Even a decade later, life is still beautiful.
Deadly Premonition originated its life as Rainy Woods, a PS2 and Xbox 360 title that began pre-production in 2004 but was not revealed until Tokyo Game Show 2007, where the game was set to release in 2008. However, the reception to the title’s showing was not especially positive, thus causing the game’s publisher, Marvelous Entertainment, to double think the project, cancel it, and reboot Rainy Woods into something more saleable. This spurred on a litany of creative changes to the title, a lot of retooling of already made assets, and after much toiling from the developers, the game was finally released in 2010 as an Xbox 360 exclusive.
This last-minute swerve was only one of many of the development foibles plaguing this title, with the others stemming from the team’s experience with then-new development tools and hardware, a lack of specialized staff, and poor schedule management. By all accounts, this should have spelled disaster for the project and resulted in a dud that would have gained traction for its lack of quality upon release, only to be forgotten soon after. Instead, the game wound up being a cult hit, it received three ports, and a sequel, Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise is coming out in just a few days as of publishing this review.
But before diving into the sequel, I wanted to revisit the original title, or specifically the 2019 Switch port, dubbed Deadly Premonition Origins, to reassess and reacclimate myself with the wacky wild world of Deadly Premonition and the town of Greenvale. So without further ado, let’s begin.
Deadly Premonition Origins Review
Platforms: Switch, Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Developer: Access Games and Toybox
Deadly Premonition follows special agent Francis York Morgan, just call him York, that’s what everybody calls him, as he is sent out to investigate an extravagant murder in the rural Washington town of Greenvale. A town whose quaint name and appearance are almost instantly torn away as the supernatural begins kicking off right after York enters its borders. Thereby setting the stage for one might assume to be a typical survival horror affair, only for that impression to collapse in and on itself within the first hour. Between York talking to his imaginary friend Zach, shooting at limboing zombies, and having a long awkward conversation with an old lady at his hotel to ill-fitting music.
This is something persistent throughout the game, the constant juxtaposition between its attempts to be a serious and focused story-driven mystery and a tendency to spiral into absurdist cornball nonsense. It genuinely tries to establish a spooky atmosphere at times, has more than a share of serious or somber moments, is not afraid to tackle darker subject matter, and chooses to handle it with a straight face. However, it’s also a goofy game with quirky side quests, comments from its protagonist who downplays whatever situation he is in, no matter how outlandish, and sporadic references to seemingly randomly selected bits of pop culture that have no real bearing or basis on anything whatsoever.
It all makes for a truly surreal experience to the uninitiated, one that at first seems like the product of a botched localization and a low budget, but as the story goes on, maintaining a degree of seriousness and telling a mostly compelling whodunnit story punctuated with intense murder sequences, it becomes clear that this is all intentional. That the developers wanted to create a game that is positively uncanny, and one that would keep players on their toes, and nothing better emphasizes this than the tonal shift seen during the second half of Deadly Premonition.
It is here where what was an odd yet grounded story based in rural contemporary America gives up all preconceptions and goes full anime. Characters start boasting about their ultimate plans for domination, conspiracies start being linked together to events from decades past, characters undergo transformation sequences, and manic boss battles replace prolonged corridor-based survival horror sections. It is wild, it is in no way justified or explained, and it is glorious!
It is a zaniness propped up by the cast of characters, and just about every resident of Greenvale is an oddball in their own way, shape, or form, with even minor characters having assorted quirks to them that make it easy to instantly latch onto them. Such as Sigourney, an old woman who only wears a single slipper and can be found roaming throughout Greenvale, always holding her pot and screaming about how it is going to get cold. Harry, a philanthropist who owns most of Greenvale, yet speaks either through a voice box embedded in his neck or through his butler who only speaks in rhyme. Or Lysander, a grizzled Vietnam vet who prattles on about his wartime poop stories while York travels through his maze-like junkyard for parts to supe up his police car.
Even the most mundane or ordinary characters all harbor their own subdued eccentricities that can be found either through digging into their backgrounds or by listening to them speak their often stilted dialogue. I don’t mean to throw shade on the voice actors, but most of them sound like they only half know what they’re supposed to be doing and only seem to have a loose grasp on what type of character they should be portraying.
That is, with the exception of York’s voice actor, Jeff Kramer, who I’m pretty sure understood York’s character better than even the developers, and gives an utterly delectable performance. The deliberate pacing of his speech, his ability to remain calm and composed in all but the direst of circumstances, and his lack of distinction between discussing the sexual escapades of a serial killer and his love of 80s movies. It’s a wonderful performance that does a lot to sell York as this underplayed weirdo who is fully aware of his eccentricities and embraces them.
And that really is why Deadly Premonition managed to achieve the following it has. It is an openly weird and strange game that came out in an era where games like that were becoming less common as developers around the world began chasing after the popularity of games like Gears of War and Call of Duty, causing many developers to aim for mass appeal above all else. Deadly Premonition is something of the antithesis of this. Despite Marvelous’ interventions to make the game more marketable, the final product is none too concerned with appealing to anybody but the people who made it. This, weirdly enough, is precisely why this game managed to find a niche of passionate fans who still sing its praises to this day because it was different, it was daring, it did try, and even if it did not work a lot of the time, it never really detracted from the game as it were.
This nicely brings us into the gameplay of Deadly Premonition, which is a unique blend betweena Shenmue-style story-driven open-world game and a straightforward stage-based linear survival horror game with its core mechanics lifted from Resident Evil 4. The town of Greenvale is a 5 square mile expanse filled with dozens of characters who go through 24-hour schedules, driving to and from work at set times, while every storefront operates on its own schedule. Time moves slowly, with a full 24 hour cycle amounting to several hours in-game, and just about every named NPC has a side mission, or five, to offer York as he goes about his investigation. All of which is exceedingly unnecessary for such a story-driven game, especially one where the only things to do in this open-world are pursue wanderlust, doing the aforementioned side missions, and driving to story missions.
But is it a particularly good open-world? Not really. The town is fairly barren beyond a few nodes of interest, with the bulk of the map being relegated to recycled forestry. Side mission distribution is squirrely and confusing without the use of a walkthrough to specifically tell the player when they can begin and continue a given side question. Navigation is kind of a pain due to the fact that the map rotates with the character’s movement and cannot be zoomed out enough to get one’s bearings. And the preferred method of traveling about Greenvale is through the use of a car that controls like a stick of butter on a tepid iron slab, or a van that controls like two sticks of butter. It all works, it does what it needs to, just not particularly well.
As for the survival horror sections… they are thoroughly okay. Enemies are these shambling zombie creatures called shadows whose slow yet erratic movement patterns and tendency to backwards limbo makes them a fairly easy threat to dispatch using firearms, but the tight corridor-based level design of these sections encourage the player to remain on their toes, lest they get blindsided. The enemy variety is relatively low, with shadows only being differentiated by the weapon they use and one mini-boss variant who is always fought in isolated hallways. The shooting and melee combat get the job done, being responsive and clear enough to never be an annoyance, yet never particularly fulfilling. And these sections are never too overbearing either, as health packs are distributed regularly, York’s base weapon has infinite ammo, and most of the time the player has enough room to hop between corners while dispatching baddies.
If even that seems like too much of a mechanical slog for players, these sections can rather easily be trivialized through the use of special items with infinite ammo or durability obtained through side quests. Such as the wrench that kills everything in one to two hits, the guitar that kills everything in one lumbering smash, including the mini-bosses, or a submachine gun with a 360 round magazine, because that’s plausible. I would hazard a guess that these weapons were included due to how these sections were added somewhat begrudgingly as part of a publisher mandate to make the title more appealing to shoot-bang-loving westerners, and the developers wanted to make the game more accessible or appealing to those who did not find the combat enjoyable.
It’s a mindfulness that is rather uncommon from games and is all over Deadly Premonition, which is lousy with subsystems and mechanics that could be aggravating but simply aren’t. For instance, York has sleep and hunger meters, but they are slow to deplete and can easily be refilled by hopping into some random shed or bed in a survival horror section and eating a bunch of lollipops or grabbing a bite to eat at the local diner. York’s facial hair grows with each passing day, letting the player choose how rugged or sloppy their protagonist looks. And his clothes need to be changed on a daily basis, or else he’ll become a dirty old stinky boy with flies wafting around him.
All of these things are unnecessary, but also fairly unobtrusive, avoiding the pitfalls found in a lot of the chore-like survival games that have cropped up over the past decade while giving the game additional character through the inclusion of these superfluous details. The game is positively flushed with odd mechanical inclusions like this, ranging from the inclusion of a barebones fishing mini-game, the ability to hop into dumpsters, and the surprisingly decent dart mini-game.
The only one of these that comes across as an annoyance is the fact that York’s various ensemble of vehicles (you can buy cars in this game by the way) all have their own gas tank and will erupt into flames if they hit too many walls. This can be averted by going to the gas station near the center of town, using a flare to call for a new vehicle to be delivered to York, or using the Radio item gotten from a side quest given by George Woodman, which allows the player to avoid the potential doldrums of this open-world drive ‘em up through the magic of fast travel.
However, in the event that the player is traveling lightly or simply has a limited inventory, it is completely and entirely possible to get stranded in the open-world late at night, with a beat-up car, and have no choice but to hoof it back to civilization using York’s own two feet and his insanely long stamina bar. This can be avoided with deliberate saving and can be rolled back through chapter resets, but I actually would recommend that players actually try to get stranded in Greenvale, particularly late at night.
From midnight to 6:00, enemies start spawning and they don’t stop spawning until York sleeps it off in a shed or gets his personal insides invaded by a zombie that crawls up his mouth hole. It is a hectic nightmare trying to get anywhere as this open-world becomes populated by enemies, and from a strict design perspective, these sections are pretty bad. However, the fact that they’re here, that this made it into the final product, that for all this game’s development problems, they still implemented something like this and got it working… I just find that to be adorable.
Deadly Premonition is a slapdash and bumbled project that still tried, it really tried, and no matter how clunky the game gets, it still surprises me with these minor superfluous details. Even if the game is a burning wreck with regards to its more technical aspects, the developers still had a vision, and… they did it. They made, finished, and shipped the game with all these superfluous details in tow, and I just find that to be incredible.
That being said, I cannot help but harbor a desire for the title to have been reworked or revised to some degree, for some of its many technical issues to be improved, and for the game to be given a smattering of polish that still preserved its mechanical oddity and lopsidedness. You know, things like less poopy textures, a frame rate that doesn’t sometimes dip down into single digits, a higher resolution, better audio mixing, and better depth of field. When the game first released on the Xbox 360, I understood why these issues were there, same for when it was ported to the PS3. This was less excusable with the PC port back in 2014, which was broken, then fixed, then broken again, but that was the era where bad Japanese PC ports were still fairly common. For this new Switch version? There really isn’t a good excuse as far as I can tell.
The developers at Toylogic basically took the PS3 version of Deadly Premonition, cut out the DLC costumes, a new framing device, and an explorable villa added in that version, slapped the subtitle of Origins on the title screen and in the credits, and then released the game as such. They did not invest the resources to build or improve on that version or take advantage of the power of the Switch. While the game is assuredly a mess on a technical level, I’m sure that it would still be possible for them to bump up the frame rate or boost the resolution, but they didn’t and wasted what would have been an excellent opportunity to make Origins the definitive edition of Deadly Premonition.
Instead, the game is presented in all its janky glory, which has reached a point of inadequacy so extreme that it’s honestly kind of charming. Character models are glossy approximations of humans who move with stiffness and rigidity that accentuate their eccentricities. The environments shift from a low interactivity dollhouse of HD assets based on what the developers think an American town looks like and an open world littered with copy-pasted homes, perfectly sloping hills, grimey textures, and an overbearing sense of barrenness. And the entire game is coated in this dull desaturated coating that was previously de-emphasized through a filter that was removed in the PS3 version.
It is simultaneously one of the ugliest games I have ever played and a game that I positively love looking at. The developers’ attempts at capturing realism have aged like a dead dog in the smoldering hot sun, the majority of the world is familiar forestry and the same repeated road texture, and the aggressive depth of field effect often distorts backgrounds into a blurry mesh. Yet it is still one of the few open worlds I found myself actively wanting to explore for the intrinsic joy of seeing what’s over yonder. The lack of detail in so much of the world really made me appreciate what details are there. Whether it be the mobile home park set in a grass field at a random end of town with unfinished collision, the curios found when barging into a person’s home, or the horses you can find and scare when traveling to a farm.
It’s a sort of game within a game, one that had me constantly exploring each new location I found myself in an attempt to break down its logic and observe just how the developers chose to construct each location. In many ways, the detail is impressive, with every living space being clearly designed around the character in question, but then there are odd omissions, such as the numerous bathtubs in Harry’s mansion that don’t have any faucets. Why was this the case? What were the developers thinking when designing these locations? I don’t know, but it’s fun to think about when the world you’re exploring is so close to realism, so close to being accurate, yet misses the mark ever so slightly.
The soundscape meanwhile is this odd mesh between a lot of stock sound effects, spooky noises, amateurish audio balancing, poor song decisions during key moments, and a soundtrack that mirrors this game’s numerous eccentricities. It does indeed try to be atmospheric and foreboding at times, but it’s far more concerned with adding to the game’s personality between cheery themes, jazzy driving music, and also a funky salsa beat that’s used for a late-game chase sequence. It’s bizarre, eclectic, and rather unnecessary, but that describes Deadly Premonition to a tee, now doesn’t it?
To wrap up my thoughts, Deadly Premonition is a very special game to me. It is a title that helped me understand and come to terms with the fact that something could be busted, janky, and bad on many objective levels, yet can glimmer and shine valiantly due to its personality. The world, the characters, and the insane ebb and flow of its story were something that I found to be inspiring as I went through it during the tail end of the 7th console generation, and it has stuck with me ever since then because it was so gosh dang weird. It helped me come to terms with how games could be just about anything you wanted, that the narrative, world, and personality are the core tenants I take away from most games, and it even went on to inspire me as a writer, as I wanted to create something as bizarre and unique as this.
Going back to it after a solid 8 years however, I feel that my appreciation of this title has matured. After nearly a decade of maturing, and about 400 game reviews, I can more easily pinpoint and pick apart the title, see what works and what doesn’t work, and articulate my thoughts. Yet, even after all this time, even being able to more critically look over this game and recognize its litany of shortcomings, I still cannot help but love this game.
Deadly Premonition is a mess. It’s clunky, it looks like crap, and its foundational gameplay is average at best. However, it is a beautiful mess all the same, one propped up by a litany of unnecessary details, a cast as quirky as they come, and a story that does not make much sense, but is so thoroughly entertaining that I don’t really care. It is a trainwreck that needs to be seen to be fully understood, and one that I had a blast exploring long after the wreckage had settled.