Jank or No Jank, Deadly Premonition 2 is the Boring Kind of Bad

As a standalone game Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise has no artistic merit or purpose. Apologies if that’s too sharp of a right hook for an opening sentence, but it’s impossible to write a worthwhile piece about Deadly Premonition 2 without endless comparisons to Deadly Premonition. It’s the kind of sequel that buries itself as deep into its predecessor as possible in hopes that its niche audience will accept it on those terms, or at least defend it from “normie” criticism from outsiders. However as a proud owner of a Deadly Premonition: Director’s Cut Platinum trophy, I am no normal person, and would be more than happy to drag this unnecessary continuation of a cult classic back to the surface to bask in the hot glowing sunshine of taste.

The original Deadly Premonition first released as an Xbox 360 exclusive in 2010. Due to a tumultuous development cycle it went through years of restarts, platform changes and engine problems and the final product ended up as a (mostly functional) technical mess. Many mainstream reviews rejected it based on this perceived failure to make a quality product, but there were always contentious cries from people who were able to climb over that hurdle and appreciate the true essence of the game. There’s no big secret behind this disparity; marketing and hype cycles have formed an unhealthy fixation on production values and polish as markers of “quality”, but Deadly Premonition was able to break through the spell through its charm and bizarrely thoughtful game design.

It’s still a good game too! Looking back at the game’s opening couple of hours it’s obvious why people fell in love with Deadly Premonition straight away. In the first hour of the game you’re shown the murder victim presented via the crime scene of a ritualistic sacrifice accompanied by a montage showing the impact of the event on the townspeople. Our player character Francis York Morgan, a weirdo FBI agent sent to investigate the murder with the implication that he suspects the case is of greater national importance, enters the scene browsing multiple laptops while driving, rambling about Tom and Jerry having a sadomasochistic relationship and then nearly crashing his car into some monkey-voiced squirrels because a magic axe wielding serial killer teleports into the road. After some bad Resident Evil 4 inspired shooting, you’re asked to sprint down a miles long straight road for a couple of minutes for no reason other than to demonstrate the stamina system, you finally make it into town, rub the sheriff’s department up the wrong way and head to your comically huge hotel for the infamous “F.K. in the coffee” premonition.

Even if you don’t understand them yet, the first hour of the game fires its idiosyncrasies straight into your heart by establishing tone, game design quirks, characters, setting, mechanics, the thematic tension of a big city outsider coming to solve a small countryside’s population crisis and most importantly of all — the idea that the town itself is the main character of the game. Characters have time based movements and routines, the game lovingly forces you into long drives across the countryside, every confusing game design element such as how side quests and stores work rub together to build the experience of you as an outsider trying to understand (and eventually loving) a small isolated town’s intricacies and own way of life. Many people are surprised when they find themselves invested in the game’s silly plot by the end, but it works because you spend so much time living in this town that even the silliest of anime twists have stakes because it will have consequences for the town and everyone who lives there. Once you get past all the goofiness and jank, Deadly Premonition is a game about life.

Contrast with how the sequel opens up; now that the series has transitioned from ripping off Twin Peaks to ripping off the first season of True Detective you start off playing a different FBI agent questioning a retired cancer-ridden Morgan about the case in the present day which acts as a framing device for the playable chapters in 2005. The first two major scenes are extensive dialogue trees with Morgan, no gentle introduction to the setting this time round you will sit there and swallow your fan-demanded hours of quirky dialogue and you will love it. Some people will love it sure, but here’s where we run into Deadly Premonition 2’s first fatal flaw —it’s obsession with the iconography of Deadly Premonition.

This is not a sequel that is hoping to expand on the concepts, vision or inspiration that crafted the first game, instead it is content to wallow in the literal creations that process created. That means returning characters, tired plot points, similar twists, same weird hunger system and a heck of a lot of absent imagination. This is not an exaggeration; Deadly Premonition 2 does not work as a standalone story whatsoever, you have to have intimate knowledge of the characters and events of the first game to understand the plot by the end. Let’s try not to think about how easy it would have been to come up with a new story that builds off the central premise of “an outsider comes to town to solve a murder” that didn’t involve rehashing the silly plot of the first game for now. Instead let’s focus on how this shift in priorities makes Deadly Premonition 2 an unforgivably tedious sequel.

When you choose to bust out cover versions of all your fans’ favourite songs you’re going to run into the problem that your fans already know all of the words. Anyone who cares enough about Deadly Premonition 2 to play it is going to go into it familiar with all the original’s quirks; the eating, the sleeping, the stinking, the time locked missions, stopping by the hotel desk to buy ten hot dogs before heading outside, bringing cigarettes in case you need to wait outside someone’s house for two days, and the mystery of “Zach” is already solved. There’s no fun in rediscovering any of this, nor do they contribute to any form of idiosyncratic personality this time round when it’s all written in the language of the first game. Considering how less ambitious in scope this game is in general, they contribute nothing but obligatory game design obstructions to tumble over to see the next part of the story.

Here’s a brief rundown of a progress critical story mission in Deadly Premonition 2. A wacky character forces you to go on a fetch quest for three awkward to find objects (this is something most open world games do to pad out content, but since it’s in Deadly Premonition 2 it’s a ““joke””). One of them can be bought easily from a store, another has to be bought from a random vending machine in town so you have to check your map and go round the entire town checking all of them, and the last one can only be bought by one store on Mondays. By this point of the game there’s already been one quest that required you to pass time until night so chances are you’re a day or two past Monday (I was on Wednesday) and will be unable to advance the story until you’ve passed time for nearly a week to buy a can of beans.

Most Deadly Premonition pros will know the easiest way to pass time is to sleep so you’ll head back to the hotel for an energising 125 hour nap. Likely for the first time when you wake up you’ll be struck by another returning mechanic, you stink now! Unlike the first game where letting York show up at crime scenes with swampass is a cheeky gag that will fine you some of the game’s bewildering “Agent Honor” pay for being unprofessional, in Deadly Premonition 2 interacting with key characters while stinky will drain your money at an alarming rate. So you’ll return to your room to have a shower, only to find it doesn’t work now which will trigger a side quest to get it fixed. The way you get it fixed is to find the location of three valves, given to you by three employees in the hotels at different times of day because they’re all the same guy (don’t worry about it). So you spend about half an hour of real time trying to figure out how to talk to this guy, smoking cigarettes to pass time, waiting 30 seconds for the game to load every time you go in and out of the hotel since you’re not allowed to smoke indoors, racking up more stink debt to the point where you’re close to dying of starvation and can’t buy food. When you eventually fix the shower, a jewel flies out of it that’s vital to an unrelated side quest.

Okay fair’s fair, catch me in a good mood and with the appropriate amount of carbon monoxide poisoning and I can admit the shower gag is pretty funny, but looking back it’s hard to see what the point of it was other than to be a joke. This is not an example of weirdo game design systems rubbing together to organically create an hilarious scenario, this is the game pulling a trail brake at the corner of Jank Boulevard and pushing you out of the passenger’s seat. Not only that, the game ruins its own punchline when you’ve finished that quest by having the same character send you to find another even more awkward set of three objects to bring back to him. It’s fine if you want to call this a joke as well, but it’s a joke done far too often in earnest to find any humour in it.

This is not even the only joke the main story pulls! Veterans of the original Deadly Premonition will recall a part where you had to follow a dog around. It was annoying, but as it was interlaced with dialogue scenes about how cool dogs are it was a cute way to include some down time before the game ran into its next climatic plot revelation. In Deadly Premonition 2 you have to follow a dog again to three different locations only did time it lasts much longer in joyless silence. After you’ve survived that ordeal the game asks you to follow your teenage assistant to a fourth location when she could just tell you where to go since you’ve already been there. The girl runs slightly faster than your walk speed but slower than your run speed, there’s no way to keep up to her pace other than to stop and start your run cycle and if you so much as drop an inch too far away the game pauses itself to yell at you in a cutscene. Full benefit of the doubt for the development team here there is no way this isn’t a deliberate joke, but for what purpose? It contributes nothing other than game nudging its elbow into your gut asking “REMEMBER THE FIRST GAME?” Maybe I would laugh if I wasn’t suddenly out of breath.

A fine example of how the original Deadly Premonition’s weirdo game design felt purposeful as opposed to self serving meta-humour is shown by its much maligned map. Travelling anywhere in the first game required you to regularly check the game’s map since waypoints were misleading and going the wrong way could cause you to get lost or end up driving 1000 yards in the wrong direction. The map had two infuriating “problems”, the first was the map didn’t let you zoom out enough so you couldn’t see more than a tiny snippet of the town at once, the second was the map did not lock to a cardinal direction and would rotate as you went round corners. Both of these features are enough to give anyone on a paste diet of Ubisoft sandboxes a stomach ulcer, but it’s hard to not appreciate the wilful rejection of typical design standards for the sake of artistic integrity. It’s not only that this map forces your subconscious into overdrive to cram the geography of Greenvale into your heart, but the experience itself acts to mimic a real life long drive through the countryside, getting lost and pulling over, unfolding a road atlas trying not to bash the horn as you flip the map searching for the way to get to the Lake District. The map in Deadly Premonition was how it was due to an earnest love for the experience of a road trip with friends, complete with whistling, forests and chit chat about movies, it wasn’t done as a “joke” to give a GPS fanboys a heart attack.

In Deadly Premonition 2 you don’t even have a car as it’s been replaced by an obnoxiously loud skateboard that makes it difficult to hear what York is even saying. Not that you’ll want to hear what he’s saying after a couple of hours since he usually repeats the same five or so monologues throughout the entire game. There’s no getting lost since the town of Le Carré lives up to its namesake and is literally a square, there’s so few landmarks large parts of the already smaller town may as well be copy pasted and the game unlocks fast travel within a couple of hours. There’s no love for exploring or travel here, you don’t even have to worry about missing out on York’s movie talk as he now blathers on about movies in key plot scenes instead that comes off like the game is pausing for applause from a studio audience.

Then we get to one of the most frustrating symptoms caused by Deady Premonition 2 having no aspirations outside of being a sequel to Deadly Premonition; why does this game have combat?! The director of both games SWERY has stated publicly in the past that he did not want to put combat in the original game but was pressured into it by his publisher. The shooting in the first game wasn’t good by any stretch of the imagination but it didn’t infect the soul of the experience, you were still barging into a murder scene picking up clues and solving puzzles only with hilarious backwards walking zombies to shoot in the corridors in between. By completing certain side quests in the original where you tie up loose ends related to key suspects you could unlock infinite weapons including an indestructible wrench that would kill enemies in one hit turning combat areas into a trivial obligation. This was a cute wink to the player that combat wasn’t important and that exploring the town and solving the case should be your main focus.

Ten years later, with both SWERY and Deadly Premonition itself holding enough name value to hold a publisher off from pulling the money plug, the combat is back! Inexplicably! And it’s worse than ever! Endless corridors of the same three enemies types spawning over and over again, screaming the same lines and striking you with irritating status effects such as paralysis to lock down your buttons and colds to sap your stamina. All in low framerate, headache inducing and meaningless abstract corridors that are so boring I was convinced they had to be procedurally generated. The only reason I know they’re not procedurally generated is because the endless slog on route to the final boss repeats the same areas. Would a single person have complained if these weren’t here, especially not for long drawn out shootouts that have nothing to do with the story? Their presence speaks to a lack of confidence from somebody, it’s hard to say whether it’s the development’s team lack of faith in the project or SWERY’s lack of faith in his own audience.

Well, we’ve reached the point where I have to talk about the story a little, which also means I have to talk about the trans character. Writing as a cisgender person I’m going to be trying my best to stay in my lane here without accidentally dismissing this issue as an asterisk. For the details of how this character is portrayed and its problematic aspects I refer you to this video by non-binary critic Pim.

Many people have expressed confusion about how Deadly Premonition 2 got the portrayal of its key trans character so wrong when SWERY and his team earned a lot of goodwill with their last game The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories, a cinematic platformer featuring a player character who would often get mutilated and pulled back together in a metaphor for gender dysphoria all in service of a pro trans narrative and message of acceptance. That’s how I read the game in 2018 anyway, but here in 2020 Deadly Premonition 2 shows up on our doorstep and presents us with another prominent trans character who is defined by mental illness struggles, trauma, violence and death.

In response to transphobia criticisms SWERY has issued an apology for the offensive portrayal of the character with the promise of some rewrites. This is a nice gesture of goodwill at least, but considering the character’s trauma is hardwired into the events of the entire plot it’s hard to see what can be fixed outside of the blatant misgendering and deadnaming. There has to be questions here regarding how a writer who is apparently invested in the liberation of trans people managed to trip over a hurdle as low as deadnaming in the first place. For whatever it’s worth, I believe SWERY is genuine in his call for everyone to be accepted for who they are, and going all the way back to Thomas in Deadly Premonition he’s shown a rare commitment to featuring non-binary characters in his fiction. But after a decade of his stories where all these characters are defined by their pain, we have to ask whether that’s the only part of trans people’s lives he’s interested in, and now we also have to ask whether he’s bothered to do even the most basic form of research before writing these stories. When we hear York’s somewhat awkward speech in favour of trans rights in Deadly Premonition 2, is it a righteous call for justice, or a patronising display of pity?

This isn’t even the only mean aspect of SWERY’s writing; Deadly Premonition has kind of got a free pass over the years for many of its problematic elements, but it was easier to forgive at the time since it was clumsily playing with the tropes defined by problematic characters of the 80s and 90s, and these parts of the narrative weren’t what made you fall in love with the game. However, Deadly Premonition 2 is much harder to forgive, not only because it’s a decade later but now with the game taking a much more streamlined episodic form the narrative has taken centre stage and the meanness is more integral to the experience.

-major spoilers in this next section only-

Early on during the investigation of the first murder, in the past York is given a hint to the true identity of a culprit to the crime who turns out to be the missing thread halting the investigation taking place in the present day. From the clues on the scene he deduces the culprit must be at least ten feet tall (*wacky jazz hands*) and built like an ox. Two minutes later you meet a character with learning difficulties who can move in and out of the location of the body freely, is super strong and stands at almost seven feet tall. York rules him out because he’s not tall enough, while another character informs us he “knows how it looks” but he would never do anything like that because he’s got a heart of gold.

Well you’ll never guess what happens later, but this was a lie and the final endgame twist in the mystery it turns out it was the obvious first suspect all along and a magic drug helped this guy grow those extra three feet…temporarily. You have two boss fights against the mentally challenged man, the second taking the form a giant child as a psychological otherworld representation of the man’s mind. During the game’s closing scenes York triumphantly announces that this man was sentenced to 400 years in prison with no chance of parole. Heart of gold be damned! The fact he was manipulated by evil people be damned! Shoot that man in his giant drug tumours and watch him rot in jail. It’s hard to take SWERY’s calls for empathy and acceptance seriously when you’re watching the finale of his latest work wondering whether he’s the sort of person who read Of Mice and Men with Giorno’s theme playing in his head when George shot Lennie.

-end of spoilers-

Looking back on it now the original Deadly Premonition also featured a scene where the true culprit was ruled out for poorly explained reasons. Another one of SWERY’s detective games D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die, much like Deadly Premonition 2, features a magical black man who appears to give the protagonist some hints about the mystery and featured a time travel gimmick where you solved the first episode by using a future-sent cheat sheet. One of the weirdest parts of Deadly Premonition 2 is that despite its use of two investigations as a framing device it has no interest in being a detective game. Between oracles, premonitions and prophecies the plot shoves two fingers up York’s nose and drags him place to place for reasons even he doesn’t understand. It’s one thing for the player to have limited agency in a detective game, the Ace Attorney series shows how well you can pace the drama and revelations when you keep it linear, but it’s another for the character to have no agency in advancing the investigation. Again, once we look at SWERY’s entire portfolio it begs another question, does he have the first clue on how to write mystery fiction? Deadly Premonition 2 seems to suggest he’s not even that interested in learning.

Still my appreciation for the first game remains unshaken even if exploring its derivative sequel has shown what a flash in a pan it was and how the slightest shift in soul brings the structure crashing down like a house of cards. One of the final lines in Deadly Premonition still sticks with me even though I haven’t played it in years, it’s a line iconic enough to be attached to my beloved Platinum trophy:

Zach, it’s over, all finished. It’s time for you to leave town. Are you ready to go?

That line sticks with you because saying goodbye to Greenvale is arguably the saddest part of the game. It’s over, time to move on from this weirdo virtual life you’ve managed to figure out and get back to your own. Nobody bothers to ask you this question in Deadly Premonition 2, and who would even care if it did. How attached could you possibly be to this butt-ugly, square, lifeless, unfinished diorama of a town when it serves no purpose other than to be the backdrop for the adventures of Francis York Morgan and a collection of fetch quests? The only surviving character that matters by the end is the young girl who follows you around as your investigation partner, which is a cute and fun addition while you notice her it’s another example of how this game’s jank works against any kind of grand vision as she gets teleported out of existence at the engine’s convenience. This town and these people only exist if there’s a story to tell, well now that story is over and most of those people are dead. Go home.

It would be trite to pretend that noone is going to like Deadly Premonition 2. When a sequel burrows back into the womb of its predecessor as far as this game has its inevitable that the biggest fans are going to feel some nostalgia for their first home. Not every sequel has to reinvent the wheel so this approach could have been forgiven if the game had a story worth telling, but sadly it’s smaller scale regurgitation of tropes, twists and iconography from the first game built on the back of yet another pile of dead women that only makes less sense the more you think about it. Deadly Premonition 2 has its moments, there’s certainly less charismatic protagonists you could hang out with for 20 hours than Francis York Morgan, but it’s hard to have any respect for it as a creative work outside of fan service. People might enjoy it for what it is now, but there’s no way this game is going to stick with anyone the same way the first one did. It’s not bad for any unique “weird”, “low budget” or “Japanese” reasons, it’s bad in the same way most derivative sequels are bad and within a couple of months everyone will have lost any interest in talking about it.

-a personal note-

I hope that my choice to frame many of my criticisms of Deadly Premonition 2 through the lens of appreciation for the achievements of the first game has at least been successful in showing this piece is not written in bad faith. It pains me that I was unable to find any love for this game by the time it was over. Between the current state of the world (in 2020) and huge blubbering blockbuster projects dominating games discourse I couldn’t have been in a better mood to play a janky-held-together-by-string goofball game. Given the choice I’d much prefer to put up with Deadly Premonition 2’s disaster of a framerate than watch The Last of Us Part 2’s install percentage tick up and wonder whether it’s a metaphor for the development cycle’s body count.

This is why also you may have noticed I’ve chosen to discuss Deadly Premonition 2’s technical issues as little as possible, partly because it would be a bad game whether it was competently well made or not, but also because I refuse to be dismissed by the “irony” crowd who have decided that a videogame having a few technical quibbles makes it the front runner for comedy of the year. Up until a week before Deadly Premonition 2’s release I was under the impression the majority of the fanbase were the sort of people who had both Bullet Witch and a copy of the Speed Racer movie on their bookshelf, now I’ve come to realise those people are 50–50 with Nostalgia Critic fans who don’t own a bookshelf at all.

I don’t support this dribble in either direction; it was just as uninspired to give Deadly Premonition a 2/10 in 2010 as it is to celebrate Deadly Premonition 2’s jank devoid of any context in 2020. Both stances are failing to engage or understand the intent of the work or its effect on the audience while making patronising assumptions about the abilities of the developers. More importantly, both feed into the narrative that the hyper-polished open world skill tree games are the “real” games, and anything that doesn’t comply with the boring industry standard is “being weird”. Don’t pretend to like Deadly Premonition 2 out of some tryhard expression of counter-culture against mainstream bloat, engage with it on your own tastes and expectations based on why you care about the first one. And if you really do appreciate these kind of mid budget somewhat over ambitious kind of games, don’t evangelise cynical sequels trying to mimic the surface level quirks and marketable elements of a game you played ten years ago, get on eBay and buy a PlayStation 2 with a copy of Raw Danger.

-Matt Leslie @Lesmocon

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