Love GTA, Heavy Rain and Resident Evil? Well Deadly Premonition is better than all of them. Here's why

"So bad it's good". That's the cliche you'll often hear trotted out to describe Deadly Premonition, the open-world, survival-horror, supernatural (or is it?) murder-mystery epic from Access Games. The game has built a cult following since its release last year, gaining plaudits and derision in equal measure for its unique character writing, shaky, last-gen production values, 'idiosynchratic' game mechanics and general strangeness. It's garnered review scores ranging from a miserable 2 all the way to a perfect 10, and if you listen to our TalkRadar UK podcast you've probably heard me banging on about it a great deal.

The thing is, that "so bad it's good" appraisal is deeply inaccurate. Naive, even. Because while Deadly Premonition in many ways veers far from the currently accepted standards of modern game production, it is in no way an ironic guilty pleasure. It's actually "so good it's brilliant". Play the game, get to know it, really understand it, and you'll realise that in many ways it's actually one of this generation's most inspired and cleverly-designed works. But before you do that, read on. Because I'm going to try to explain why. We never reviewed it, you see, so I've decided to make up for that with a whole lot of beard-stroking discourse.

It has one of the most believable open-worlds around. Fact

What makes a believable video game world? A terrifyingly life-like physics system? An ultra-sophisticated damage model? Mega-resolution textures sharper than the eye can see, and twelvety-billion polygon models across the board, right down to the tiniest fledgling petunia?

No. And additionally, no, no and no.

The sense of an environment being a real, living, functioning place is what makes a believable game world, and creating that feeling is all about the people and social workings you put in it. Shenmue’s Tokyo and Hong Kong? Felt real, because every character populating them was an individual, and all had their own simulated lives, seemingly going on independently from your quest. Gears of War’s Sera? Feels like a bunch of corridors full of waist-high walls and things to shoot, because it is. Unreal 3 rendering and decades of back-story or not, that whole world is just a shooting gallery punctuated with dialogue, and populated by about ten people. Deadly Premonition takes Shenume’s example, opting for a ‘less is more’ approach while focusing on the really important things. ie. the small, human details. It also looks a bit like an HD Dreamcast game, but that’s just a coincidence.

Deadly Premonition, you see, makes every person count. There’s a sparsity of population compared to something like GTA, but that’s all very plausible for the setting. Its setting of Greenvale isn’t a huge, thriving metropolis with a million people wandering the streets. It’s a small, rural, Pacific North-Western town. You’ll often drive for a couple of miles without seeing anyone walking the streets, and vehicular traffic isn’t much more frequent. But the game wouldn't work anywhere near as well if the place was packed with people, because that sparsity is used brilliantly as a narrative device.

Deadly Premonition’s visible population is made up almost entirely of its large cast of characters. And everyone, from major NPC to crazy old lady, has an important part to play. And you’ll run into them a lot. Because everyone has their own daily routine, involving home-life, work, travel, and general pottering around town. And everyone is available to form a relationship with right from the start.

You see that’s the eternal irony with open-world games. They usually aren’t open at all. Even if certain areas of the map aren’t locked down by plot-specific timing (as is almost invariably the case), then their inhabitants definitely are. Try as you might to find them, main characters just don’t make an appearance in a sandbox game’s reality until the main storyline dictates that they will. Until then you’re stuck with Billy-Joe and Mary-Kate Scenery-Filler, and their fourteen interchangeable faces. The characters who matter just don’t exist until the game says it’s convenient for them to. It feels horribly artificial.

Deadly Premonition’s world and its people though, are all there waiting for you from the start. The whole map is open. The people are going about their day-to-day business. Want to follow the main story missions until they all turn up in their conventional, plot-specific place? Fine. But if you want, you can ignore the story for a couple of days and start exploring and investigating the place in your own time and on your own terms. You know, in character, like an FBI agent would.

Because that’s the other irony with the supposed freedom of open-world games. Not only is exploration of the world largely restrictive of your own personal input, your character’s personal development and journey through that world is pretty locked down as well. Yeah, you can pump iron or change your hair sometimes, but that doesn’t really mean anything. At the end of the day, you’re still looking at a bunch of pre-set missions and pre-set actions and pre-set times in pre-set places. It's a linear game with the illusion of freedom tacked on by way of some unrelated sandbox carnage stapled to the side. Want things another way? Want to really play a role in this ultra-detailed simulation of reality? Tough. The game doesn’t work that way.

Above: Just to prove I'm not lying

But Deadly Premonition does. Opening exposition established, you’re let loose to get to know the world in any way you want. Every cast member is flagged up on the map as they move around, initially labelled simply “Suspect”. Track them down though, interrogate them, find out who they are and theorise on how they fit into the overall plot, and they’ll show up on the map – and in the game world – labelled with their real name.

It’s impossible to stress how important this is. The seemingly innocuous process of seeing someone you’ve got to know on your own terms pottering around town on their day-to-day business creates an immense bond with them as a character. They’re not NPCs you’ve seen in a prescribed, time-released cut-scene. They’re real people you’ve met and formed a relationship with. And the way those relationships develop is something you have power over as well. Meet someone for the first time at their home, before they’re ‘supposed’ to appear in the main story missions, and you’ll get different dialogue, different initial reactions to each other, and different versions of your later scenes with them further down the line.

With all of this combined with a living, breathing society going on independently from your investigation, the sense of place can become mesmerising at times. Whether it’s little details like noticing the townsfolk all start to make their own way to a town meeting at the same time as you drive there yourself, or more overt occurrences like monitoring a particular NPC’s movements on the map so that you can track them to trigger a side-mission (while cross-referencing the time of day, and whether they’ll be accessible, or busy with work or home-life), Deadly Premonition feels more real than any other open-world I’ve played. Forget the looks. This place feels alive. Greenvale is a real town, and once you get there you will not want to leave.

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  • godisanarc - July 8, 2011 5:38 p.m.

    I just went out and bought it because of this article. $17 seemed well worth it. Thanks as always GR.
  • leejohnson222 - July 7, 2011 8:29 a.m.

    when you have to use s sensationalised title that would sit right at home with the BS opinion peices passed off as fact on n4g i think your heading for trouble. I feel that dave is simply trying to show how everyone else is wrong and he is right.Its almost like this game is so bad its good, but the problem is it really isnt, dave is trying to show everyone missed a gem and you need to look deeper into this title.This article is just an exercise in self importance. comparing games and stating that one game is better than 3 others is just a pointless excercise unless you nejoy
  • Bamford38 - July 6, 2011 12:06 a.m.

    I ended up buying it after hearing Dave go on about it on talkrader a couple of weeks ago, and just finished it last night. I almost gave up on it at the start like so many other people. The terrible lip sync and graphics were severely getting me down. But its absolutely true what he said in the article, once you get sucked into greenvale you never even notice the things that annoyed you at the beginning. The only bad thing is that with the general bad impression people have of this game, i cant see it getting a sequel. Also, is it wrong that by the end of the game i was really starting to fancy Emily? My missus didnt think it was ok!
  • TheExperiance420 - July 5, 2011 3:41 p.m.

    Was looking for a new game to buy and this article made my decision for me. Deadly premonition is only 10 quid on amazon for those considering buying this :)
  • HitmanSB07 - July 5, 2011 11:19 a.m.

    DAMN IT!!! It's €29.99 in Ireland!!! I thought it was going to be €19.99? Damn it, I don't have enough points.
  • jonathancaddock - July 5, 2011 12:17 a.m.

    I bought this game a while ago, and after 5 minutes i hated it. Still i didn't put it down, after 10 minutes I still hadn't put it down. Thus I couldn't let go of it for hours at a time until I completed it. Begrudgingly I decided it was quite good despite my early reservations. That was until I saw article after article posted here about how this game is Jesus in a 3d rendered sandbox disguise. Articles like this actually remind me of everything which is wrong with this game. If we set aside the dated graphics and awful control system, then we can consider the story itself (We could also go and read a book seeing as we've removed a large chunk of the usual pleasure derived from gaming). The story is rather unusual for a game and kudos for trying, but it is also a blatant homage/Rip off of Twin Peaks. Combine that with some plot points which make no sense, some horror sequences which are actually less terrifying than the awful voice acting in the more relaxed dialogues and a script which might as well have been written by a cat walking over a keyboard hooked up to Google translate and you may find yourself disappointing. The thing is, as i said, I really did enjoy this game. But its surprisingly good considering everything that's wrong with it, to list three huge titles and suggest that this half baked (if rather unusual) cookie outstrips them all is ludicrous.
  • MancisFrorkYorgan - July 3, 2011 8:01 p.m.

    I hate to sound like an elitist; I hate to imply that one has to 'get it' to truly enjoy Deadly Premonition. But one does.
  • VaneTrago - July 2, 2011 11:04 p.m.

    After reading this article, I went out and bought the only new copy of Deadly Premonition in all of the GameStops in Alaska. The tank controls don't bother me in the slightest, because I'm the gamer who still goes back to play Contra and Twisted Metal on a semi-regular basis. I have got to say, that I am really starting to love this game. I never would have even looked twice at it if it weren't for reading this. Thanks for the recommendation, and any other obscure gems like this that you guys find, you should really give us a heads up.
  • YoungZer0 - July 2, 2011 4:53 p.m.

    "Valve, in particular, excels in this area. Its silent protagonists never alienate you with words or actions that you yourself wouldn’t say or carry out. Valve's lack of third-person cut-scenes ensures that you’re never pulled out of the main gameplay perspective, and its refusal to pre-render anything means that you're never divorced from the world. Its ambient storytelling through little details hidden within the environment makes sure that the player’s understanding of the game world is always at the same stage as the character’s at any given point in a story, and most cleverly, the way that the House o’ Gabe manipulates emotional and dramatic peaks and troughs to incite reactions and create empathy with a character’s situation ensures that in a Valve game, to put it plainly, you are not actually playing a character at all. That character is an extension of you." God, this is getting ridiculous. He doesn't say anything! No, he's not an extension of me, because i'd talk when Gordon doesn't. I do things different when he doesn't. This bullshit needs to stop, seriously. Silent Protagonist are all but unique, or good, it's in no way, shape or form an extension of you. They are dull, shallow hulls. Nothing more. If you give Valve so much credit for that, why not go ahead and give Infinite Wards the same amount of credit. "You know, like real people do." I never played this game, just saw the beginning with the Woman hanging on the tree. And a grandfather and two kids finding her. You know what real people wouldn't do? Let the kids stay and let them watch the corpse of a woman.
  • gilgamesh310 - December 19, 2013 3:02 p.m.

    I'm not going to defend the points he made about Valve but you'd really have to actually play some of Deadly Premonition to see that he is right about the characters. Sure they tend to be over the top in their quirkiness at times but they do stand out as real people more so than 95% of game characters overall.
  • MrBlond - July 2, 2011 10:08 a.m.

    Having played it through to it's completion I can't say I agree with all the obsessive praise it gets. Sure, it is a breath of fresh air in that it has a genuinely interesting story and character development but these things alone in my opinion do not make a great game. Starting with the controls, they really are some of the most cumbersome I have encountered in both the third-person perspective and the driving. At the time I was also playing Stranglehold and Saints Row and to compare it in terms of its controls with those two stinkers is to me, justified. Next up, the repetition of enemies that you have to lay waste to is staggering, at first I really enjoyed them especially the moans they make (I dooooon't want to diieee!) but it becomes tiresome fast and there are literally around 3 or 4 different types. Along the journey, around the mid-section of the game you come up against what can be termed as 'the boss battles'; a blatant rip-off of the 'Ring' girl who scurries along the walls and ceiling trying her best to attack you. This happens around four times through the game, with no explanation of what she is and why she is any different to the other enemies. Despite this the same cannot be said about the last boss which is actually decent. Now I don't want to rip into the game too much as there were genuinely moments in the game that I honestly enjoyed and I would be interested to see a sequel if only to see if they can fix the problems. But it seems to me that if any higher profile games had even one of the many flaws this game has - it would be ripped to shreds by the gaming press. And that is what I can't understand. Yes it has a compelling story and quirky characters, so does GTA IV and many other games but if they had serious flaws in their gameplay mechanics like one this does they would not gain such high praise. The 8 and 9 scores being thrown around are just far too high, at best it's a 6 or a 7 and to compare it to the games in the upper echelon shows a disrespect to the people who have worked their arses off on games like Fallout 3, Dead Space and Mafia II because I cannot state that the same level of hard work has been put into this game.
  • spektreumek - July 1, 2011 1:27 a.m.

    I am going on Amazon now and getting it thanks to this review. Excellent review mate, I honestly cannot wait to play it. After reading this i searched for DP and found something's review, which had me laughing my tits off. Anyone who wants a proper belly laugh, i suggest you go and read that review too. Thanks for bringing this to my atttention, i know i am going to love it.
  • skankmustard - June 30, 2011 3:13 p.m.

    I was intrigued by this game when it came out, but this article made me buy it yesterday. What a strange, wonderful and creepy game. Thanks for persuading me to take the plunge! There were loads of copies in HMV in Oxford Street for £15 if anyone's in London and can't locate a copy...
  • yagirlfriendsfavoriterapper - June 30, 2011 12:24 p.m.

    DP is a bad game, I played it and was not impressed.
  • philipshaw - June 30, 2011 11:23 a.m.

    I get that it's a strange game but I watched GB play the whole of this game and that was enough to know that I never want to play it
  • nathstyles - June 30, 2011 9:15 a.m.

    Okay its on the lovefilm list now - but if the above comment is to be believed I'll be waiting a while - dont think with my limited funds I can risk a purchase of such a divisive game (the user reviews on lovefilm are certainly that). Why am I such a sucker for story? Well whether they ever send it or not I hope at least he gets a good publisher for his next game as it sounds as though with a bigger budget he might be able to put the polish on that us pampered modern gamers crave - imagine that game.
  • papergoon - June 30, 2011 9 a.m.

    i'm still with eternal darkness being my favourite survival horror game. aside from the overhyped (but still fantastic) sanity meter, i felt that it was able to nail the essence of horror and fear.
  • TheShape108 - June 30, 2011 6:09 a.m.

    I bought a xbox360 specifically to play Deadly Premonition. To this day I consider that to be one of the best decisions I've ever made. Fantastic game, I pledge my 60 dollars to whatever Swery does next.
  • Shanetexas - June 30, 2011 3:24 a.m.

    Dude, let it go. This game sucks and will forever suck. It's a niche game. Just because a niche game is fun for you doesn't make it fun for everyone else. Better than GTA? Come on now.
  • TriforcePlayer - June 30, 2011 2:33 a.m.

    Its good game but better than GTA? I don't think so.