We finally got an official release date for Deadly Premonition 2, the Nintendo Switch-exclusive sequel to one of the most bizarre games released in the modern era. It seems that in the time auteur game director Hidetaka “Swery” Suehiro released his offbeat opus, its reputation as a cult classic has become so great that Nintendo was willing to back it and actively promote it. That very cult following has more than kept the franchise alive through continuous analysis, revisits, a comprehensive fan site, a successfully crowdfunded board game (of which I was a proud supporter), and various Director's Cuts of the game releasing on the PS3, PC, and Nintendo Switch. So what is it about Deadly Premonition that has made it endure beyond it's initial weirdness?
Chances are by now, a lot of readers are aware of Deadly Premonition's humble beginnings, but here's a recap for those not aware. Deadly Premonition first arrived on store shelves in February of 2010 for the Xbox 360, and the majority of discerning shoppers passed it over, writing it off as bargain bin garbage. The box art looked weird, the promotional art on the back showed ugly dated visuals, something that looked more at home in the early 2000s, and there were no noteworthy developers or publishers attached that caught people's eyes as a mark of quality. When you get something published by Ubisoft or EA, you generally know what you're getting, something published by Ignition Entertainment, less so. What also didn't help this preconception was when it released in the United States, brand new copies were sold at $20, a third of the standard retail price of $60. Everything on the surface read loud and clear that this game was doomed to die on the grape vine.
Then some curious players gave it a look, the reviews came in and Deadly Premonition became a true oddity. It became the most critically polarizing game ever released, seriously it's in the Guinness World Record book for it. Critics either praised it for being a surreal masterpiece of dream logic, action and suspense, or they completely trashed it for terrible controls, horrible visuals, and a plot so nonsensical it could have only been written by howler monkeys.
Which side got it right? Well, in terms of the original release, both. The story of Deadly Premonition follows FBI Agent Francis York Morgan as he investigates the murder of a young woman in a small mountain town called Greenvale. He works with the local authorities and slowly uncovers dark secrets of the town's past, including mysterious supernatural phenomena, unnatural red trees, and a local legend about a raincoat-clad axe murderer. All of this is a great set up for a suspenseful action-horror game. There's intrigue about the twists and turns in the mystery, and the supernatural element introduces more traditional combat sections for the player to navigate to keep the gameplay varied. There was also a Shenmue-style open world, where Agent York could explore Greenvale at his leisure, with every single major character in the game having their own routine day-and-night cycles, allowing for plenty of side activities like helping the local shopkeep stack some boxes or going fishing.
A game thrives on good audiovisual representation, not to mention clean and understandable controls, UI, and properly structured enemy encounters to keep the player wanting to push through. And on the surface, Deadly Premonition has some really poor design. Just about everything feels wrong to control. Driving around Greenvale feels like controlling a matchbox car with a busted wheel. The gun battles are plagued by stilted, unnatural controls, not to mention boring repetitive hordes of forgettable cannon fodder. Each level is full of basic and banal key hunting. Even the simple act of opening a door or picking up an item are full of annoyingly repetitive animations and visual flourish. The sound mixing is atrocious with music drowning out characters' dialogue, and even something as basic as footsteps grate on the eardrums.
But here's the bizarre kicker: All of these elements somehow worked. Despite everything working against it, Deadly Premonition's overall presentation meshes together into what many consider to be a perfect video game version of a schlocky B-movie. This is thanks to how the various dissonant elements amount to a million minor annoyances, rather than something fundamentally broken. Sure, the level design feels like something from the early PS2 era, but there isn't something blatantly offensive about them. The UI and controls are offputting, but there's just enough information conveyed that it doesn't feel overwhelming or damaging to the player's enjoyment. The voice-acting and sound mixing are terrible, but the wooden stock animations, persistent English subtitles, and eccentric nature of the various characters keep the presentation intriguing rather than alien. In fact, these unnatural-looking characters with their odd dialogue somehow helps the moments of neck-snapping tonal whiplash when the story jumps from gruesome survival horror to off-color farcical comedy feel less intrusive. It also helps that when stripped down to its core elements, the central murder mystery is actually very well put together with logical twists and turns, believable red herrings, and understandable motivations. Granted, these are still bizarre characters in a world that operates on its own weird logic full of zombies, otherworldly horrors, and completely inappropriate discussions of gruesome murders at a dinner table, but there is still noticeable humanity in their actions.
This was the prevailing narrative for the longest time by the game's most ardent fans, which eventually grew into the fanbase it has today. This lead to the game getting a Director's Cut re-release for the PlayStation 3 in 2013 with moderate visual improvements and major changes to controls and combat scenarios, making things less tedious and more palatable. But, Deadly Premonition didn't just stay at being a simple flash in the pan. Simply being weird has a shelf life in the cultural mind, one that is extremely short, yet it is still talked about fondly. Why? Was all of the strangeness deliberate and intended, or was it a case of linguistic and cultural dissonance? Was Swery's distinctly Japanese lens for viewing kitschy small town Americana and fondness for David Lynch's Twin Peaks just the right blend of uncanny and alien to mix well into the gameplay cocktail, or was it a hodgepodge that only acted like it knew what it was doing?
To answer that, I looked closely at Swery65's other released projects, trying to find some consistency with his style and tone. It didn't take long for me to realize this was not a one-trick pony. His next game, D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die, released on the Xbox One in 2014, and it dealt with a time-jumping detective trying to solve the murder of his wife; Memento meets Quantum Leap. Sadly it was an episodic release cancelled before completion, but the episodes I did enjoy involved detective David Young getting into fistfights with terrorists on a plane full of inhaler-addicted stewards, and avant-garde fashion designers in a romantic relationship with mannequins. Ultimately a bit disjointed but the very fractured framing device suggests that to be the point.
Following up after that was The Missing: JJ Macfield and The Island of Memories in October of 2018: An arthouse platformer about the titular JJ exploring a bizarre island to rescue her girlfriend from some otherworldly entity. It was an otherwise straightforward platformer, but its biggest gameplay hook involved JJ actively severing parts of her body and then regrowing them in order to weigh down switches or distract monsters. She also receives text messages from the spirit of a stuffed animal she has and occasionally gets cryptic advice from a man in a doctor's coat with a moose for a head with his audio recorded backwards.
It seems that whatever is going on in the creative mind of Swery, he has a fascination with detectives, small intimate stories with vibrant characters packed with quirks and serious emotional damage, and a fondness for themes of self-identity. Deadly Premonition's Agent York has a split personality called Zach that he talks with, D4's David Young is trying to piece his life together after the loss of his wife, and JJ Macfield might just be one of the more insightful depictions of a transgender woman in gaming through the peeks we get of her backstory throughout The Missing.
It really is weird to even think such a thing, but I believe that it is this focus on damaged but utterly enthralling characters that has given Deadly Premonition a lot of its staying power. There is a lot of entertainment to be had from the game's campy weirdness and stilted dialogue, and the horror elements are full of gruesome sequences of death and dismemberment, not to mention the insanity of minor memes like “F K in the Coffee” or “The Sinner's Sandwich” sections. But after the chintzy novelty has wilted away, there is something undeniably compelling about the residents of Greenvale and Agent York's struggles. Whether it's innkeeper Polly Oxford awkwardly flirting with Agent York or Officer Thomas MacLaine getting deeply in touch with his feminine side, it all keeps everyone vibrant and memorable, which is impressive since the game has been around now for 10 years.
This is why despite the larger budget and clout now behind it, I am still expecting great things from Deadly Premonition 2. Swery's creative voice wasn't hiding behind subpar production value or alternative game design ideas in that original release, but shined past them. While he has made more conventional projects since with his own eccentric voice behind them, you never make a splash quite as big as your first one. And with a splash so completely insane as Deadly Premonition, it is one that will never truly be replicated again.