It's breakfast. FBI agent Francis York Morgan sits at one end of an impossibly long table. The octogenarian hotel proprietor Polly Oxford sits at the other. "It might help to hear you better if I could sit closer," calls out Francis. Polly thinks it's a come-on. "I think I'm a little old for you," she says, invoking the memory of her dearly departed husband as she winces with embarrassment.
In the small Pacific Northwestern town of Greenvale, this event isn't that peculiar. After all, Greenvale is home to a lady who totes a cooking pot around with her all day, a physician who delights in the various ways he can eat potato chips, and a wheelchair-bound eccentric who speaks in rhyming couplets by way of his manservant's translation. Francis York Morgan doesn't make his home here--he has come to solve the murder of a local beauty--but he's just as zany as the locals. As he drives down the highway, he engages his unseen companion, Zach, in light conversation, discussing director Richard Donner's filmography and describing the relationship between cartoon cat-and-mouse team Tom and Jerry as though they are a gay couple locked in a slave/master relationship. "He does terrible things to Tom. Nasty, even sadistic things. But that's fine, as long as that's what Tom wants."
In 2010, Xbox 360 owners had their initial chance to absorb every detail of this surreal, Twin Peaks-inspired adventure. Now that Deadly Premonition is on the PlayStation 3, new players get to delight in this so-called director's cut, though there's nothing dramatically improved in this upscaled port. You get a higher resolution and some additional cutscenes that are part of a new framing device, but the game's clear flaws remain intact. Deadly Premonition is still ugly to look at by most standards, yet this version cannot maintain a comfortable frame rate, even when displaying a simple jar of pickles on the screen. Its sound effects are so primitive, it sounds like you're kicking a tin can when you drive into a hedge. The main map's insanely close zoom level and the inability to set your own waypoints make getting around a frustrating chore. If you look at Deadly Premonition simply as a piece of software, it doesn't have much going for it.
But Deadly Premonition isn't just software: it's an eccentric narrative and a display of remarkably authentic artificial behavior. As you explore Greenvale and its rural surroundings, the citizens go about their lives, and their behavior isn't nearly as artificial as you might see in other games. When it's time for lunch, a suspect might leave her home and drive to the local inn, where she sits with Polly during the meal; you might even join them if you're so inclined. The sheriff gets in his car, does his rounds, and drives back to the police station. These people have lives, homes, and jobs. And because they move through the world with their own purposes, their own passions, and their own behaviors, you don't feel like this town was created just for you. You truly are an interloper, disrupting their lives on your search for the truth.
That truth is far from mundane. It's clear from the first 30 minutes that something's amiss, and not just because your first glimpse of Agent Morgan has him standing in the center of a red-hued forest, chatting to two dead-eyed twins seated in opulent chairs. No, it's because there are ghostly beings moaning and groaning in the halls of museums and on woodland paths. You can bash on them or shoot them, and at least the Director's Cut improves upon the original's mechanics in two important ways. First, you move around as you do in most third-person action games, rather than like a bottom-heavy tank. Second, enemies are no longer bullet sponges and go down fairly quickly. In fact, it's worth noting that there are no longer any difficulty level options, leaving the lone difficulty level as, essentially, "easy."
But that's just fine. There's nothing particularly compelling about the shooting, which takes a cue from Resident Evil 4, forcing you to stand in place and aim before you can defend yourself. Luckily, the confrontations with freaky wall-crawling, demonic girls (the kind you might see in a number of Japanese horror films) are better for the difficulty adjustment. What makes interacting with Deadly Premonition such a pleasure is that it's constantly changing up the gameplay, and changing up the tone in the process.
Some sequences, such as dual-picture chases that have you escaping a killer's clutches, are terrifying--and a good example of how quick-time events can be used in effective ways. (The QTEs are awkwardly implemented, but they'll have you on the edge of your seat.) Other sections have you running around a junkyard, searching for parts that can be used to upgrade your clunky vehicles to something slightly less clunky. You answer anatomy questions for an overly saccharine nurse, and send your suits out for cleaning lest a swarm of flies pester you.
The final hours deliver one narrative and gameplay shock after another, which is quite an achievement, considering how well the game establishes from the beginning that you should expect only the unexpected. What comes is, well, unexpected-er. The mood often shifts dramatically from scary to campy, but the brilliant soundtrack does an amazing job of unifying the atmosphere. The audio design has plenty of problems, often allowing the soundtrack to almost overwhelm spoken dialogue. But you won't mind the trouble when you're listening to the jaunty whistling theme that has a tendency to get stuck in your head, or the folksy guitar tune that emphasizes Greenvale's down-home attitude.
Deadly Premonition: The Director's Cut isn't a dramatic overhaul, and while improvements like better controls are welcome, the frame rate stutters were not invited guests. Regardless, Deadly Premonition is utterly engrossing. It's a mess by any objective standard: the visuals and audio effects are decrepit, combat mechanics are functional at best, and simple activities like driving and navigating are awkward and obtuse. But Deadly Premonition is absolutely divine all the same, making up its own rules for what it means to be a good game as it goes along, and leaving you happily stupefied by the time you've reached its eye-opening finale.