Sunday, 28 November 2010

Deadly Premonition

Probably the last review I post before the inevitable head-scratching over year-end lists. Exciting times / where have the last twelve months gone?, etc etc.

It seems appropriate that Deadly Premonition should arrive in the same year that Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s mould-breaking television show, celebrates its twentieth anniversary. Often cited as the greatest series ever made, Twin Peaks’ heady brew of dark themes, rich symbolism and plain freakery – all wrapped up in the devices of soap opera – has been the source of inspiration for countless cultural works since. In fact, Deadly Premonition is the second videogame this year to draw its chief reference points from Laura Palmer and company, with the other being Remedy’s flawed but absorbing Alan Wake. It’s Hidetaka Suehiro’s game however that is, in terms of tapping into the spirit of Lynch, the more successful creation.

Deadly Premonition arrives on these shores on a wave of hype somewhat out of step for its extremely niche status; indeed few games could be labelled as ‘cult classics’ as soon as they arrive on shop shelves, but this is certainly one. Despite dividing critics, a lot of the reasons for this excitement – ironic or otherwise – rests on YouTube sightings and one particular review, its 10/10 rating proudly stamped to the front of the box, that heralded, quite brilliantly: “This game is so bad, it’s not just become good. It’s pretty close to perfect”.

The story sees you play as FBI agent Francis York Morgan, called to the fictional American town of Greenvale to investigate the murder of a young woman. Although the set-up is fairly conventional, it is Francis’ eccentric powers, which include the ability to deliver hilariously inappropriate dialogue with a straight face, forensically scan a crime scene, as well as have conversations with his invisible alter-ego Zach, that act as preludes to the strangeness within. The perspective of Zach, you quickly learn, is that of you as the player – but having the main protagonist break the fourth wall and address you is the least of Deadly Premonition’s idiosyncrasies.

Gameplay mechanics are built on influences as obvious as the affectionate riff on Twin Peaks is in terms of the game’s aesthetics. Survival horror has been a genre in need of a significant shake up for a while now, but even when that day comes there will always be titles like Deadly Premonition, whose set-up and rigid approach to exposition recalls the Silent Hill series, while the combat takes a leaf out of Resident Evil 4’s book, using an over-the-shoulder perspective. Like the rest of the game, it’s somewhat unrefined and, when looked at in isolation, quite poor – movement isn’t particularly smooth, the results lack gratification – but when put in context of the overall game you can’t help but feel that theses design decisions are all intentional.

It’s this sense of intent that works in Deadly Premonition’s favour; it is, after all, far easier to make a game with poor voice acting, nonsensical narrative and bizarrely motivated characters when your actual intentions are perhaps quite the opposite, than it is to do so with a view to creating an unsettling world, imbued with a quite delicious sense of the absurd. Greenvale is certainly one such open world. There are several side-quests and tasks scattered throughout; because many of the missions are time-sensitive in a manner akin to Dead Rising, there is a freedom afforded to the player to explore the environment when the narrative takes a breather.

What may work against Deadly Premonition are all the surface details that we perhaps take for granted in other higher-budgeted, well-intentioned and overly serious productions. The visuals and use of font are frequently jarring, the lurching tone is probably just as likely to alienate players as it is to engage, and it’s very easy to lose track of just what the hell is supposed to be happening. It’s a tough game to click with, but when it does it’s great.

The somewhat boring truth is that Deadly Premonition isn’t a game that will forever shake up videogames, but neither is it one whose flaws mark it out as a failed experiment. Instead it may yet become a key game for its approach to the feel of horror videogaming; ugly, inelegant and excessively linear it may be in many places, but Deadly Premonition is also very hard to forget, and the aforementioned sense of intent on the part of the developers works in its favour. Like Twin Peaks, it’s as full of as many happy accidents and surreal edges as it is well-engineered shocks and hilarious moments, and while it can’t ever hope to match the impact of Lynch’s classic, those who take the ride will be rewarded.

You can read the original review over at D+PAD Magazine.

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