Deadly Premonition: The Director’s Cut

I don’t want to spend a lot of time criticizing the technical issues in Deadly Premonition, as there are many, but they ultimately don’t prevail over the charms. (Issues in design will make for a longer conversation.) So: the controls are terrible and can’t be rebound properly, the resolution can’t be changed without mods, menus will get stuck, forcing you to quit without saving under certain circumstances, and there are crash bugs that I wasted many hours trying to fix.

It got bad enough that after a couple hours of play I almost considered giving up and just finding a Let’s Play of the game instead, but I ultimately got it stable enough by undoing all the various other “fixes” I’d applied and getting through a tricky cutscene with the game in fullscreen. No crash ever set me back more than a few minutes–usually it would crash while loading after a cutscene, and I could just skip the cutscene when I tried again–but even into the epilogue I was getting the crashes. You can imagine how eager I was to save after the boss rush.

Anyone who has paid money for the game ought to feel owed another patch from its PC developers, and will probably never get it. That said, the game is fantastic as it is, and absolutely worth buying. Look into the console versions if you can–they might be safer.

Deadly Premonition is very unusual. A Japanese shooting & driving sandbox game is unusual enough, but the game can’t be described so simply. At the start it plays and feels like a bad Resident Evil clone (Deadly Premonition originally came out in 2010; Resident Evil 5 came out in 2009) but then the sandbox and Harvest Moon elements get introduced (the NPC stuff, not the farming), where you’re dealing with a small town’s cast of characters on their own schedules, waiting until the hour the grocery store opens so you can do a sidequest. The casual pacing and relaxed atmosphere are totally wrong for survival horror, which has a lot to do with why I actually enjoyed playing it. You can’t run out of bullets or get stuck somewhere with no bed or food and starve to death, which is not at all the best practice if you actually intend to stress players out. The Director’s Cut even gives the player an infinite-use golden flare item “for emergencies” which spawns a new car with a fresh tank of gas. Are we babied? Yes, but I’d rather be babied than killed over and over by a bad game, which is probably what they were thinking when they stripped out higher difficulty settings for the Director’s Cut. It’s also probably why I never had to use the “Hold Breath” stealth option outside of a cutscene, despite it being bound to Right Trigger of all things, which should’ve been my shoot button.

It’s certainly not Harvest Moon, though. It’s quite surreal, and sad. I loved the characters and cutscenes, and saw the “actual gameplay” as irritating obstacles keeping me from what I wanted to do (pretty much just running around and talking to people). Not only is the shooting bad, but also the driving: cars are either slow or they flip over when you try to turn, yet the developers incorporated turn signals and windshield wiper controls–for charm in the absence of quality, I suppose. (I’ve been there.) There are lengthy QTE sequences and those are terrible too. Even the puzzles are bad: the typical puzzle has the player slowly, tediously push blocks into obvious positions. Mentally solve them in seconds, physically solve them in minutes–that’s the opposite of how a puzzle should be.

If I could have zoomed the map out twice as far as the game had been willing to let me, it still wouldn’t have been nearly far enough. Also, I personally need a sense of North to figure out where anything is, so I was constantly confused by the map rotating as I turned around–not only on the mini-map, but also on the pause menu. There were several times that I actually turned my car to the North before pausing in order to actually figure out where the hell I was, which made me feel ridiculous. Of course there was also nothing like GPS routes, but I kind of enjoyed having to think in terms of “turn left at the gas station”–or at least I would have, if the other elements worked better. The environment was somewhat crude, but I learned Greenvale a lot better than I ever learned, say, Steelport, and oddly enough I think I enjoyed navigating it more, too.

Of course, in practice, the gameplay of even my favorite parts can be a pain, when you have to track down NPCs at specific hours, wait 24 hours for the next stage of a quest, and then have that messed up for you when it’s randomly decided to be raining that day and the stores are closed. If an NPC is roaming and you have to use the map to find them, good luck with that. If the pause menu had been reworked with a cool interface for identifying peoples’ schedules and store hours, and you had a weather forecast for the next few days, that might’ve done as much for the game as fixing combat would’ve.

There’s item collection to be done, but it consists of a set of trading cards each with its own little story, and a few infinite ammo guns and unbreakable melee weapons. (I had a little joke in my head where at the end of the game, back in the framing device, the old man turns to his granddaughter and says “And that concludes the story of how I got my lightsaber.”) The comparison between collecting 65 trading cards by talking to NPCs or doing little item-trade sidequests, and collecting 1255 little glowing orbs by jumping on every rooftop, is one that puts Saints Row IV at a profound disadvantage. That said, I disliked grabbing cards from the Other World replays, where you traipse through a streamlined version of a level you already beat to get a card that wasn’t placed there before. I think these pad the game out pointlessly with recycled environments, although thankfully it’s only 7 or 8 cards and it only takes 5 minutes to run through and grab them. No matter how they’re found, though, it remains the case that there isn’t an overwhelming number of them, and each collectible is a little charming piece of the game’s world, instead of a glowing orb or coin or banana or whatever that’s no different from the last. In that respect, Deadly Premonition represents the gold standard of item collection.

The story and characters, the dialogue, and the feel are the things that make this game appealing, though also unmistakably Japanese. York is one of the most interesting protagonists in video games–he’s definitely a little crazy, often a ridiculous Mary Sue, and routinely insufferable to everyone but himself and the player. The female characters tended to be a lot less interesting and I sometimes confused them with each other, with the exception of Emily. There were some cliches, but also subverted tropes, and without getting into specifics, I really enjoyed the vast majority of what I saw.

I have to mention one thing: York speaks to an invisible friend of sorts, largely indistinguishable from the player, whom he calls “Zach”. Right from the beginning, he asks if “Zach” can hear him, and the player gets to respond with controller input. From then on, whether he’s alone in his car, or with others in the middle of a cutscene, York often talks to “me”, about our favorite movies, about our taste of women… in a game that is already quite surreal, playing it when your name is Zach or Zack is on a whole other level, let me tell you.

While I certainly recommend the game, I think “director’s cuts” are rare opportunities to come back to a game for more than just a simple patch: opportunities which most publishers will never give to developers. But in the case of this one, as with The Witcher 2, Bravely Default, and Tactics Ogre’s enhanced PSP port (and for all I know and expect, Human Revolution and Shadowrun: Dragonfall), the director’s cut hardly gets deep into most fundamental issues in the design. It’s actually harder to name a Director’s Cut that really does address a game’s problems. But were there ever a Deadly Premonition Director’s Cut Super Ultra Enhanced Edition Turbo Revival, I can think of dozens of things I’d change–things that should’ve already been changed. But it’s obvious now that this will forever be the oddball’s game, and should be approached fondly and comfortably in that territory, rather than within the terms of what a perfect version would look like. Like a flawed old movie you still keep the VHS copy of, despite not having a VCR… something like that. This isn’t a way I’m accustomed to thinking about things, so it’s hard for me to prepare a better analogy that I can really get behind. A friend of mine might say that there there’s no need to watch Wayne’s World in 4K. That one doesn’t apply for me, because I say there’s no need to watch Wayne’s World at all. If you still laugh at Wayne’s World, you’re a simpleton and a bad person, and you’ll probably die content, and I have no respect for happy people.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.
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