I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume you're familiar with the game Bionic Commando for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Not the excellent remake for modern systems, or the 3D sequel, both developed by GRIN. No, I'm talking about the original version, because it's extremely similar to Deadly Premonition in one key way. Both feature crippling design flaws that result from poor documentation.
See that barrier? It can only be destroyed by the "Bazooka" weapon. If you didn't bring that weapon to this level, there's absolutely no way to get past it. I'm not going to tell you how many times I accidentally arrived here (or to the other screen where this happens) having brought the wrong weapon, and was forced to reset the game, throwing away an hour of work each time. But it was more than once.
For years I thought that this was a monstrously unfair design oversight, until one day the Internet revealed the truth: thee was a simple way around the problem. All you had to do was hold down select/start/B at the same time, and you'd be taken out of the level, where you could rearm and try it again. Which would have been an incredibly useful thing to know when I was considerably younger and prone to throwing controllers. One problem, though—that command appeared nowhere in the game's manual. It was a simple oversight, but it had the effect of breaking the game, because there's no way to guess the button combination that would have prevented all the heartbreak.
Likewise the manual for Deadly Premonition features two huge omissions that, had they been included, would likely have changed the way everyone played the game. So here, without any further ado, are the two instructions that I feel everyone who sets out to play Deadly Premonition must be armed with:
- The terrible combat and extensive driving are almost entirely optional.
- In order for (1) to be true, there are four "side missions" that absolutely must be completed soon as possible.
Which makes this a perfect time to address the game's not-exactly-user-friendly side-story structure. At first glance, it seems like exploring all of the nooks and crannies of Greenvale will be the simplest thing in the world—not only is there a convenient menu listing all of them:
The descriptions of those missions actually let the player know which character needs to be contacted in order to start the mission, as well as which chapter those missions can occur in. Add this to the fact that every character's location is listed on the map, and it seems like there should be no trouble in checking off everyone's little tasks. There are a couple of problems, however—just simply being on the right chapter with the right person isn't necessarily enough. There's also time of day, location, and weather component to the missions that aren't listed. So if finding the right person at the right time in the right place on the right day wasn't bad enough, if it's raining, you're screwed.
The two biggest hindrances to completing the missions are plot-related, however. The first is the fact that characters with missions assigned to them have a bad habit of turning up dead before the player gets a chance to talk to them, and the second is that the game's plot barrels along so quickly that it's easy to get through the entire game without ever completing one of the side stories. During my first trip through the game I occasionally took the time to investigate something that caught my interest (I just had to, for example, figure out what was going on with those bones that were lying around everywhere), but for the most part I was so swept up in the storyline that I missed out on all of the additional substance the side-stories had to offer.
This driving storyline is one of the key things that makes Deadly Premonition so difficult to classify as a "open-world" game. Even though it features some of the trappings of the genre (a big map to explore freely, the lack of strict time limits, conspicuous collection-based fetch quests) the storyline is a much greater motivator to the player. Unlike Grand Theft Auto games, or even Yakuza, there's no point at which the game comes out and says "you know what? Just hang out for a couple of hours and do whatever—the story will still be here when you get back." From the moment York Morgan runs down that rainy highway into town there isn't a second of his time that isn't accounted for, whether investigating, socializing with the other cops on the case, or sending word back to headquarters before going to sleep, the story rushed along headfirst, forcing the player to face outright criticism from characters if they want to do anything other than continue the investigation.
Which brings me to one of the key paradoxes that defines the game—it's an open world game that actively discourages the player from exploring the open world in which it's set. It's only by really acting as Zach Morgan and convincing York to digress from his itinerary that the player can get a look at the broader, more complex world of Deadly Premonition.
And in so doing, make the game far easier to play.
The first series of missions, which can be accessed before ever going to the police station, are the kind of story-vital exercise that would, in a normally-structured game, have been part of the main story, rather than shifted off to the side the way they are. It actually begins as a completely logical investigative trip, with Zach forcing York to pay a visit to the victim's mother, hoping to get some background about the case—
It's scenes like this one which best exemplify why I believe people have had trouble embracing Deadly Premonition's story—there's the wildly uneven quality of the voiceacting, from York's skillful underplaying to Sallie's so-far-over-the-top-that-she-just-broke-orbit take on the lines. Then there's the jarring switch from hearing a woman's plaintive sobs of mourning to an HUD popping up with a chime and announcing that [YOU'VE STARTED MISSION 20: FIND A DRESS!]. At a time when video game designers are trying to lessen interfaces to the point that, someday, someone, somewhere will think that they're looking at a movie rather than a video game for roughly five seconds, Deadly Premonition's design must seem retro, cheap, or both. Really, how can we be expected to take a game seriously when there's a health bar at the top-left corner of the screen?
I think it's notable that there's almost nothing this jarringly video-gamey in the story proper. These "find this" and "bring that" missions don't fit in with the game's tone, but the stories locked away behind simple questing are key to understanding the richness of the game's world. It's almost as if the developers were nervous about simply throwing optional bits of plot and story at the players here and there, and threw in a bit of "gameplay" alongside to make the whole thing a little more traditional and palatable. If that was the case their decision had the opposite effect to the intended, but it's hard to stay too mad at the game—bright-green text on the screen in the middle of a rainstorm is bad, but at least we're not being asked to mix chemicals at the proper ratio, or figure out how much voltage it takes to electrify a chain-link fence.
After the dress has been delivered York gets a look at Anna's diary:
Which leads him to the saga of Becky and her boyfriend Quint:
In addition to a whole bunch of small-town class system melodrama, York was also rewarded with this:
A wrench that attacks super-fast, never breaks, and does a good amount of damage. As crazy as it may sound right now, this wrench is (with the exception of boss fights) the only weapon that you will need for the remainder of the game. I'll detail just how it's employed when we get to the next combat part of the game, but for right now just take my assurance: grab this item as soon as possible, and the game's fighting goes from an endless chore to a largely skippable nuisance.
And with that most-backhanded-compliment-ever out of the way, let's take a quick look at the other side mission that Deadly Pemonitioners should endeavour to complete ASAP. Remember George yelling at York for dropping by his house earlier? Well, if you actually wait until after going to the police station to check in, he's much more reasonable:
After that far more civil conversation, York is equipped with the Radio:
Which had one of the least clear explanations of any item ever. If you get into trouble and use it, George will be right there to help? Considering that all of York's troubles tend to take place in a possibly-metaphorical Silent Hill-esque Other World (or SHOW), it's doubtful how much help George could be—if the radio even worked.
That's all moot, however, because the radio—an entirely skippable item, I can't stress that enough—has a far more important purpose to serve. It allows the player to teleport immediately to any location they've already visited. Select it in the inventory and you're presented with a list of every location in the game. Simply choose one, and York immediately travels there in his car, saving the player the trouble of actually doing the driving. It allows the player to skip any driving that isn't story-integral, and speeds up the game considerably.
I'll caution against using the radio too much, however—driving around is when the York/Zach conversations happen, after all—more importantly, though, is the fact that part of the fun of playing Deadly Premonition is experiencing Greenvale as a place. Unlike the combat, which is so bad that it can't be called anything but a failure, the driving truly feels like something that the developers intended for the player to fully experience, with the Radio being an addition dropped in at the last minute when the driving tested poorly. Make no mistake, this isn't a GTA4/Red Dead Redemption situation where you'll go mad if you try to play the whole game without using the taxi/stagecoach. Speaking comparatively to other open world games there's actually very little traveling to be done—nothing in the game is more than 3-5 minutes away from anything else—but if you absolutely must, use the shortcut, that's what it's there for.
Now that I've fixed those two glaring problems, you've really got no excuse to not swing over to Amazon and buy Deadly Premonition for less than twenty dollars (it makes a great Canadian Thanksgiving gift! That's right, in Canada, we give gifts on Thanksgiving!). Next time we'll be taking a look at the denizens of Greenvale, and the remarkably laid-back and nontraditional approach the game takes to introducing them.