Please, just call me York.
One of the most common complaints voiced about the modern game industry is that all the creativity and individuality is slowly draining away, replaced by endless, cookie cutter franchises designed by boardroom committees.
We all know the main offenders. Each instalment, often released on an annual basis, seems the same as the last, and you would be forgiven for thinking that the end was nigh, the future is as bleak as a bullet ridden “Call of Duty” battlefield.
However, there are plenty of games out there, hiding on the fringes of the mainstream, that exhibit all the unique identity and creativity that many gamers crave. You just have to find them.
And that’s exactly what I did this summer. After searching online, I found a little-known open world action game that caught my attention, called “Deadly Premonition”.
Released in 2010, the game follows the story of young hot shot FBI agent Francis York Morgan, as he travels to a small town in rural America to investigate a horrendous murder of a young girl. So far, so generic. During the daytime, the player follows the conventional route you would expect; interrogating the townsfolk and trying to find any clue he can to help him in his investigation.
But during the night, York has to do battle with inhuman spirits and a deadly, axe wielding serial killer, which appears seemingly out of nowhere, and vanish almost as quickly.
Many lesser games would take this premise and turn it into standard action shootout, populated with boring characters pulled from the bottom of the cliché bargain bin. But characterisation is one of the first places where “Deadly Premonition” displays more individuality than a thousand mainstream titles.
The town of Greenvale is full of memorable characters, each brimming with more personality than most games manage to conjure up throughout their entire running time.
I could devote a thesis to describing each one of the eccentric cast, but instead, I’ll run through a quick list instead. There’s the ambitious police deputy, the idealistic, gung-ho sheriff, the friendly tree salesman, the elderly Vietnam veteran, the senile old lady who owns an empty hotel, the enigmatic art gallery curator, and so many more.
Yes, they are all archetypes, but they are never stereotypes, each member of the cast revealing hidden depths as the story progresses.
But the real star of the show is the protagonist, Francis York Morgan. Please, call him York. Everyone else does. As a character, he breaks genre convention almost as soon as he is introduced, displaying weird and often disturbing behaviour. For example, in his first scene, York talks on the phone with an unheard person about how he believes Tom and Jerry are engaged in a homosexual sado-masochistic relationship. All the while, he flicks through forensic pictures of murdered women on his laptop, which he often admits he has a “special interest in”.
And that’s only the beginning. York also has a silent invisible friend, whose name is Zach, who he talks to openly in front of other people.
Yes, that’s right. And they just keep coming. He discusses grisly anecdotes about serial killers over dinner, tells anyone who will listen how he used to dress like a “hardcore punk rocker” in high school, and foresees the future in cups of coffee. Its’ safe to say that he is certainly a unique character, and his investigation is a story well worth sticking with, especially once the plot opens up, and takes a turn into the seriously surreal.
But what of the game itself, I hear you ask? The gameplay is the usual mixture of sandbox components: running, driving,shooting, and …unfortunately it’s with these basic elements that the game falters.
The driving is slow and clumsy, vehicles prohibited from driving over fifty. The shooting, whilst borrowing the “Resident Evil 4” over the shoulder aiming system, fails to be either exciting or challenging.
Certain action sequences, mostly involving the demonic Raincoat killer, inject a little life into the proceedings with extremely tense games of cat and mouse. The moments when York is holding his breath, hiding in cupboards and escaping down corridors to avoid death, are tense, but ultimately fall victim to repetition.
The open world of Greenvale is huge, full of large open forest, and the town itself is authentically populated with ordinary people who go about their daily routines. But even all that doesn’t hide the fact that the graphics are hugely outdated, textures patchy, buildings blocky, and colours bland and flat. The frame rate is erratic, often slowing to a deadly crawl in key moments.
The sound design is terrible, with vehicular collisions sounding like tin cans being knocked together. In one of the weirdest moments, a surprised squirrel that shrieked like a monkey appeared. The dialogue is at times cringe worthy , and frankly, embarrassing to listen to. It’s like a short story you wrote, aged five.
So why, despite of these massive technical and design issues, do I love “Deadly Premonition”?
Simply due to the fact that the game presents a weird and wonderful storyline, one that changes direction multiple times, peppered with twists and turns, that alternate from hilarious (whether intentional or not) to terrifyingly bleak and serious.
The protagonist, and in fact, the entire cast are lovable weirdos, who you will eventually come to treat as family. As awful as its overall design is, and as painful as it often is to play, I adore the crazy bizarreness of the game.
“Deadly Premonition” sets up a unique journey, and if you’re willing to battle through the terrible gameplay, I promise it’s a ride you will never forget.