As somebody who is as passionate about video games as I am critical of them, there are a lot of times when a title I had taken interest in a long time ago will get a re-release, or a new entry in a series will release with the opportunity for me to jump in with this one, but as a critic I have to put aside my personal interests and view the title through the lens of somebody not only evaluating it as a piece of media but also conveying to readers whether or not you should spend your money on it, in consideration of its asking price. Deadly Premonition: Origins, a Nintendo Switch port of the 2009 Xbox 360 title (and the PlayStation 3 version released only in Japan at the time) ‘Deadly Premonition’ from Access Games has me at a strange crossroads I very rarely have to face. While it’s a title plagued with rampant technical issues, mundane mechanics and some generally horrible design elements, I just can’t help but love it. Thus, I have found is actually the legacy of Deadly Premonition, often touted as ‘The Room of video games’, it seems that I am yet another poor unfortunate to fall victim to its charming trap, but why is it that Deadly Premonition has this reputation? It’s a tough one to try and explain, but I’ll try.
Deadly Premonition follows FBI Special Agent Francis York Morgan as he travels to the fictional town of Greenvale, Washington to investigate the murder of an 18-year-old girl, which he believes is tied to a larger string of serial killings across America. David Lynch fans, I’ll help you out. It’s pretty clear writer/director Hidetaka ‘Swery65’ Suehiro took some major inspiration from David Lynch and Mark Frost’s cult classic TV series Twin Peaks while conceptualizing Deadly Premonition to the point that it becomes so hard to separate the two that I constantly found myself mentally referring to York as Cooper. Thankfully, the game’s plot does start to come into its own after a few hours, which led me to see the Twin Peaks comparisons as a launching point for the game’s overall setting, but it is incredibly jarring at first as somebody who is familiar with both properties.
York determines that, as he is unfamiliar with the town of Greenvale, it is his duty to suspect every citizen in the small town, which sets the story of Deadly Premonition in motion. The player assumes the role of York as he traverses Greenvale, conducts investigations to gather evidence and piece the crime together and encounters strange phenomena cursing the town. While immediately derivative of the classic 90s TV series and performed by B-movie quality actors, this is the first example of something entirely at fault with Deadly Premonition: Origins that is very hard to be frustrated with. For what it is, the town of Greenvale and all of its inhabitants are very well fleshed out thanks to side-missions and unique dynamics; plus, York and the rest of the case’s detectives are very quickly likable due to the game’s often lighthearted and charming writing. The murder mystery itself is also very cleverly paced and fleshed out, resulting in many surprising twists to boot. What’s disappointing, however, is that despite releasing six years after the PlayStation 3’s ‘Director’s Cut’ edition, Deadly Premonition: Origins is instead a direct port of the original Xbox 360 release, leaving all of the extended story sequences stranded on the PlayStation 3 re-release for no apparent reason.
Investigations in Deadly Premonition are carried out in a fashion most easily compared to 2011’s L.A. Noire, in which the player drives from place to place in Greenvale, after which a story sequence occurs followed by action sequences in-between. The key difference here is that rather than a traditional detective game, Deadly Premonition is instead a rather effective survival-horror title. At certain points in the story, York will be trapped in a location, be it a sawmill or art gallery, and attacked by zombie-like, undead monsters, forced to defend himself in Resident Evil 4-like third-person horror levels, all the while collecting pieces of evidence to figure out what occurred in said location. What’s more impressive is that, minus some initially humorous sounding dialogue from the monsters and the fact that York never quite feels like he’s defenseless as the player is provided with unlimited ammo for all of their firearms, the horror within these sequences is actually rather effective. This isn’t that surprising, however, given that Deadly Premonition’s ultimate achievement is its atmosphere.
That said, the game’s biggest shortcoming mechanically is very obviously its tacked-on driving and open-world, another element it shares in common with the aforementioned L.A. Noire. Simply put, Deadly Premonition has some of the worst driving I have ever encountered in a video game. Neither the game nor the Nintendo Switch itself even seem to like it since the game immediately drops from a somewhat stable uncapped framerate to just around the ten frames-per-second mark whenever York even attempts to enter a vehicle. This only makes the slow, clunky driving feel even more excruciating, but the worst offender is by far the map. Deadly Premonition would have you believe its open-world is far bigger than it lets on due to the map being far too zoomed in no matter what way you try to view it. The mini-map while driving is tiny, and expanding it so that it takes up half the screen only stretches it out slightly, while opening the pause menu to view the full map, again, doesn’t even allow the player to fully zoom it out and retains no directional consistency, meaning that only if the player is facing north in the game will the map also face north, resulting in a convoluted mess and leading to every driving sequence being a constant tug-of-war with the controls, the frame rate and the map.
Performance has never been perfect on any of Deadly Premonition’s ports, with the Xbox 360 original having its fair share of hitches and shortcomings performance-wise, with the PlayStation 3 version being a complete mess with frame rates very rarely reaching higher than ten frames-per-second, and the PC port built upon also fared rather underwhelmingly. This Switch port runs at a rather flexible uncapped frame rate that, as previously mentioned, only really stumbles pathetically during driving sequences. Other than that, the performance never maintains a comfortable stability but rarely falters to a frustrating degree. The resolution also seems to get a bump to 1080p when docked, something the PC version couldn’t even achieve natively, while sticking to a crisp 720p in handheld mode. All things considered, even upon its release back in 2009, Deadly Premonition was and still is a rather unflattering game aesthetically. The game’s colour palette is muted to a near nauseating degree, consisting mostly of greys and blacks, character models don’t animate in any way interesting and some environments, especially in the open-world, either utilize very few textures or simply none at all. This is due to the game’s low-budget nature, which admittedly does contribute to the game’s B-movie style of charm, but if you’re going into this Nintendo Switch port expecting some sort of remaster, you will definitely come out disappointed.
Deadly Premonition: Origins is a mess that is in equal parts hard to recommend and hard to write off. The game’s narrative is unapologetically derivative, the visuals cheap and unattractive with awful technical performance at times and some awful gameplay mechanics, such as the abysmal driving. Yet somehow, in almost equal parts, Deadly Premonition: Origins is unmistakably charming with an excellent atmosphere, not to even mention its great soundtrack and horror sequences that are effective and exciting, along with a central plotline that branches out enough to justify its initial familiarity. It’s a type of game that does not appear enough and one that should be respected for ever existing at all, yet it’s one I can only recommend to those very morbidly curious.
Developer: Access Games
Publisher: Toybox Games
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: 5th September 2019