Version tested: Xbox 360
Alan Wake creator Sam Lake has spoken openly of his game's debt to Twin Peaks, referencing David Lynch's ground-breaking TV series in interviews and paying subtle tribute in the game itself. By comparison, Ignition's Deadly Premonition feels like frenzied fanfic, pilfering elements left, right and centre as it relays the tale of a coffee-loving FBI agent investigating a ritualistic killing in a sleepy rural town. Crucially, though, it nails that Lynchian tone, aping the director's blend of the mundane and the surreal in what is undeniably one of the weirdest retail videogame releases for a long, long time.
Whether that's by accident or design, however, is open to debate. Certainly some of the oddness is intentional, but equally, Deadly Premonition's unique feel comes from a combination of budgetary constraints, uneven pacing and baffling mechanics. A blend of detective story and Siren-style survival horror, it's a game where smoking whiles away valuable hours, an "unbelievably delicious" turkey sandwich (costing just shy of a hundred bucks) is the ultimate in nutrition, and the hero's beard grows in real time.
Hero is perhaps the wrong word to describe Agent Francis York Morgan ("call me York"), an arrogant chain-smoking suit from the big city with a penchant for java, biscuits, and inappropriate topics of conversation over dinner. He's the kind of guy who smugly looks down on his small-town cohorts before regaling them with tales of a serial murderer who urinated in and then drank from his victims' skulls. He spends half his time relaying messages to the unseen Zach, who may or may not be a figment of his imagination, often during dialogue with other characters. Amazingly, no-one ever mentions this.
During car journeys, York talks to Zach about eighties cinema with a Bateman-esque level of obsessive detail. He's full of tics, often tapping his chest or holding his finger to his ear as if communicating via a hidden earpiece with the mysterious Zach. Basically, he's a grade-A fruit-loop with a side of narcissism, and one of the most interesting gaming protagonists for years.
The game's creator SWERY - who on this evidence could well be the new Suda 51 - lays his cards on the table from the outset with an introductory sequence where two blonde twin boys happen across a semi-naked woman hanging from a tree, sliced open from chest to stomach, with her long hair tactfully covering her breasts. Then, as you take control of York, you're plunged into a forest clearing where the two boys - dressed as angels, heads wreathed in crowns of leaves with knotted twigs as wings - are sitting on chintzy chairs and swinging their legs as red leaves rise from the floor, and a TV blinks in the background. Then things get really strange.
With everyone in the town a potential suspect, York begins to investigate the murder by exploring on foot and in any police car he finds. Despite frequently being described by its inhabitants as a small town, Greenvale takes some time to traverse, particularly as every vehicle seems to have a speed limit of 50mph (though you can activate the siren to go a little faster). You're often given a specific time slot to reach the next area you're investigating or subject for interview, but missing it isn't a problem as you can just try again the following day. This gives you plenty of time to get to know the town and its residents.
Fortunately, they're a fascinating bunch, from the rocker with a surfer-dude accent who runs the grocery store to the wheelchair-bound magnate whose face is covered with half a human skull attached to a gas mask, and who talks in cryptic terms through his assistant. Speak to someone at the right time and you'll get the opportunity to do them a favour in return for a financial reward or useful item.
These side-quests are generally fairly straightforward, but some are far more worthwhile than others, and there's no real way of knowing which is which. One early mission can only be activated by replaying that particular episode, yet it yields one of the most useful items in the entire game - a radio that can instantly warp you to a place you've previously visited. Given the time it takes to drive anywhere, it's an absolute godsend, yet it's buried away in a quest that can very easily be missed.
Everyone in the town has his or her own schedule, and it's often interesting to simply follow someone around as they go about their daily routine and see how the townsfolk have been affected by the murder. The game happily lets you take your time exploring and discovering background info, even if much of the dialogue is incidental rather than helpful.
In the early stages, some of the town seems closed off, forcing you to pay attention to the opening hours of each establishment. Time can be skipped by either smoking or sleeping, though York has to eat, as an empty stomach can cause him to rapidly lose health. Fortunately, there are several places to get food, even if some of it seems extortionately expensive. $35.56 for some vending machine crackers?
There's something of Shenmue in Deadly Premonition's unhurried pace, and there are a few mini-game asides. Fishing is a highlight, a heartily silly bit of business that sees you reeling in weapons, ammo and first-aid kits as well as the odd bass or catfish. Purchasing a special gun lets you play darts in the local bar - a surprisingly tricky test of skill and nerve in which York needs to beat the bar owner's high score while regulating his pulse. There are also simple checkpoint races to try, soundtracked by what appears to be a supermarket muzak version of Green Day's American Idiot.
Once you've had your fill of exploring, the story missions beckon, with crime scenes and other suspicious areas to investigate. Often these result in York apparently entering another world in hallucinatory sequences that play out like a low-rent Resident Evil 4. It's here that the sluggish controls become more of a problem, while the wonky aiming can see you score a headshot while clearly missing the target.
Enemies are standard shuffling zombies with a slight twist (many of them approach you while bending over backwards), while attacks often involve them rudely shoving their arms down your throat in a move that's at once hilarious and troubling. When they die, they shout things like "don't kill me" or "I don't want to die" in voices that sound like they're being played at half speed. My initial reaction was to laugh, but the further I progressed and the weirder the story got, the more affecting their cries seemed.
Perhaps that's because some of these sections are genuinely scary, thanks to the recurring appearance of an axe-wielding maniac in a red raincoat. He'll periodically pop up in this foggy netherworld, sparking the odd Quick-Time Event sequence, or a nerve-shredding section where York has to hide under tables or in cupboards to avoid being chopped into pieces. A couple of extended chase sequences are simultaneously inventive and awkward, with York running out of the screen as you waggle the left stick while a cutaway shows the killer in hot pursuit, readying his axe as you jab buttons to duck and dodge.
Though these sections are over-long and frequently clumsy, they're essential to the story. Each one reveals clues to the crime, launching a 'profiling' sequence in which York sees brief, juddering flashes of the incident interspersed with static. These are among the game's most disturbing moments, relatively restrained in what they show, but suggestive of something pretty horrific. York's blasé approach to the game's brutality also helps create a sense of unease, particularly during one ghoulish autopsy sequence where he starts discussing An American Werewolf in London ("John Landis, 1981") before fishing a red seed from the corpse's mouth, complete with exaggeratedly squelchy sound effects.
It's not knowing quite what's coming next that will compel most players to ignore Deadly Premonition's awkwardness and its moments of odd or bad design as the twisting, twisted plot heads into the realms of the truly bizarre. It also helps you forgive the terrible graphics. Deadly Premonition was originally due for release three years ago, apparently developed with PS2 in mind, and it shows. Yet it's not all bad news: there's an impressive attention to detail in the characters and their mannerisms that compensates for the awful animation and bad lip-syncing.
The soundtrack, meanwhile, is all over the place, often obtrusively loud and cutting in and out seemingly at random. At times the music's volume almost obscures the dialogue before it abruptly departs and leaves an unnerving silence. On other occasions, such as that autopsy sequence, it's inappropriately jaunty or jazzy. Because of the often jarring mismatch between the music and on-screen events, even the happier numbers seem somehow threatening; the town's main theme features whistling and a kazoo and still feels creepy.
There's one moment that sums up Deadly Premonition better than any other, and perhaps tells you more than the score below possibly can. It's a line that comes at the end of a lengthy ghost story, relayed by a store owner in hushed tones under a dim, green light: "Cope's Tunnel...some people call it Corpse Tunnel now." It's played absolutely straight, and it's impossible to tell whether you're supposed to laugh or take it seriously.
That's Deadly Premonition to a T. It's the Amy Winehouse of videogames: rambling and incoherent, a bit of a mess and not much to look at, but with a unique and distinctive voice that's very hard to ignore. Isn't that right, Zach?
7 / 10