Good, bad and ugly mix in this ghostly goofball adventure.
The story revolves around Francis York Morgan, a socially inept but good-willing FBI-agent who reads his fortune from a cup of coffee, and relays life's importances (such as the bonus features on a DVD) to his imaginary friend Zach. Trust me, things only get more bizarre from here.
He is sent to Greenvale, a small community in the American countryside, to investigate a grisly murder that could be linked to one of his prior cases. It doesn't take long for the locals to start whispering about the raincoat killer, a misanthrope from an urban legend who appears on rainy nights to cut the population down a few notches. With the reluctant aid of sheriff George Woodman, deputy Emily Wyatt and assistant Thomas MacLaine, York (that's what everyone calls him) muscles his way through an imbroglio of stiletto heels, squeeze toys and rain ponchos to try and catch the murderer. But what is the truth behind the raincoat killer? And why is your arrival in Greenvale greeted by zombie-like creatures?
These are but a few of the questions that will occupy your mind as you piece together the motives, and the game is pretty good in dangling some red herrings in front of you to lead you astray. Every time you think you have figured it out, another curveball is thrown your way making you reconsider who these people are and how they could be involved.
Just to be clear: you're playing a story. As such, the game is very deliberate in terms of clues and accusations. There's one path to follow and the game holds your hand throughout, so any detective work you wish to do on your own account is in vain, even though you're expected to do so: you're given a map that shows the whereabouts of every note-worthy character at any given time. When you open the map to see if any sidemissions are available and you notice a citizen all by himself near the abandoned railways just outside of town, your suspicion is tickled and you'll want to go check that out first. Since Deadly Premonition doesn't lock any of its mystery behind story progression, you can find a couple of golden nuggets early on if you look hard enough, though you might not put two and two together until the very end.
But it's not just your map that incites stalking, York's questionable work ethos also promotes voyeurism. Peeking through people's windows doesn't just reveal trivial characteristics (the burn marks in Emily's kitchen, for instance, show that she's as clumsy a cook as the story suggests) , you actually get paid for doing so.
In fact, you get paid for pretty much everything you do; changing your suit when it gets dirty, checking the weather forecast, eating lunch with your co-workers, speaking with the locals, shaving, drinking coffee, going out fishing, picking up collectibles, saving your game, completing chapters and killing enemies, with double money awarded for killing them with headshots. This flux of cash motivates you enough to go out there and explore, and the economy somehow remains in balance by the town's weird pricing structure: a single turkey sandwich costs you one hundred dollars.
And food is pretty important because hunger, together with sleep and health, tie into a rock-paper-scissors mechanism that regulates York's fitness. An empty stomach will cause York to lose health, which he can recuperate by sleeping, which in turn makes him hungry. A fourth, separate gauge, pulse, influences weariness. Precise aiming, sprinting, holding your breath (then the monsters won't find you) or boosting with your vehicle fills it, and when it's completely full York will be exhausted, causing him to stumble around and aim drunkenly. Of course, all of these regulators can also be controlled by consumables.
Much of your time in Greenvale will be spent investigating deaths but don't mistake this for CSI; the crime scenes are action stages set in a twilight world that apparently only York can see, turning whatever environment you're in into a madhouse filled with zombies and red vines. When you first enter these dungeons, you'll get a grainy slideshow revealing what happened to the victim, and as you fight your way through the stage, the clues you collect will gradually lift the static from the reel.
The downside is that the action stages go on for far too long, and if the endlessly repetitive corridors don't tire you, the appearance of the raincoat killer will. He'll pop in occasionally to initiate the worst kind of quick-time event: for minutes on end you'll be waggling the joystick left and right to run, or hammering the A-button to push crates out of your way. Sometimes, he'll break into the room you're investigating, forcing you to hide in the cupboards or under a desk and hold your breath while he skims the room. It's all very tense, but only because dying means you'll have to go through it again.
After completing a dungeon, you can enter its "new game plus"-version, playing through which actually reaps some worthwhile rewards; there's a breadcrumb trail of cash grabs, a trading card for your collection and usually also a melee weapon with infinite durability. Since you no longer look for clues, solve puzzles or bump into the raincoat killer, it turns into a straight-up run-and-gun dungeon with slightly stronger enemies.
When you're not fighting off backward-bending zombies, you're free to explore Greenvale at your own leisure, allowing you to stock up on items, play some mini-games or help the locals with their chores. They usually come with time (and even weather) requirements to initiate and though you can spin the clock forward by smoking, the weather conditions are beyond your control, and it can be a tad annoying when a particular sidemission asks for a rainy night and you get clear skies for seven days straight.
The sidemissions stick fairly close to the open world tropes: drive person A to location B, collect item X for person Y, you get the gist. They definitely make it worth your while; new vehicles, weapons with infinite ammo, suits that increase your life or pulse gauges, satchels that have more inventory space and a fast-travel method are just some of the goodies you can get. Don't expect much rhyme or reason in their unlocks though; helping an old lady get home in time earns you George's car, and showing the local gunsmith slash trading card enthusiast the sixty-four collectible cards scattered across Greenvale unlocks a lightsaber. Because, really, what self-sufficient town is complete without energy-based weaponry?
Unfortunately, getting around Greenvale is a chore on its own. Your map isn't locked in the frame so that it turns when you turn, and the vehicles handle like toy cars. During the fifteen to thirty hours it takes to beat the game, you'll often be asked to drive from one end of the map to the other and the long, curvy roads don't help much.
Combat's a bit better, though movement in general remains bulky. It builds on the Resident Evil 4-template (over-the-shoulder aim with R-trigger, attack with A) so if you're not a fan of the stop-to-shoot gameplay, this won't win you over. There are some updates to it though; you can sidestep by pressing the L- or R-bumper, and there's an autolock when you hold the L-trigger. Enemies can soak up quite a few shots, even in the head, so melee might be a better course of action. You can find short-range weapons like lead pipes, golfclubs and spades in the environment and use them to take care of the enemies in one or two hits. Each melee weapon does have a durability though, and it won't take more than three hits for your weapon to break over an enemy's head.
Not just the aiming system is very inspired by Resident Evil. Saving your game is done via a telephone instead of a typewriter, and you can store items and weapons in a toolbox that can be accessed from specific points in the world. Items you pick up can instantly be sent to your toolbox in case you don't have the inventory space to carry them.
Let's not ignore the elephant in the room here, Deadly Premonition got beaten by the ugly stick so fiercely that the stick got stuck in it. The character models are generally pretty good but the animation loops are obvious, exaggerated and excessive (although this just adds to the charm) and environments are washed-out, barren and lifeless, with the grass textures being among the worst my eyes have ever beheld.
This dubious presentation carries over to the sound design; the music has no cohesion whatsoever, almost as if it's a collection of royalty-free tunes found on the internet, and they can cut in and out of each other at the most inappropriate times. Sound effects don't fare much better, which makes it all the more contradicting how the voice acting is actually really good. Going over the cast won't ring any bells but the ensemble (and with it, the characters) are easily the cornerstone of the presentation, if not the entire game.
For better or worse, Deadly Premonition nestles itself in your head and by the time you're done with it, you'll be mad. Mad that it wasn't within your power to change what has happened over the last couple of hours. Mad that the game forced you into an ending that's as gutting as it is rare. Mad, yet at the same time nodding "I'm happy they did it this way."
Any game that can send my heart aflutter by the sheer strength of the story and characters deserves high marks. It isn't "so bad it's good" because that would negate the genuinely good facets of this game. It's good, but it has bad elements. If you're willing to overlook those, you'll be treated to a diamond in the rough, a game that will stick with you longer than most blockbuster titles.