This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise.
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Usually when you say “cult hit” you mean “reviewed well, sold like garbage.” Deadly Premonition was an interesting case of selling like shit AND reviewing like shit but ending up a cult hit regardless, because if you could push your way through the dense hedge of janky graphics and horrible design there was a discarded porn mag of uniqueness and character there that made it worth the brambles. The creator, Swery, is like the poor man’s Hideo Kojima got together with the poor man’s Suda 51 and had a very undernourished baby. But he’s been able to carve an identity for himself making games usually themed around an outsider’s view of American culture as seen through the lens of TV, and that began with Deadly Premonition, which was basically… Twin Peaks.
Sounded like you were gonna say But, there, Yahtz. You keep falling for that one, don’t you, viewer. No, Twin Peaks about sums it up. But with Deadly Premonition 2 Swery is telling us that he’s moved on from Twin Peaks and started watching True Detective instead. So, FBI special agent Francis Zach Morgan who is also Francis York Morgan is old, dying and drugged to the follicles when a hotshot young FBI agent comes to interrogate him about how he solved some of his old cases, forcing him to awkwardly talk around the fact that he solved them by slipping into a monstrous shadow realm and taking down the suspect’s confession just before they turned into a nightmare demon and he shot them fifty times.
Oh by the way Swery don’t believe in no recaps for the latecomers so you’ll have a zero percent chance of understanding this plot if you start with number 2. Play through the original first and that might take you as high as five or six percent. Anyway, the bulk of the game consists of a flashback to Francis Something Morgan in 2005 in a small town in Louisiana investigating a series of occult murders and the insidious influence behind them which hangs over the town ensuring that it can’t go above a single digit frame rate.
Deadly Premonition 1 was so fucking janky it kept all its money in Barclay’s Jank. But I had hopes that, having been away from the franchise a while, that Swery would have learned a few things from their other games, J.J. Macfield and the load of old bollocks, and D4, the world’s best game named after a piece of tabletop roleplaying equipment. But no, the jank remains. And while DP1 was adorably janky, DP2 is patience-tryingly janky.
The game runs like a pig in high heels. On a sandy beach. In the rain. Every time you go outside, you stare at a loading screen for five minutes and then the sandbox world chuggingly fades into view at three FPS, it’s like watching a dump truck slowly inch its way into your driveway and methodically deposit shit in your face.
The world map is flat and dull and looks like a PS2 era sandbox where features pop in worse than your least favourite neighbours, and part of why it runs like the above discussed pig in high heels is the size of the sandbox, and the sandbox is unnecessarily big with too much empty space in between the important bits, so it’s like the game is struggling under the weight of a hundred pound bag of Yorkie bars it brought for a two mile hike and they’re not even my favourite kind of Yorkie bars. But then the game needs to provide a fast way to get around the sandbox, so it opts for a skateboard. And honestly, I kind of love that it’s a skateboard. It’s quick to pull out, more maneuverable than a car, and it’s just hilarious to watch Agent York gliding along at full speed in his business suit having a very placid and reasonable conversation with himself about his favourite Charles Bronson film.
If I were going to point a finger at where Deadly Premonition’s appeal lies, it’d probably end up right up the protagonist’s nose. Francis York Morgan is a fascinating character, self-assuredly eccentric and mysterious but eminently likeable. Yes, a lot of him comes from Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks, but he comes into his own when he calmly and smilingly enters the nightmare world to battle his suspect to the death as they grow seven pairs of mutant death tits. The characters and dialogue lend the games that very quirky tone that allows one to forgive little things like, say, everyone animating like their limbs are held on with elastic bands, and looking like they built their facial expressions from very poorly translated assembly instructions.
I suppose the main takeaway of this video is that if you’re one of the people who liked Deadly Premonition and are among the subset of those who are allowed to leave the house and own sharp objects, then you will find more of what you liked in Deadly Premonition 2, albeit not as much of it. And if you were able to forgive the technical flaws, atrocious game design and Swery’s trademark dramatic shifts of tone about as smooth and natural as biting down on a hitherto unnoticed caterpillar in a sandwich, then your forgiving muscles are going to have to work overtime.
The game is a sandbox action adventure, if the sandbox was a hundred yards wide and half a centimeter deep, with a Dead Rising-esque in-game clock defining when certain shops and missions are available, but the clock just runs too fucking slowly. I got up at nine, skateboarded across town to do a crime scene analysis, skateboarded all the way back, did four more story missions and shot nine squirrels, the next mission didn’t unlock until 6pm, I looked at the clock, it was only 9:15. There just weren’t enough activities or enough hate in my heart for the squirrels of the world to fill the time.
Then it got worse. Story progress is suddenly gated by some viciously arbitrary fetch quests, and one of the items needed is only sold from one of the shops on a Monday. I looked at the clock. It was Wednesday. And so FBI special agent Francis York Morgan went back to his hotel room and proceeded to sleep to a degree that would imply either severe depression or coma. And if the grindy fetch quests in the critical path weren’t enough, and you’re still waiting on your sharp objects license, you can also grind up a bunch more random objects to craft charms that upgrade your skills.
Except a feature that improves your skill kinda hinges upon the gameplay requiring any. Every combat section can be very easily beaten with no charms and the starting gun. Because all the enemy monsters are slow moving with no ranged attack and a single ammo box contains enough bullets to assassinate every US president, even if you need to use two on the fat ones. Still, the combat’s improved since the last game, which had more of a melee focus and melee combat hinges on good character animation and Deadly Premonition has the character animation of three deckchairs in a whirlpool. Also the GUIs are better and no longer look like a webpage from the late 90s got kicked down a spiral staircase.
But in the end SWERY is no Hideo Kojima. In that, while both men write stories the way a candy floss machine assembles a ship in a bottle and that’s kinda what makes them interesting, Kojima seems to have a grasp of game design fundamentals, and Deadly Premonition 2 indicates a complete lack of such. Swery’s appeal may lie in his outsider art style defiance of convention, but some conventions exist for a reason, like having a frame rate that I can’t count on my fingers. You have to master the conventions before you can defy them. Look at Picasso’s early work. He didn’t start out sellotaping noses to foreheads.