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Lost in Translation
The Deadly Premonition rerelease features minor graphical upgrades, a handful of new cutscenes, and ancillary supprt for 3D TVs and Playstation Move, but it is otherwise basically the same game released on the Xbox a few years back.
When asked what he would add to Deadly Premonition if given an extra million dollars Swery 65, the director, replied: a bicycle... and cologne.
And now they've released Deadly Premonition: Director's Cut, which includes neither a bicycle nor cologne, so really it's more like Deadly Premonition: HD edition. The graphics are nominally improved, but it was never a pretty game and up-rezzing doesn't do it many favors. The textures still have no detail and the characters still look and move and act like mannequins, or maybe giant puppets. The status icons have gotten a significant upgrade, if beveled health bars are something you care about. Otherwise? It still looks like 2007's version of a Dreamcast game.
It kind of plays like one too. Deadly Premonition spans a mish-mash of genres (it's about a third murder mystery, a third open world driving game, and a third bad version of Resident Evil 4), like it crossed through a portal from a world where Shenmue got really popular instead of, say, Gears of War, and now we have to deal with a bunch of third-rate Shenmue clones instead of a bunch of third-rate cover shooters. Starring FBI Agent Francis York Morgan (call him York), it's a rather blatant Twin Peaks homage that strays across the line into plagiarism from time to time, but never fully takes the leap. York arrives in a sleepy town somewhere in Washington state to investigate the bizarre murder of a town-beloved teenage girl. York, who shares the keen aesthetic sensibilities and space-case mannerisms of Special Agent Dale Cooper, quickly falls in love with the town and its inhabitants, claiming it to be one of the last bastions of real Americans, among other praise.
Twin Peaks may be its most literal inspiration, but the broader touchstones of 80s B horror are there too: Greenvale hosts not only a ritually murdered girl, but also an axe-wielding serial killer and mysterious dark past (spoken of by no one). Its cannon-fodder enemies are undead construction workers, fat women in moomoos, and police officers, all in runny clown makeup, who sidle around bent-backwards at the spine, blurbling out hilariously mixed messages of "Kill me!" and "Don't want to die!" as they engage their primary attack of stuffing their entire body into York's mouth.
About the best thing the PS3 version has going for it is its markedly improved controls. It's dropped the RE4-style aiming and rubber band camera and now functions far more like what you expect from a current day third person shooter. Most notably: the right analog aims and the trigger shoots. It's not perfect -- the aiming is far too sensitive -- but would we recognize it as Deadly Premonition if it were?
Difficulty settings are gone. This seems like a logical step, since the ultimate combat strategy in the Xbox version was to acquire the infinite ammo submachine gun as quickly as possible and cheese through the rest of the fights. Some players will probably miss the option for hard mode, but most will regard the reduced difficulty as a good thing, given memories of compulsory fights with high hit point monsters in long, featureless corridors. The corridors and the monsters are still there, but their health has been substantially reduced. Swery stated in an interview that the game wasn't meant to have combat at all, he was told include it, so maybe this is actually one step closer to that ideal vision. It is a "director's cut," after all.
The sound design remains a mess. The cacophonous (though vaguely catchy) soundtrack cuts in whenever it feels like and completely overrides the dialogue, and the foley ranks from embarrassing to ear-rending, depending on how tolerant you are of amateur-level audio splices: the jarring swell of the clipping car engine follows you everywhere you go, repeating itself approximately every 3/4ths of a second, forever, only ever masked by the blaring siren that proves an insignificant speed boost when engaged. Driving becomes this sort of "running in the rain" paradox of suffering the far-worse siren to get to your destination faster so you won't have to listen to the awful car engine a second longer than is necessary.
You can always mute the TV while you're driving (and you spend a lot of time in a car, for a game with such ludicrously bad vehicle physics), but if you do that you'll miss York's conversations with imaginary friend/split personality/possible player-insert, Zach. Oh, did you not know he has a psychic best friend who lives in his head? The conversations range from thriller movies to punk rock shows, never repeat, and are probably the best part of the game. They're certainly the most humanizing, in that they show a character who has traits beyond "flouncy, effeminate cardboard stand-in for a gay man" or "lady who anthropomorphizes her cooking pot like that lady in Twin Peaks did with her log." But doing just one or two sidequests will deplete York's conversation stock for several chapters, after which it's just you and the WRRrrrWRRrrrWRRrrr of the engine as you quest about in silence.
And there's a lot to do in Greenvale! You can smoke cigarettes, buy new clothes, play darts, peep through townspeople's windows, eat lunch, and race cars (though it's hard to imagine who would ever want to do that). You can shave or not shave. You can forget to dry clean your suits and be followed around by a swarm of badly rendered, low polygon flies. Sidequests send York on psychic ghost hunts, and storage room organization, and grave digging, and grocery runs. Some provide insight to the murder victims and the town, but most are just there to be weird and, occasionally, to give you game-breaking stuff like infinite ammo guns and regenerative talismans. For the most part they're completely voiced, which is shocking for a game that whose every technological aspect vacillates between half-assed and barely playable. The tertiary cast is mostly made up of caricatures who gesticulate their way through conversations, but the main characters are voiced with better than average talent, especially given the DNA this game shares with survival horror. York is especially notable, coming across as part sensitive aesthete, part robot data analyst, and part sociopath. There's something weirdly charming about him, but that may be due to his relative novelty in a medium suffused with six-packed and chainsaw-gun toting dudebros.
The actual new content, the sort one expects with the words "Director's Cut" writ large on the box, amounts to not even a half dozen new cutscenes comprising a frame narrative that goes nowhere and does nothing, except kind of-sort of implying that there might be a Deadly Premonition 2 somewhere down the line.
Or maybe not. Maybe it's just the game being all "wild and crazy!" for no reason, just because that is what it does, or maybe because it's something the creators think David Lynch would do.
But at least its strangeness is sincere. Deadly Premonition's earnestness inoculates it from some critcism, but doesn't stop us from rolling our eyes at it. The game trucks in weirdness, but it's a play that only works once. New players will enjoy the increasingly bizarre plot progression, but veterans will have ample time to reflect on how completely arbitrary the game's four or five big twists are and how most of the gameplay is mired in ho-hum shooting and aggressively bad driving. The writing makes no sense and the tone shifts constantly (the game is prone to cracking jokes while the ritually murdered body is still cooling). None of it holds up to scrutiny, really, but it's something a person ought to play once, if only to say they've done it.
There should be more games like this one: town-spanning mysteries where you collect clues, and solve puzzles (though this game's puzzles are so rudimentary they barely count as such), and catch a murderer. Not every game has to be about shooting aliens and saving the world from impending nuclear apocalypse. This story is about one FBI guy trying to solve a crime in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere and maybe exorcise some of his personal demons along the way.
But it's bogged down by its crap shooting and schizophrenic writing, and it spends more time worshiping Twin Peaks than it does building on it. For all its effort at simulacra, Deadly Premonition doesn't even come close to the contrast between Twin Peaks's humorous moments and its terrifying ones. That lack of contrast saps the energy out of a second playthrough, though the script throws more than enough absurdity and folderol at the screen for a first one. In that way, Deadly Premonition is much better at mimicking 80s horror movies than it is Twin Peaks, and maybe its greatest achievement is that it is exactly the quality of some of the shlocky B-movies that inspired it.
Overall : C+
Graphics : C
Sound/Music : C+
Gameplay : C-
Presentation : B-
+ Weirdly charming in a schlocky way, annoying yet catchy soundtrack
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