Deadly Premonition, in its first form, was unveiled during Tokyo Game Show 2007. Previously unannounced, the game trailer showed a moody, atmospheric albeit graphically unimpressive town by the name of “Rainy Woods” – the game’s name at the time. The protagonist was introduced as baby-faced FBI Agent David Young Henning.
The trailer showed glimpses of the odd happenings in the town. The body of a young woman named Anna is shown laid out in a morgue while another woman is shown tangled up in a grisly death-trap. Two creepy, elderly twin dwarves chant while making jerky, jarring marionette-like movements in a red room. Glimpses are shown of a dark, axe-wielding figure with glowing red eyes in a long, red coat.
The trailer ends with the David character saying “I finally got to see the real Rainy Woods” while a sultry female lounge singer singing over piano cuts in with a clear “Coming 2008” message emblazoned across the screen. Japanese text comes up at the end and reads “the more it rains, the crazier this town becomes.”
This footage received little coverage from the press. Those who did pay attention to it dismissed it as a poor Twin Peaks imitation. After this the game disappeared for some time. This was undoubtedly due to the unashamed Twin Peaks references littered all over the trailer, although Access Games has never touched further on this. During this period a great deal, if not all of the dialogue was re-recorded while a few characters, most notably the protagonist, had their character designs changed.
While the developer, Access Games was (and still is) relatively unknown, their lineage can be traced back to two now defunct development studios. An amalgamation of members from DeepSPACE (Extermination, Hungry Ghosts) and Whoopee Camp (Tomba!, Tomba! 2), Access Games first venture was Spy Fiction which received middling reviews, but is now garnering some belated attention for itself due to two characters in Deadly Premonition having appeared in it first.
Hidetaka Suehiro, better known under his nickname “SWERY,” is now the face of Access Games thanks to Deadly Premonition. Despite his familial calling as a Buddhist monk, SWERY realized his passion was for and in the film industry. During his tenure at the Osaka University of Arts and in his theater troupe he developed his skills in scenario writing, CG, stage lighting and production. Eventually, a friend suggested he consider looking for a job in the games industry. He went for SNK as its headquarters were near his house. In his early days he worked on The Last Blade series for SNK, then joined the DeepSPACE crew.
In February 2010, almost two and a half years later, the game was published for the Xbox 360 by Ignition Entertainment in the USA as the budget title “Deadly Premonition.” A month later, the Japanese version, “Red Seeds Profile,” hit Japanese shelves at full retail price on both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 via Marvelous Entertainment. Rising Star Games published a multi-lingual European Xbox 360 release in October after the amount of interest that the region-locked American version garnered.
The quiet, budget American release was greeted by a scathing review from IGN’s Erik Brudvig who opened his review with “Deadly Premonition is the definition of a system seller. Once you play it, you’ll want to go sell your system” and scored it a “Painful” 2/10. Destructoid’s Jim Sterling responded to this with his article “Deadly Premonition is THE greatest game ever made” two days later sharing the now (in)famous “F K… in the coffee!” cutscene followed by his tongue-in-cheek but sincere 10/10 review later that week where he stated “There is absolutely nothing in this industry that can compare to how weird and wonderful the whole experience is.” The debate that sprung up from these polarising scores sparked up more interest in and awareness for the game, with Giant Bomb’s Endurance Run of the game sealing the deal. These factors combined with an Amazon Deal of the Day catapulted Deadly Premonition to #1 in their Xbox 360 Sales Chart in early April ahead of AAA titles Battlefield: Bad Company 2, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Mass Effect 2 and Left 4 Dead 2. At the time of writing, Xbox 360 sales of the game have reached 140,000 in the USA, 30,000 in Europe and less than 2,000 in Japan.
Deadly Premonition is divided into twenty-seven chapters spread out over eight episodes. The story starts with the body of one Anna Graham being found bound to a red tree in a forest. Our protagonist, Francis “York” Morgan is first seen in the otherworldly “Red Room.” This room is where York retreats to when the player either pauses the game, smokes to pass in-game time or when he is having personal troubles he needs to deal with. In this sense it could be seen as part of York’s psyche. His character is properly introduced in a cutscene where he is driving, smoking and using his laptop all while deeply engaged in a psychological debate on his phone. After totaling his car and a run-in with the Raincoat Killer he finds himself in Greenvale, ready to take on a series of gruesome murders amid some supernatural goings-on.
Francis “York” Morgan
Call him York – that’s what everyone calls him. Lover of coffee, cigarettes, punk rock and movies; York is an experienced FBI agent with an eccentric and enigmatic character. He arrives in Greenvale to investigate a possible connection with an earlier case involving the red seeds. He can rub people the wrong way with his city demeanour, but the townspeople gradually warm to him. People around him constantly comment on his facial scar which he insists will heal within a week, much to their disbelief.
Francis “Zach” Morgan
Every so often York raises his hand to his head to speak to Zach. However, it isn’t clear to the player just who Zach is. Is he a figment of York’s imagination? Is he the player? York has no real qualms about talking to Zach around others, despite the confusion and awkwardness that can ensue.
Greenvale’s Sheriff is not keen on York taking over his murder investigation. A bit of a hard case and not one for showing emotions, he initially belittles and challenges York until eventually opening up. His mother is not well at all.
Greenvale’s Deputy Sheriff. She works as an intermediary between York and George and becomes York’s sidekick to an extent. Somewhat of an outsider as she hails from Seattle rather than having been born in Greenvale. Despite her love of food, her poor cooking ability has to be seen to be believed. The player takes control of her for one chapter later in the game.
The sensitive side of Greenvale’s police trio. He is the Sheriff’s assistant and moonlights as a bartender at Galaxy of Terror. An expert on squirrels from around the world and biscuit cook extraordinaire.
Harry’s well-attired aide and interpreter who speaks in rhymes and riddles. “So says Mr. Stewart.”
Anna’s best friend. By the time York arrives in Greenvale she has hidden herself away in her sumptuous home in a mixture of fear and mourning.
Becky’s older sister and the curator of Muses Gallery and something of a predatory seductress in her spare time. Has quite the fixation on tree art. And men.
The old dear of the Grand Deer Hotel, where York is staying. She makes a mean coffee and came second in the Miss Greenvale contest once upon a time.
Wesley “The Gunsmith”
More interested in your card collection than selling guns, frequenting Wesley’s “Panda Bear” gun store can provide you with special suits and weapons alongside restocking your ammo.
Her pot is getting cold.
Forrest Kaysen’s pet Dalmatian. Emily gets the chance to take him for a walk with Kaysen later in the game.
The doctor in charge of forensic examination. A chess and cheese potato chip enthusiast.
Anna’s mother. Clearly distraught by her daughter’s death, she has taken to drinking in the SWERY ’65 darts bar.
Father of the Ingram twins and owner of the Milk Barn convenience store. Keen to help York in any way he can. He is a lover of rock music and his guitar.
Olivia’s husband is the best cook in town. He is the genius behind the Sinner’s sandwich. Just don’t step into his kitchen while he’s cooking!
Jack “The Raging Bull”
Owner of the local gas station and all-round charmer. Always ready to begrudgingly fill York’s gas tank and help him out if he’s been bribed sufficiently.
“Rosy Lips” Gina
The preferred local gas station attendant. She provides one heck of a car wash.
There are several clearly defined sections in Deadly Premonition, each with slightly different mechanics and gameplay elements. Of these, the “Other World” segments are perhaps the most obvious. Most of the combat you will encounter in the game will take place in the Other World as it is where York will encounter the eerie enemies known as “Shadows”. They do not come in many shapes or sizes; in their most common form they appear as pale ghouls bearing Glasgow smiles and no eyes. If they get the chance they will quite literally bend over backwards to scuttle towards you murmuring and moaning “I see you,” “where are you?” or “I don’t want to die.” If they get close enough to York, they will try to enter his body through his mouth in an incredibly surreal cutscene reminiscent of Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. Crawling Shadows are the less common, but much more fiendish form which only appear in corridors with vents. Fans of Japanese horror movies will see these enemies are largely influenced by Ringu and Ju-On. Meanwhile night-time Other World features oddities such as birds and giant dogs attacking York alongside Shadows. Shadows do not bleed per se, but rather release a purple gas.
Firing weapons makes the camera go into a Resident Evil 4 / 5 over-the-shoulder view with York on the left. Weapons either fall into gun or melee categories, but a plethora are available. Finishing sidequests rewards you with the best weapons in the game including weapons with infinite ammo, a rocket launcher and flamethrower. York’s default weapon, the 9mm FBI Custom Handgun will suffice for an Easy mode playthrough, but those looking to finish the Normal and Hard modes should consider some of the sidequests as Crawling Shadows can be troublesome. In most situations, pacifists can make York hold his breath which makes it much harder for regular Shadows to spot him. Combat is far from perfect in Deadly Premonition, perhaps even to the extent that it’s the game’s greatest downfall. However, if you are used to the awkward controls found in most of the previous generation’s survival horror games then you will get by just fine.
While not as macabre as Silent Hill‘s own “Otherworld,” Deadly Premonition‘s is certainly similar to Silent Hill‘s default “Foggy World.” The shift between worlds takes place when it rains, outside after midnight or as York gets closer to uncovering the mystery of the red seeds. Most of the “Profiling” sections of the game take place in the Other World. Profiling in Deadly Premonition requires York to track down several clues in a particular area to deduce just what has happened. Profiles are displayed as obscured, grainy footage until clues, displayed as Polaroids, are found. Each clue unveils part of the story behind each area until the whole video is viewable at the end of Profiling.
Other World experiences will often conclude with a Raincoat Killer encounter. These integrate both Quick Time Events ala Shenmue and also helpless hide-and-seek elements reminiscent of the Clock Tower series. Boss battles do appear in the game, but they are all heavily weighted towards the end of the story.
When all is as right as things can get in Greenvale, York is free to either continue with his investigation or explore. The city is not as densely populated as those in Shenmue or The Elder Scrolls games, but like these games NPCs have their own routines and there are an abundance of sidequests to take on. As one might expect, completing many of these sidequests will reap rewards that will make the game much easier and less infuriating in some cases. For example, the “Passion Red” suit increases York’s maximum health, the radio allows the player to teleport to previously visited locations rather than driving across the map and the “Weather Doll” can regenerate York’s health and pulse rate. Sidequests can range from Sokoban, darts and fishing minigames to time trial races and hunting down missing bones. 65 trading cards are also hidden throughout the game, each of which divulge details of the characters or items they depict.
When playing Deadly Premonition, there are several meters that need to be monitored. The most obvious and important meters the player needs to be aware of are York’s health, pulse rate, hunger and sleep levels. First-Aid Kits come in three sizes and are the most obvious way to restore York’s health when he is hurt. York’s pulse rate goes up when he is running, using Auto-Lock in combat, holding his breath, hiding, or using the siren boost in the patrol car. This is recovered either by ceasing to do these activities or, in the worst case scenario, using the “Stabilizer” item which will instantly return you to normal as well as keep you calmer than usual for a while. Hunger is satiated by eating any of the treats hidden around Greenvale such as cookies, onions and cans of pickles. Thomas also provides a free hearty lunch at the Sheriff’s Department each day which should not be missed in terms of both its convenience and the amusing conversations that ensue. Meanwhile, sleeping every so often is also a necessity. Coffee can give you a boost for a while, but it won’t last forever. Not maintaining these levels properly will cause your health to deplete over time. Whilst not nearly as important, York’s suits also require dry cleaning every few days. Not doing so will lead to York becoming a “Stinky Agent” and having flies fly around him in perfect circles. This causes no harm and is certainly entertaining for a while, but it gets old fast.
Players who miss out on specific sidequest opportunities can load up the chapter they have not perfected and play through for as long as they want. However, it is only possible to save progress at the very end of the chapter rather than using phones to save as you can throughout the main game. The passage of time can also be sped up at any point in the game by smoking cigarettes. Particularly convenient if you are waiting for a deadline, but hunger and sleep meters will continue to decrease as you go forward in time.
Money is made in-game by performing both routine tasks like checking what the weather will be like on TV ala Harvest Moon as well as shaving and changing suits regularly. Making headshots in battle will also earn you a bit of cash as will tracking down ridiculously huge “Agent Honor” medals, speeding and smashing up fences and crates. Just another day on the job for an FBI Agent. You will also get your FBI salary payment at the end of each chapter.
Near the start of the game, York receives a Master Key to every police squad car and SUV in the city. These cars can use siren boosts, although they raise York’s pulse rate. Peculiarly enough, as the story progresses, the option to buy many of the townsfolk’s cars opens up. Each vehicle has a different top speed, handling and brake power. Strangely for a game with such a limited soundtrack, almost every car has a different theme song of its own. Every car that is unlocked over the course of the game is stored in the Grand Deer Hotel parking lot. York’s repaired sports car is the only car with anything approaching acceptable handling and speed as well as no damage meter. Makes you wonder how it got totalled in the first place. Every car in the game requires regular refuelling. Running out or breaking down means that York either has to walk to the nearest car spawning point or send out a flare for assistance. The only real upshot of driving around Greenvale with York is hearing his one-sided conversations with Zach about cult movies and punk music.
There are a number of trivial issues in Deadly Premonition which lessen the experience for many players. One of the most common complaints is the awkward map. It is far too zoomed in and it rotates depending on which way York is facing making it very easy to become discombobulated. It is also not clear to many players that the lingering item pickup screen can be skipped with the start button. The most noticeable, but less straightforward, offender in the game for a number of players is the graphics department. It is not an exaggeration to say that most of the game looks like a PlayStation 2 and Dreamcast-era game. Few will be surprised to learn that Deadly Premonition was originally intended to be a simultaneous PlayStation 2 and Xbox 360 release. However, optimisation problems and delays led to the eventual PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 releases. Combat was only added to the game half-way through its development cycle, and it shows. In the initial design of the game York was meant to avoid enemies rather than fight them, but the powers that be couldn’t see FBI Agent York wandering around Greenvale unarmed. While Greenvale’s design is sparse it can’t really be faulted in this case as it’s meant to be a plain mountain town. In fact, the team did extensive location research in Oregon, Washington and California. SWERY also took inspiration from his childhood visits to relatives in Canada.
Where Deadly Premonition excels and flourishes is in its humour, storytelling, characterisation and eccentricity. The plot as a whole is so inordinately different to Twin Peaks that it’s a shame people still hammer this aspect home. It certainly takes a lot of the unsettling feel of the show but goes off the rails in terms of the story relatively quickly. There is a great deal of foreshadowing and innovative touches like the harrowing death scenes later in the game.
Most of the characters in the game strike the player as cliche at first. However, in a similar way to The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, if the player delves deeper the characters soon reveal more depth. By taking the time to complete sidequests and go out of the way to follow characters around, even spy on them, the player will find there is a lot to uncover about almost each and every character and their relationships between one another.
There are several music tracks in heavy rotation throughout the game, but they are used with such perfect judgement and timing that they connect the player to the game and absorb them into the world of mystery and ridiculousness that York himself is experiencing both Greenvale and his mind.
York’s voice actor Jeff Kramer, while relatively unknown, is the most defining factor that glues the oft mismatched fabrics of the game together. His pleasing velvety tones create an image that blends so perfectly with the character we see in the game it really is quite hard not to feel genuinely connected. Dialogue in Deadly Premonition is occasionally stilted or jarring, but anyone who cannot see that this is fully intentional is clearly missing the point.
Some onlookers see Deadly Premonition as a shambling mess, refusing to see the scope of the game as well as where it is coming from. Its lackluster controls, polish and occasionally disjointed gameplay may bar entry to the modern gamer, but by pushing past this and allowing the charm to shine through many will end up loving every minute of it. Obfuscated beneath the veneer of Deadly Premonition is an engaging experience that is truly touching at times; even emotionally involving.
Once you get down to it you can see the amount of time, love and attention to detail that has gone into the troubled making of this game. If SWERY’s game design and craftwork here is anything to go by, he is a man with unique vision for video games. He may overindulge in “unnecessary elements,” but it is these which make thousands of fans across the world so moved and intrigued by the game. He is keen on reaching out to his fans and uses his Twitter account to respond to almost every question he gets. Talk of a sequel or prequel has been floating around since 2011, with SWERY stating in Yu Suzuki (Shenmue) fashion that he’s more than happy to make it if a publisher comes forward.
Rather than repeating what’s already been said elsewhere there are a couple of in-depth Deadly Premonition articles that make for perfect supplementary reading for critics, rookies and veterans alike. The archived version of SWERY’s Game Developer Conference 2011 Lecture: “Game Design in the Coffee. ~ Lovable Game Design by SWERY” details SWERY’s train of thought when he was working on the game and reflects just how much he wants other developers to innovate rather than get stuck in the same old rut. The Game Developer post-mortem interview, on the other hand, goes into much more technical detail of the troubles Access Games encountered during the game’s development.