Deadly Premoniton: Highly Flawed, Yet Highly Loveable
For a game with a development cycle as long as Deadly Premonition's, it doesn't necessarily have a lot of excuses for being what it is. Jankiness in most every department is typically the name of the game and in the few fleeting moments where it does actually shine for legitimate reasons, its problems quickly humble it and bring it back down to Earth. Deadly Premonition is therefore not a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination. A quick glance at its box art and $20 price tag in the US is probably indicative enough of that reality. Yet the game still has heart and perhaps since a lot of that heart does come from the fact it never tries to disguise its faults, Deadly Premonition is a game that ultimately comes across as charming and endearing. It won't stop you from yelling at it when it fumbles, but it will help make the experience a forgivable and worthwhile one nonetheless.
While the storyline is indeed appropriately macabre and sobering at times, it nonetheless does a good job of motivating you to get from one point to the next. It's still not perfectly written and the execution can definitely be awkward at times, even acquiring a sort of unfortunate Indigo Prophecy-like sensation with its logic towards the end, but it still comes out compelling and even appropriately poignant. Having said that, Deadly Premonition is hardly a game that is always meant to be taken seriously. Its wonderfully zany cast and the situations they get put in make sure that the game is a really humorous one, too. The developers seemed to be aware that Deadly Premonition will probably never be considered a high-tier AAA game and as such do a great job at having the game be absurd and poke fun at itself when it should be doing so. A lot of those moments come from York and his almost deliberately anti-social personality, but virtually everyone else in the game has their moments, too, whether it be from the gun dealer who's actually way into trading cards, the hardcore metal rocker running the convenience store, the lady obsessed with her companion the cooking pot, or anyone else in-between. The humor never feels awkwardly placed and it does a lot to ease the pains from issues that often crop up from the game.
The actual gameplay itself in Deadly Premonition is largely split between combat and GTA-style overworld exploration. Neither porition is particularly good. To say that nothing is outright broken is probably the highest praise I can honestly latch onto the game. The combat is very reminiscent of Resident Evil 4 by having you decimate waves of zombies while you attack them from an over-the-shoulder camera angle, but it's never anywhere near as engaging as the source material. Aside from going for headshots to get more money, there is virtually nothing in the way of strategy. You point, shoot, and do that until everything is dead. There are some extra mechanics such as holding your breath that let you stealthily sneak around some of the enemies, but at the end of the day, you're still accomplishing the same sorts of things at the end of the game as your are at its beginning and continue to do so in the exact same manner. This becomes even truer should you come upon weapons that have infinite ammo, as they give even less incentive to actually think and further make the game's difficulty a joke.
The only time the combat segments ever significantly change is when quick time events appear and usually the generous timing in conjunction with consistent button presses mean they're not all that difficult. If you do screw them up, York will usually end up dying, but you always have the option to restart the sequence or go to your previous save point, should circumstances dictate that you do so. If you die at all during the game, it is likely to happen during the quick time events, since the regular zombies themselves do a very pitiful job of actually posing a threat to you.
Usually the combat parts of the game are justified under the guise of having York search and investigate for clues pointing towards the murderer. While this sounds as though it should introduce new mechanics, all it really means is that you walk to specific portions of the map, solve the occasional puzzle to access evidence, and then have York piece everything together automatically so he can tell you what went down at the scene. It contributes to the narrative and helps establish that York really is an elite profiler, but from a gameplay standpoint, they do little to validate you as a player and make you feel like you're actually contributing to the all-encompassing solution.
The overworld exploration Deadly Premonition has tends to offer more interesting opportunities than the fighting ever does. Despite the fact that it's confined to long stretches of dull driving and roaming around that play as though GTA III never came out, the times when you're out and about running more comparitively regular errands are when you best get to know the game's characters. When York is either alone or with other people while driving, for example, optional conversations can happen that never fail to be entertaining and/or entertainingly ludicrous. In addition, with the assistance of a day-night system, everybody in the town has schedules and that means the people you can encounter and their current circumstances change as a result. It's in these routines that a lot of the game's side quests appear, since talking to the right people at the right places and at the right times are usually how you end up killing free time when you're not on a story mission, which happens quite a lot. Doing so means getting to learn personal details about the characters and their lives that aren't discussed in the main plotline, allowing them flesh out and become more attachable the more you spend time with them. By no means is it as fleshed out as, say, the Persona series' Social Links system, but it gets the job done and makes the cast all the more consistently interesting.
There are also a lot of other smaller issues that should be mentioned, as they consistently nag you throughout the game. To begin with, the dialog boxes don't seem to have gotten a lot of proofreading, as there are spelling issues abound on really simple words, although thankfully the voice acting doesn't adhere to those errors. Those same boxes also tend to have somewhat poor syncing in cutscenes, where voiced lines will start before the corresponding text even remotely thinks about rendering itself on the screen. The map you use to navigate around the game, while perfectly functional otherwise, arbitrarily turns in the same direction that York does, making it really hard to orient yourself for the first few hours of the game. Deadly Premonition's inventory system is also wonky, as it never really explains its also Resident Evil-looking organization systems and almost never indicates on the field when you're running at full capacity for an item you attempt to grab. This wouldn't be all that much of a problem if enemy zombies still didn't move towards you and attack while those sorts of error messages appear on the screen with York mindlessly standing around. There are also sleep and hunger meters for York meant to make you manage your time efficiently, except that both get depleted so rarely and are resolved with regular items so quickly that they might as well not be a part of the game in the first place.
Despite the fact that the combat nor the driving is not particularly great or memorable, the combination of the two still comes across as weirdly compelling and rewarding. Together they create an odd cohesion and reality within Deadly Premonition that make the gameplay palpable. Part of that comes from knowing that you're usually going to be rewarded by the story pretty handsomely at the end for tolerating it, but the game's constant self-awareness also plays a role there, as well. It never tries to be something that it isn't. It doesn't deny that it is a mishmash of both uninspired Resident Evil 4-style fighting and GTA-esque driving and exploration and that earnestness somehow makes it possible to come to terms with and accept all of the game's many, many blemishes in those areas. It certainly could have been a better game had circumstances been different, but the way in that it at least recongizes that and manages however it can to keep going ensures that the motivation to finish the game doesn't disappear. The gameplay is just as morbidly integral to the game's proceedings as everything else at the end of the day.
The same can be said for the Deadly Preomonition's technical elements. This is especially true with the graphics. Although the character models are usually decent and presentable, most everything else is mediocre at best. The environments are artistically and technoligically poor, with really rough textures, geometry, and pop-in abound. The frame rate also isn't all that stable during combat and gets especially bad when rendering multiple cameras' viewpoints simultaneously. The sound design, meanwhile, while still flawed, is markedly better. Sound effects are modest, but typically appropriate. The voice acting is also usually competent, making the lines feel convincing enough, yet somewhat hammy at times to be a reminder of what was likely a low budget development history for Deadly Premonition. Regardless, the actors do a sufficient job to make all of their characters and associated quirks shine vividly, making it difficult to be all that harsh with it. The music, surprisingly, is the game's best non-storyline-related asset and doesn't feel cheaply written at all. Beautifully composed and used to appropriately accent different parts of the story, the soundtrack is usually excellent. Unfortunately, Deadly Premonition does have a habit of suddenly switching songs without warning to accommodate changing moods, which is always jarring, even if the plot transitions themselves aren't awkward.
Harsh criticisms and Deadly Premonition can and should go hand-in-hand. The game doesn't do a lot of things very well at all and when it royally screws up, it noticeably hampers things. The combat is so simple to the extent that it's condescending and the driving and exploration are only ever interesting if you have filler conversation going on or finally get to your destination to actually accomplish something. Deadly Premonition definitely has no right to be called a perfect game by any account. Yet despite all that, despite the fact that it seems to be purposefully trying at times to derail your enjoyment, it's still a good success in its own right. The story and the characters are all highly thoughtful and engaging and the bad parts, as it turns out, are an interesting garnish that help define the game and make it distinct. It's not the way that most games should stand out, but Deadly Premonition handles itself well with its own brand of composure and awkward grace that the ride to be had on it is a good one, through and through. It's campiness done right in a video game and for that, it's $20 well spent.