An Hour With... Deadly Premonition

Hey there folks and welcome to another instalment of An Hour With..., my blog feature wherein I choose a random game from my enormous backlog and spend sixty minutes with it to determine whether I should PLAY it to completion, or PASS on the experience. The overarching aim of this feature is to help me whittle down my immense Pile of Shame by giving me some formative time with each title rather than simply casting games aside at random. If you're a newcomer to the series then you can get a flavour for what I'm trying to achieve my reading this introduction to the concept, or you can peruse the list of previous entries by means of the table below:

Previously on An Hour With...
#001 - WipEout (PS1C)#002 - Resistance: Fall of Man (PS3)#003 - Resident Evil: Director's Cut (PS1C)
#004 - Metro 2033 (X360)#005 - Red Dead Revolver (PS2)#006 - Sabre Wulf (XONE)

Today's game chosen at random by the Backloggery's awesome Fortune Cookie feature is the Xbox 360 version of a surreal survival horror title that's attained something of a cult status here on Giant Bomb. What is it, and how will it fare through its opening hour? Read on to find out more...

The Game

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Deadly Premonition is a third-person open-world survival horror game written and directed by Hidetaka 'SWERY' Suehiro and developed by Access Games. Receiving a staggered international release over the course of 2010, the game was published by Marvelous Entertainment in Japan (where it's known as 'Red Seeds Profile'), Ignition Entertainment in the US, and Rising Star Games in Europe. As FBI Special Agent Francis 'York' Morgan, the player is tasked with investigating a mysterious and grisly murder in the quiet American town of Greenvale. Deadly Premonition has gone down in history as one of the most critically polarising video games of all time, with ratings ranging from an irredeemable 2.0/10 from IGN, right through to a "perfect" 10/10 from Jim Sterling at Destructoid. Nonetheless, it has become something of a cult classic in the years since its release, not unlike one of its main inspirations, the drama series Twin Peaks. Perhaps most pertinently, the game was famously featured as the subject of dual 'Endurance Run' let's plays right here on Giant Bomb in the spring of 2010. A special 'Director's Cut' edition was released for the PlayStation 3 and PC in 2013.

The History

It probably won't surprise anybody reading this to learn that I bought this game purely because of the aforementioned Endurance Runs. What may come as a surprise, though, is that I'm yet to watch any of either playthrough. See, I bought the game with the intention of playing through it for myself first to gain my own uninfluenced opinions about the game, and then watching both sets of videos afterwards. I believe I picked up my copy of the game in early 2011, a few months after the original UK release in October 2010. Since then I've been meaning to get around to it, but its divisive reception has usually worked against it - after all, why would I spend time playing through something that could be terrible when I have so many critically acclaimed games in my backlog that I should probably get around to first? Thus the game has sat unplayed on my shelf for over six years, waiting for the day when I would finally pop it into my 360. Thanks to this blog feature, that day is finally upon us.

The Hour

Here's where the blog really gets going, with a blow-by-blow account of the sixty minutes I spend with the game in question. I'll be peppering in various thoughts and opinions alongside descriptions of my in-game actions, to give you a full and balanced account of my time with the title. Although I'm sure anyone reading this is probably already familiar with the story beats of Deadly Premonition, having either played it themselves or watched one (or possibly both) of the Endurance Runs here on Giant Bomb, I'll still pop my usual spoiler warning here and make you aware that there are likely to be some light early-game spoilers over the next few paragraphs. With that laid down, let's fire up the ol' 360 and see what this game has to offer...

Fifteen Minutes In...

Even before I'm given the option to start a New Game, Deadly Premonition throws me straight into the action by way of an introductory cutscene. Literally the first thing I notice about the game is the graphics, and I'm not saying that in a good way. The opening shots take place in woodland, and the textures and geometry are extremely primitive and low-resolution, betraying Deadly Premonition's origins as a title being developed for the PlayStation 2. Usually I can look past a game's visual shortcomings very easily, but when they're this in-your-face, it's hard not to be put off by it. It's not helped by the voice work either, which despite being minimal at this stage, still manages to come off as poorly acted.

Looking past the aesthetic issues, though, there's some genuine intrigue going on here. A young woman has been murdered and strung up on a tree, where her body is discovered by two young twin boys and their grandfather. After a slightly uncomfortable montage involving a lot of sweeping camera movements and some out-of-place music, we're treated to several snippets of the townsfolk presumably mourning her death. Against all odds, it has what I presume is the desired effect - it gets me curious as to what has happened to this woman, who her upset acquaintances are, and how it all ties together. By the time I reach the main menu and start a New Game, I'm already slightly invested in Deadly Premonition's weird brand of storytelling.

The opening cutscenes of the game proper don't exactly do much to shed any light on what's going on. I'm put in control of a suited man in a red room surrounded by trees and carpeted with fallen leaves. The twin boys are here too, but now they've got wings for some reason? Before I can make sense of any of this, the clock chimes and I'm cast out of this scene and into another. Our smartly dressed protagonist is introduced as FBI Special Agent Francis 'York' Morgan, and it seems he's been sent out to investigate the murder of the young woman seen in the game's introduction. This five-minute cutscene prompts so many questions that I'm struggling to remember them all at this point. Why does York think it's acceptable to light a cigarette, talk on a mobile phone and use a laptop while driving? Who is this 'Zach' he's talking to? Why does that squirrel make a monkey noise? Why does York just shrug off the fact he's totalled his car and light a fresh cigarette as it starts to burn? This game's complete lack of self-awareness is totally stupid, and yet oddly captivating.

Thirty Minutes In...

I now assume full control of York in order to navigate him away from his wrecked car and into town. It doesn't take long for me to realise that Deadly Premonition doesn't conform to modern third-person shooting controls. York controls like a tank, with forward and backward movement and turning all on the left analog stick. The right trigger readies his weapon and the A button fires or swings. It's not a completely alien control scheme - Resident Evil 4 got a lot of mileage out of a very similar layout - but I feel like it is going to take some getting used to after years of using the right stick to aim and the right trigger to fire. Hopefully the game's combat will be reasonably forgiving while I adjust.

This first playable section of the game is incredibly linear and essentially boils down to guiding York down a set path intermittently punctuated with short story events and a couple of simple puzzles. These puzzles don't get much more complicated than attaching fuse boxes to generators and using them to power on electric gates to access the next area. It's a gentle introduction to exploration, and also combat, with a few isolated encounters with handfuls of zombie-like enemies. There's a lock-on feature mapped to the left trigger, which mitigates some of the awkward aiming sensitivity and lets me draw a bead on enemies instantly before fine-tuning my aim for a headshot. The enemies can teleport short distances and have an unsettling backwards limbo-shuffle animation which makes combat a bit more interesting, since their head isn't always in the place you might expect.

As I gradually press on through this opening section of the game, I can't shake the sense of complete bafflement that has been overwhelming me more or less since I booted it up. I'm perplexed by the inclusion of breakable melee weapons - why would I want to use any of them when my default weapon is a pistol with unlimited ammo? What is the significance of the medals scattered around the environment, why do I earn some money every time I pick one up, and what is this money even for? Less baffling and more outright frustrating is the game's Pause menu, which I have to keep accessing to see a map of the area I'm exploring. Because there are 3D models within the menu, it takes two or three seconds for it to load every time I press the Start button. That may not sound like a lot, but given how regularly I'm referencing the map to make sure I don't miss any explorable areas, the cumulative amount of wasted time waiting for the menu to load in starts to get pretty egregious.

Forty-Five Minutes In...

After about twenty minutes of gradual progress, I hit my first wall in the form of an un-telegraphed and unforgiving quick-time event. Just as I reach the end of this linear area, the red-coated figure that caused York's car accident appears once again and swings an axe in his direction. I have next to no time to react, and before I know what's happening, it's Game Over. I'm reset back to the last checkpoint, a little unfairly I feel, and I need to work my way back through the enemies I've just taken out all over again.

Replaying even this short five-minute segment is enough to further compound some of the issues I've been having up to this point. Utmost of those issues is the frustrating lack of a mini-map on the screen, forcing me to sit through the painfully slow Pause menu any time I want to check the area map. And that happens more than you might think, since the player's sense of direction is disoriented every time the game breaks for a cutscene or other interruption. This, coupled with the mounting confusion around all the game's mechanics (What is 'Profiling'? Why am I earning money for shooting these backwards zombies? WHAT IS GOING ON?!), serves to make the experience of playing Deadly Premonition not particularly fun.

I manage to get past the quick-time event the second time around, forcing the red-coated attacker to flee and leaving the path out of this tutorial-style area open. I head through the door in front of me, hoping that something, anything might happen to redeem this game and start to reveal to me why it's become a cult classic.

One Hour In...

And do you know what? The last fifteen minutes of my hour with Deadly Premonition do a pretty good job of turning me round. As soon as I regain control of York heading down the road into Greenvale (complete with what may be the best running animation I've seen in a long time), my prayers are answered with the addition of a mini-map in the bottom-left corner of the game's HUD. It's joined by an in-game clock, which tells me that there's probably going to be at least a bit of RPG-style time-management in this open-world game. Less clear is the 'limit' under the mini-map - perhaps this signifies there will be specific time windows to get things done in? Part of me feels I should read the manual to try and find out some of this stuff, but another part of me feels like Deadly Premonition's unique brand of crazy isn't going to be explained away in a twelve-page colour booklet.

Speaking of crazy, the main plot thread chooses this moment to rear its head once again. York meets Sheriff George Woodman and his Deputy Emily Wyatt on the bridge just outside town, and a little bit of exposition takes place establishing the status quo of Greenvale and just how unwelcome York's presence is. The whole scene, much like every other scene before it, is a captivating watch. There's next to no acknowledgement of what York has just been through, and nobody seems to mind that York stops every few seconds to have a chat with his imaginary friend - not even when he's commenting on how surprisingly attractive Emily is, right in front of her. My guess is that I'm supposed to take York's conversations with Zach as equivalent to asides in a play, where characters can step out of the on-stage action to relay information to the audience. That's what I'm going with anyway, since no other character in the game has acknowledged the York/Zach dichotomy up to this point.

York gets put up in the town hotel and the prologue sequence officially ends with a 'Mission Clear' statement appearing on screen. I don't appear to have been graded on my performance, but I have been paid a decent salary and a bonus for the medals I picked up and the enemies I put down. I'm assuming I'll get to spend all this money at some point, but as with a lot of other things in the game, nothing is especially clear right now. Beyond this there isn't really that much to relay from the last five minutes of my experience - York returns to the red forest room from the start of the game, where he meets another mysterious young boy who teaches him the basics of what I assume are Deadly Premonition's stealth mechanics (you hold your breath and move slowly past enemies, since they can't see you if you're not breathing apparently). When York wakes up in his hotel bed I have just enough time to save my game before my hour is up. Now that... was something else.

The Verdict

I don't think I've yo-yo'd back and forth on a game in An Hour With... as much as I have on Deadly Premonition. On the one hand, there's a lot about it that's undeniably bad. The visuals are sub-par in every possible aspect. The voice acting isn't great. The music is sparse and often seems wildly incongruous with what's actually unfolding on the screen. The controls are archaic and imprecise. Every design choice seems questionable - for example, why include melee weapons when your standard firearm has infinite ammo? Even the menu is a chore to navigate. There's a surreal air about everything that's happened in the last sixty minutes, with strange things occurring in-game that I feel the characters should be calling out, but they aren't. It's a weird-ass game.

And yet, for all these obvious flaws, there's enough interesting stuff going on underneath all that weirdness to make me genuinely curious about where the game goes from here. I still haven't experienced any of the open world of Greenvale. I've barely scratched the surface when it comes to interacting with its characters, all of whom up to this point have been weirdly charming in their own unique ways. I want to see where this murder mystery story ends up going. That's why, right now, I'm going to give Deadly Premonition a provisional PLAY verdict. I'm going to revisit my thoughts after another couple of hours of playtime, once the game has truly got going. If I care enough about the gameplay side of it at that point, then I'll keep playing. Likewise, if I'm not enjoying playing it, I'll step away and consume the rest of the story through either or both of the Endurance Runs on the site. Either way, this is one crazy video game, and I want to see how it unfolds.

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Here ends another edition of An Hour With..., one that may well be my favourite instalment thus far. As always, thanks very much for taking the time to read through this blog. I'll be back in the near future with what promises to be a very special edition of An Hour With..., with a slightly different focus from what I've been doing up to this point. Until next time, take care folks, and I'll see you around.

Daniel

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Currently playing - Deadly Premonition (X360)

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