Considering its feeble production values, ancient controls, and all-round nuttiness, it would be tempting to dismiss Deadly Premonition as merely "so bad it's good," as if this creepy and crazy horror adventure were entertaining because it's so laughably and horrifically misguided. But you should harbor no such misconception: Deadly Premonition is good because it's actually good. There is no overlooking the shortcomings--the inappropriate sound effects, the flimsy visuals, and the impractical city map. These elements and more scream "budget game," and as well they should, considering the game's $20 price tag. But the foibles and frailties quickly fade when you realize that Deadly Premonition possesses one of video gaming's most treasured traits: unpredictability. And just as the story and gameplay cover remarkably varied ground, so too will your emotions waver, tossed about by funny characterizations, shocking twists, and touching revelations that will affect all but the most jaded players. In most games, Deadly Premonition's archaic gameplay mechanics and narrative quirks would be laughable, if not pitiable. But in context, they combine to create a truly unique experience that cribs from various sources but resembles none of them.
One of Deadly Premonition's many inspirations is the 1990s television drama Twin Peaks. The influence of David Lynch's odd opus is splattered all over the game's increasingly convoluted murder mystery. There's an elderly Log Lady-like lass who carries around an ever-cooling pot filled with God-knows-what instead of a log. Player character Francis York Morgan is a coffee-loving FBI agent prone to strange dreams, much like Twin Peaks' Dale Cooper. The game and the show both take place in a small rural town, they both center on the murder of a beautiful young girl, and, well, you get the idea. But Deadly Premonition is no mere rip-off, as becomes clear as you get to know its charming lead character and supporting cast. The story takes a shocking number of twists, but the narrative is paced well, so the mind-boggling revelations that continue to rain down upon you never feel overwhelming. There are a few questions left unanswered, even if you pursue the numerous side quests that further flesh out the oddball cast. Then again, this is a story more interested in providing a skewed alternate reality than in answering every question it asks. The untied strands seem weirdly fitting, giving the impression that in this crooked world, some things don't require explanation--they simply are.
The weirdness doesn't always work out. There are times when you aren't laughing with Deadly Premonition, but at it. There are frequent odd pauses between lines of dialogue while the awkward character models attempt to look mystified or horrified. Misspellings, nonsensical attempts at humor, and monotone voice acting make some events seem beyond ridiculous. But more often, the game is genuinely amusing and perfectly aware of its role as the interactive equivalent of a B movie. York chats with his invisible companion, Zach, about cheesy '80s films and sits at an impossibly long table with the wrinkled proprietor of the local hotel. A repetitive but kooky soundtrack whistles along while York drives about town and swoons during close-ups of attractive blondes. But in spite of the constant winking, Deadly Premonition seats you on a roller coaster of emotions. There are hideously violent moments that will disturb you and personal disclosures that will move you, either because you didn't see them coming, or because what you thought you knew is turned on its head.
As for Deadly Premonition's mechanics, you couldn't say that any one facet is all that good. You spend some of your time shooting at a small assortment of lurching spirit-things, some equipped with pitchforks or similar implements and a few brandishing shotguns. These meanies amble about with their weird animations, maybe teleporting a few feet forward to get a whack in, but generally don't put up much of a fight. Even the few boss fights aren't all that challenging, though multiple encounters with stringy-haired, wall-crawling ghost girls may frustrate you, not because they're difficult, but because they last much too long. Your main struggle will be with the controls. York moves with all the grace of an Abrams tank and aims with the precision of a drunk walking a straight line; you strafe with the bumpers, but York's slothful speed makes this a mostly useless feature. The combat isn't putrid, but it isn't exciting or refined, either. The same is true of most of Deadly Premonition's individual elements. You tool about the town of Greenvale, Grand Theft Auto-style, in a variety of oafish vehicles, though luckily there is a way to improve them, and even eliminate the need for them entirely. The main map's most distant zoom level is still much, much too close for it to be useful; some of the quick-time button-mashing events are clumsy to the nth degree; and figuring out how side quests work is a trial in and of itself.
Yet while the problems are evident, Deadly Premonition comes together because it continually does the unexpected. Out of the blue, you will need to perform actions you haven't performed yet in the game. A scary grim reaper fellow pops up and waggles his finger at you, and suddenly you must hide in a locker and hold your breath while the screen goes all picture-in-picture. You answer pop quizzes that summarize the day's events. You solve puzzles involving paintings of trees, chess references, and decorative deer heads. You go fishing for documents, send your suits out for cleaning, and tail suspects in the most conspicuous vehicle possible. In the meanwhile, the citizens of Greenvale go about their business as the clock ticks onward. They go to work, they have meals, they go for walks, and they visit each other. They invite you to join them for lunch and drop tantalizing bits of backstory. The final chapters offer their own shocks, again dropping new activities into your lap that have major narrative significance. Like with any given story sequence, a moment of gameplay captured on film may look graceless at best. But with this story, the stream of surreal surprises will keep you engrossed in spite of the creaks and squeaks of the rusty gears churning underneath.
If you've played a game in the last five years, Deadly Premonition might flabbergast you at first glance. Fields are covered with low-resolution grass textures, and characters emote with the expressiveness of wannabe divas puffed up with Botox. Yards are surrounded by boxy hedges that clunk like oil drums when you drive into them, and while the victim of the murder you're there to investigate was apparently a ravishing beauty, the face appearing on her character model is one only a mother could love. But even amid all the homeliness, certain elements were crafted with obvious care. For example, electrifying scenes in an art museum and a bathroom make such good use of color and camera angles that you barely notice the technical deficiencies. A sequence of colorful boss battles and a grainy flashback make later chapters stand out. Your imagination needs to fill in some of the gaps, but this budget game makes the rudimentary graphics count when they most need to. When it comes to the messy sound design, however, the chasms are too wide for even the most fertile minds to fill in. Sometimes, the game is so silent it's as if sound effects have gone missing. Dialogue will get soft or loud out of the blue; weapons sound as if they were purchased in a toy store; and the monotonous moans of the horrors that hound you lose their charm early on.
Deadly Premonition is not a lovely game, or a refined one. It's easy to dismiss it for its bad looks, its ancient control scheme, and its general user-unfriendliness. But this is a case in which the bigger picture dwarfs the flaws and the foibles. Here is a game that pilfers ideas from a number of sources yet feels wholly distinct, and just when you think you have it figured out, it somehow manages to pull another trick rabbit out of its hat. In fact, you get dozens of hours of trick rabbits for only $20, making this game a great value for anyone looking for something a bit different. And Deadly Premonition is certainly different. It has its ups and downs, but the one direction you'll most associate with this flawed and unique game is sideways.