Fans of old-school survival horror have a big problem right now. And that problem is that no-one is really making much old-school survival horror any more. And as far as I see it, the reason for that all comes by way of a gross misconception. The assumption, in this more refined and oh-so-more-wise age of gaming, is that the controls and gameplay mechanics of traditional SH were crap. “Ho ho!”, people so wisely laugh. “How rubbish they were, with their relative orientation and ‘push up to go forward whichever way your character is facing’ ways. What a crappy old relic from the days before the PlayStation had analogue sticks. Now we have smooth, responsive controls and mega-athletic action-bastard characters, and so we are better human beings”.
Above: Are motorbikes scary? Is anything, when you have a friggin' car-mounted turret?
But those people are full of crap. What they don’t get is that Resident Evil and Silent Hill’s clunky old ‘tank’ controls were a very conscious design decision, and fundamentally important to the success of those games. They made navigation awkward. They artificially weakened your character. They made sure that you were always on the back foot, and that every single enemy encounter could be serious trouble. That’s why a lot of current players hate them, but the serious horror fan knows that that’s why they worked. They worked by putting the player right into the shaky shoes and panicked mind-set of the over-faced, grossly outnumbered protagonist, and turned what would otherwise have been flagrant monster killing sprees into genuine horror experiences. They were essentially the video game control equivalent of method acting.
But we’re too sophisticated for that now, so we want slick analogue control, over-the-shoulder aiming and a million different evasion and retaliation options. Because if we can’t absolutely, positively decimate every monster-frightener in the room, then we see the game as a failure. Because we have become decadent and stupid.
And thus we end up with hideous messes like Resident Evil 5, which by trying to blend survival horror with Gears of War end up as miserable half-way houses with zero identity and a surplus of conflicting, half-realised gameplay mechanics. Dead Space and Resi 4 are great, of course, but they’re much more like atmospheric action games than real horror.
Above: You think that's creepy, wait 'til it starts begging you not to kill it
But Deadly Premonition gets it right for everyone. How? As with most things it does, with effortless simplicity, inciting a great big facepalm of “Why the hell didn’t anyone think of that before now?” along the way. It provides Resi 4 and 5’s over-the-shoulder camera and modern 3D analogue control in order to keep the action players happy, and simply tempers it with ‘crap’ floaty aiming, slightly stiff character movement and tricksy, duck-and-weave enemies to keep the horror purists satisfied. And it works. And yes, Resi 4 detractors, you can even side-step (albeit in a slow, clunky way).
The control interface is immediate enough as to exclude no-one, but the mechanics of shooting are challenging enough to simulate fear and oppression, just like we used to get in the old days before a quick jump-scare followed by a retaliatory tac-nuke became the order of the day. You can run, you can evade, you can kill everything and there are explosive barrels aplenty. But you will never feel safe, you will always have your eyes on an escape route, and every single time you hear a zombie you will panic, even if it’s a quarter of a mile away. And yeah, I said “zombie”. Slow, shambling, useless zombies. Deadly Premonition proves that you don’t need leaping, sprinting, bullet-sponge beasties in order to compensate for modern controls in a horror game You just need to get those controls right.
And so it’s highly ironic that so many have spent 30 seconds with Deadly Premonition’s combat before labelling it as rubbish. Because it's not. It's brilliant.
There's far more I could say about Deadly Premonition. Far, far more. But if I carry on, I'll end up writing a dissertation. And that dissertation would be full of spoilers. And I want you to discover this utterly marvellous, clever, witty, warm, affecting game for yourself. So I implore you, do so. You can get the 360 version for about £13 on Amazon right now, and it's coming to the Games on Demand download service next week for £15, so you don't even have to try to track a copy down. The PS3 version, Red Seeds Profile, was never officially released outside Japan, but it's voiced in English and is available to import (albeit for a higher cost).
And in the meantime, head over to director Swery's blog. He's a lovely chap, and all of his posts are being translated now. He has a cracking discussion of Deadly Premonition's philosophy of "loveable game design" on there, that you really should read if you want more background on just why this game is brilliant. He's also touting for a publisher so that he can make his next game. Someone, help him out. Because that needs to happen. That needs to happen very soon.
June 29, 2011