I’ve just powered off my 360 after another three hours (making a grand total of about five) of playing your latest release, the Japanese horror title Deadly Premonition. I am afraid I can go no further, this is me admitting defeat, your game has beaten me and I am fairly confident I’ll never see its final moments or indeed the rest of the twenty or so hours my colleagues and peers have informed me it takes to complete.
I. Am. Done.
I won’t be scoring your game – as we traditionally do so at Midlife Gamer – because I don’t feel that it necessarily is possible for me to do so. This isn’t due to not having finished the game, it’s not because I’m too lazy to dig deep and analyse how I really feel about it, it’s because I genuinely feel you have published a piece of work that is beyond the realms of attributing a numeric value. You have created a title that is ‘art’ and it would be ridiculous to suggest that any form of fine art can be empirically measured. Nighthawks is not a ’10/10′ painting…
That is not to say that I like your game. Deadly Premonition is a work of genius, there’s no doubt in my mind about that, but the sole reason that I put just five or so hours into it, is because at almost every stage of the design process, choices were made that are aggressively anti-player. Visually your game is a mismatch of PlayStation 2 era character models and animations, utterly bland current-gen ‘effects library’ SFX and a world so dull that the biggest threat to the person holding the controller is that of dying of tedium. Ears are brutalised by some of the worst voice acting of the last five years, music that is totally at odds with its action and audio level balancing so poor that there were frequent occasions in which I was glad I couldn’t navigate through your awfully constructed menus to turn off the subtitles, such was the clarity of dialogue.
Dialogue ambling forward a story that, on the surface, is a nonsensical yet painfully obvious tale of a small town affected by a supernatural force manifesting itself in the Raincoat Killer and his ghostly brethren. Stephen King after watching 30 hours of Twin Peaks under a hefty dose of meths, scrawling down whatever rubbish first pops into his mind would produce a better structure and plot.
Player movement of the lead protagonist Francis York Morgan feels stiff and cumbersome, a combination of Silent Hill’s awkward cameras and Resident Evil 4′s over the shoulder combat, none of which is anywhere near as good as the source material. The in-car navigation between areas of the town feature the worst driving model of any game I have ever had the misfortune of playing, compounded by a map so useless as to be detrimental to the player’s awareness of orientation and a vehicle that runs out of fuel remarkably fast. Once you finally reach a destination, all that is to be done there is either very weak combat against an enemy with thought routines that stretch the definition of ‘AI’ to its absolute limit or finding keys (or objects representing keys) to open doors (or objects representing doors). Everything in Deadly Premonition mechanically has been done infinitely better elsewhere, most of it at least one generation of hardware previously. Truly, the one commendation I can attribute your game’s technical prowess is that it, fundamentally, isn’t broken, everything in it works. Just.
And yet it feels like all of the appalling choices made in the design process were made, bewilderingly, on purpose. At this point in games design, there are certain things that are standard, certain dos and don’ts that 99% of the games made today adhere to. When making a first person shooter, don’t include lengthy platforming elements. When making a game that has an intentionally high level of difficulty, make restarting an area fast. When making a puzzle title, ensure to explain the rules governing victory obviously clear. When a developer ignores these fundamentals on purpose, deciding to go in a different direction, the question must be asked… why?
The menus, for all their bewildering lack of structure, are fast to navigate, you can reach everything quickly, if you know what you’re doing. The controls though stiff, can be overcome, burnt into the mind to give you a degree of flexibility of movement, zipping through the corridors of the game, popping enemies, moving on and the excruciating driving model can be dealt with, the satisfaction of learning to drive safely immensely rewarding. Graphically the game is boring and jarring, but if the town in which the game is set existed, it would be a bleak place to be, if a cult had fixed upon this sleepy place it would be a disconcerting environment. Sound is off-kilter for similar reasons and the VO arguably isn’t poor, it’s campy, actors telling this pantomime of a story through the hammy lines they’re given and indeed playing them dead-pan would be a far worse decision for a director to make.
So I think I’ve figured you out Swery (and by association your team and UK publishers Rising Star Games). You haven’t produced a game, you’ve made a multi-tiered statement. You’ve taken the genre and gone back to its roots, exploring the nature of horror in video games. How can we as an audience really find Dead Space or Fatal Frame unnerving when we wield extraordinary future weapons or when characters fumble over depressingly shallow, unrealistic storylines? Why should we be scared of what might be round the next corner when we can just pause the game and walk away?
When Agent York discusses schlocky 80′s fright flicks, he speaks about them warmly to the player – represented by the other side of a split personality in Zach – reminiscing at how crude they were, but how they still had the power to affect the viewer. There are moments I have experienced in my comparatively short time with the game that have moved me, have struck a real nerve despite the rough presentation; a screaming woman under a surgical sheet, one particular use of the ‘Profiling’ flashback mechanic that implied to me a particularly aggressive rape, an enemy shoving their hand down my throat as I try to desperately escape their clutches. It’s a testament to the game that with such crude tools, such a powerful emotion can be evoked.
Each character I interacted with in this sparsely populated world was vivid and memorable, the beautiful but tough tom-boy cop Emily Wyatt, Thomas MacLaine: the weakest man in law enforcement, the painfully shy Freckly Fiona, the voracious Gina The Rose and your own straight talking, unconventional genius Francis York Morgan. This level of personality enforces that, though you may only see a few people in this near-abandoned lumber town, you engage with them more, you become invested in their lives. In turn the town becomes familiar and even warm, despite it being barren.
Therein lies the rub Swery, you made Deadly Premonition to be bad on purpose and it made me want to stop playing it before I felt I could review it thoroughly. You, your team at Access Games and the wonderful people of Rising Star Games have published a title so brilliantly realised in its concept, so excellent in its perfection of imperfection that I simply cannot play it any longer.
Keep up the good work.