of other cars.

Then I realised I’d hit a dead-end. The map doesn’t zoom out far enough to make route planning particularly efficient so I’d been following a navigation marker, going in the right direction but into a cul-de-sac. My destination was only a couple of minutes away, right across a field, between some houses, but doubling back and finding an alternate route would take five, maybe ten minutes.

I glanced across at George. He was staring straight ahead. I turned on the wipers, flashed the lights, honked the horn. He continued to stare at the horizon.

It took us forty five seconds to cross the field, the car bumping and jolting, its ‘health’ reduced from 100% to 86%. George didn’t react, and how could he? He’s just a mannequin, a part of the machine.

Moments like that make me love Deadly Premonition as much as anything that comes out of the characters’ mouths. When a frustrating mechanic (and driving is like steering a fridge on wheels) can be torn to pieces, the world simulated just enough to allow exploration but rarely enough to construct proper boundaries. It’s a game that rewards exploration, of both its systems and its world, always seeming as likely to break as to bend.

Sadly, on PC, as it operates currently, the breakages are more vexing. Even though the story – which is best experienced with little warning – contains humour, horror and intelligence in abundance, it’s difficult to recommend a version of the game that has so many problems. It does, however, deserve its reputations, all of them. Deadly Premonition is often more confused than confusing, but if it stutters across your wavelength while it rambles between tones and stations, you might well join the cult.

Deadly Premonition is available now.

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