Review: POLLY, NO WONDER YOUR BACK HURTS, STAND UP STRAIGHT... and please pass the sugar, dammit
Followers of obscure Japanese games are sure to remember Rainy Woods, an open-world survival horror game from Access Games first introduced at Tokyo Game Show 2007. The initial trailers for the game demonstrated a serious murder mystery game, coupled with strange things that could only be blatant homages to the classic television series Twin Peaks. However, after its debut, the game quickly disappeared and for a while the project was considered dead. Last year though, the game resurfaced with a brand new name in Japan ? Red Seeds Profile. For the most part, the game remained unchanged thematically ? that being a small town murder mystery ? just with a complete overhaul of the main character and various other changes to scale back the Twin Peaks comparisons. As the game neared release another revelation was had ? that RSP had a heaping helping of what we might call ?The Crazy.? Red Seeds doesn't just deliver moments of insanity... it revels in it. Seeing its potential for cult hit status, Ignition Entertainment dragged the Xbox 360 version (it's a multiplatform release in Japan) to America, rebranded it as Deadly Premonition, and released it for a whole twenty dollars. The rest, as they say... is history.
The quiet, peaceful town of Greenvale, Washington is about to get rocked. While walking in the woods, a pair of twins and their grandfather come across quite a sight ? a dead girl hanging from a tree crucified. Naturally, the trio knows the girl ? small town and everything ? and bemoan the loss of Anna Graham. Due to the unusual nature of the case, the FBI sends in one of their agents who specializes in that sort of thing ? Agent Francis York Morgan, who has seen more than his fair share of weird crime. York, we soon learn, is as crazy as the people he investigates, if not moreso. Not only does he have a complete lack of tact, he also carries on conversations with ?Zach?, who can best be described as York's imaginary friend, though that would be selling the unusual situation short. He doesn't just do this in private ? he'll talk to Zach while discussing the case with, well, everyone. At first, York's involvement in the case is purely in an observational capacity, thanks to the overbearing policies of local sheriff George Woodman. However, when York notices a pattern that ties the murder to other killings around the country, it becomes his investigation. While York is highly eccentric, he'll stop at nothing to bring peace to this typical backwater town... even if it means doing things that frequently disturb the townsfolk.
Deadly Premonition is your typical survival horror game ? except when it's not. For a great deal of the game, DP plays like a Shenmue-esque open world game, where people operate on a clock and advances in the plot can greatly change those routines. Story-specific objectives usually carry a time limit ? don't reach your destination in time, you'll have to wait a day to try again. Thankfully they can never be outright failed, and York can charm his way out of trouble by rationalizing his error. Otherwise, you're free to explore Greenvale and interact with the cast of colorful characters at your leisure. These characters range from mostly normal (hotel owner Polly is extremely hard of hearing and apparently thinks York is flirting with her), somewhat strange (the sheriff named his dumbbells after a pair of famous action movie stars), flat-out weird (Sigourney, the one-shoed old bat who constantly screams at York about her pot that is getting cold) to OH GOD WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS PLACE (?mysterious capitalist? Harry Stewart and his ?butler? Michael; the former wearing a Half-Life 2 Combine gas mask, the latter speaking to York only in rhymes, apparently the Eminem of Greenvale). There are some normal people in town, however they seem weird compared to the insanity that surrounds them.
York himself seems ready for a padded room ? when wandering the town, it's possible to engage in conversations with Zach ? and not just basic talk about the murders. I'm talking in-depth, lengthy conversations about Superman movies, sequels to numerous 80s movies, serial killers, punk rock... yikes. He also proves adept at freaking everyone out with his unusual quirks, be it randomly talking about Olivia Newton John at the local diner or constantly ticking off the local police with his unique style of law enforcement. At various points in the game, York can undertake a bevy of sidequests from the town residents, with a few of them leading to very useful items, be it infinite weaponry or a radio that enables fast travel. As the game functions in ?real time?, York will have to stop and eat something occasionally, as well as grab some sleep whenever possible. As mentioned, the NPCs run their routines ? stores are only open during specific hours, people will visit others often, various establishments are frequented. It's a great take on the ?living city? concept. This is easily noticed early on in the game when York organizes a town hall meeting ? as the time draws closer, the residents will leave their homes and businesses to head there, which you can see happen as opposed to some kind of instant warping process. The only bummer about the open-world model is that the driving ranges from bad to deplorable. Let's just say this engine won't be used for a future racing game.
When the game does return to the main plot, the sandbox elements vanish and the survival horror begins. When exploring places like lumbermills, art galleries, and hospitals, the game will suddenly ?shift? in the same fashion a Silent Hill game would when the ?other side? is summoned. Here, York wanders through looking for evidence to ?profile? the scene. That, and fend off attacks from zombie-like enemies that are also world champion limbo players. These encounters are not particularly challenging; the zombies are bullet sponges but they're also slow and stupid. They're apparently blind too, as it's possible to sneak past them by holding your breath. Ultimately these are the only enemies you encounter when playing these sequences, save for the occasional appearance of the ?wall crawler? type that will likely infuriate new players. What holds Deadly Premonition back a bit is that these sequences are the worst parts of the game ? the trademark quirkiness vanishes and is replaced by clunky controls and frustratingly boring dungeons. Making matters worse, it's theorized that all this is happening in York's head ? nobody ever, ever talks about the zombies. Maybe it's like Fight Club? These strange zombie-like enemies also appear in Greenvale proper, but only very, very late at night. When that happens, prepare to freak out whe- OH MY GOD IT'S A GIANT DOBERMAN FALLING FROM THE SKY. Err, sorry. The first time you see one of those is a life-changing experience.
It's not all bad though ? these sequences demonstrate backstory in a subtle, mysterious way. By picking up unusual pieces of evidence, York can ?see? what happened previously and form a theory about what happened in any given location. At first, the ?visions? are blurry and full of static, but collect all the evidence (which is required to complete all of these areas, you can't miss anything) and the picture is clearer. Not clear enough to find out who the killer is, but enough to offer clues necessary to advance the plot. There's also the encounters with whom you dub the ?Raincoat Killer?, an axe-wielding freak in a red coat that has big glowing eyes. Sometimes all you have to do is perform a Quick Time event sequence, but occasionally the encounters get way more freaky. More than once, York has to hide in a locker or under a table to mask his presence, holding his breath all the while. Even worse, there's a few chase events where getting caught is not a good idea. These moments do a decent job of breaking up the otherwise dull shooting sequences and keep you on edge ? you never know when these attacks will trigger. The only problem is the ?chasing? parts are really clumsy and sometimes inane ? like running, then slooooooooowly climbing up a step, sloooooooooooooooooowly climbing down, then taking 20 minutes to move a stupid crate instead of shooting it or going around it.
In other words, Deadly Premonition is a game that actually fares better when you're outside the confines of combat. Keep in mind that these sequences are actually a little bit better if you have an infinite ammo weapon ? without fear of losing ammo you can just shoot stuff with reckless abandon. Sure it's a bit silly to do a sidequest to make the main quest better, but it's not like that hasn't been done before. Aside from combat issues, Deadly Premonition can only be described as genius. Nothing is out of place, everything makes sense ? even the nagging problem of being unable to fully zoom out the map ? the collective internet's mind was blown when someone figured out something very important about that map that otherwise might have given away the entire story. It's mindblowing to see the details and concepts in a game that obviously is low budget, squeezing every development dollar into a very ambitious project. This SWERY dude who came up with this game really needs a big budget publisher to get behind him, because it's obvious he's got the talent for some very cool stuff. Sure sometimes the game can get frustrating, but all is forgiven every time you start peeking through windows, hanging out at the clubs, playing darts, or pushing boxes in the back of a convenience store.
The ?no budget? status of DP is easily seen with the sub-standard visuals. For the most part, the game truly does look like a PS2 game in high-definition, with the lone exception of the character models, which are quite solid. Especially Emily, who looks an awful lot like Naomi Watts. Balancing out the character models is a artistically sound but technologically lacking world with ugly environments ? especially the wooded areas. Given the entire game takes place in a town that got started in the lumber trade, trees are important. Anyway, this is countered with a great soundtrack and some solid voice acting. There's no Japanese language track at all ? the game was recorded in English, which makes it even more fascinating. Everyone does a really good job demonstrating the various quirks of each character, and believe me... there are some legitimate characters. By now you've probably heard the infamous ?whistle theme? that plays over and over ? it's just the tip of the audio iceberg, full of weird music that sometimes belittles the situation at hand. Nothing like the whistling theme playing while York talks about a serial killer that used the skulls of his victims as drinking glasses. There is a strange audio mixing issue at times when the music drowns out the words, but knowing this ridiculous game, it's probably by design.