The First Unforgivable Design Mistake (Deadly Premonition is the Game of the Year, Part 3)


Black and White means you're learning to play!

Is that Deadly Premonition features combat.

Any combat at all.

Everything bad that has been said about this game's combat is most likely true—even the farthest-flung flights of exaggerated embellishment. Yes, killing enemies in this game is as unbelievably frustrating and painful as trying to extract your genitals from a saw-toothed vise made out of acid.

And things seemed so promising, too—check out the first introduction that enemies get, after York has crashed his car and started to wander down a forested path:

You know, a little less eyeshadow, and not half bad!

These are the shadows. They lumber around like zombies when you're close to them, and use a flickering teleport technique when you're not. They can be shot in the head for double damage, but they jerk around so unpredictably that headshots can be extremely difficult to pull off.

It's not so much the controls that let the player down, which, apart from a major glitch that I'll get into later, are fundamentally similar to Resident Evil 4 and 5. Sure, aiming is weirdly sluggish, but a lock-on feature makes manual shooting largely unnecessary. The melee combat has actually been improved from the Resident Evil series, bringing it closer to Silent Hill level, in that the player is able to walk around while holding a weapon at the ready.

No, the biggest problem with the combat is the bizarre decision the developers made to turn every single fight into an endless chore by throwing dozens of enemies at the player, each of whom is far stronger than they have any right to be. Here's a sequence of me—on normal difficulty, I can't stress that enough—shooting one of the first zombies in the game:

"But Dan!" You may say, "That's the starting gun! Don't you get better weapons as the game progresses?" If asked that question, I would only be able to answer that yes, you do, but it doesn't matter, because the enemies' health scales upward rather sharply throughout the game. Here's a video of me attempting to kill a zombie with a shotgun on, and once again, I want to make this absolutely clear, "normal" difficulty.

Yeah, five direct hits from a shotgun wouldn't put him down. It took a glancing sixth blast to do it.

I want to stress that I'm not trying to complain about the level of difficulty here—I don't mind killing huge numbers of creatures in a game, nor do I mind sweating a little to do it. What bothers me about the fighting in Deadly Premonition is how pointless and repetitive it all is. Shooting an enemy to death requires standing still for ten seconds and tapping the A button over and over again. That's it. There's no strategy to it, no artistry to it—no fun can possibly be gleaned from the combat.

Which is why my central complaint about the game's combat is why it exists at all. There's no reason to be killing zombies in this game. This is a title about solving a mystery and getting to know the inhabitants of a small town. What does shooting zombies have to do with that? This is the worst kind of videogame combat, no connection to the story, and no reason for its inclusion. It was bad enough when Silent Hill decided it needed to add a combo system and a ton more enemies to fight—this is a step beyond that kind of bad decision making. Deadly Premonition is profoundly not a game about zombies crawling out of the dirt and coming after the main character—yet there they are, shuffling about for no reason at all, other than some kind of a cynical marketing decision based on the premise that audiences won't accept a horror game in which you don't get to shoot zombies.

The strangest part is that the entire combat system could be pulled from the game without anyone really ever knowing that it was missing. There are a few bosses later in the game, but all of them are extremely combat-light as it is—no boss in the game is allowed to score a hit unless the player screws up a QTE, so would it have really hurt things to transform the entire boss fight sequences into elaborate QTEs?

What would have been left without all of the fighting? Simple exploration and puzzles, I'd imagine. That's the point of the "other world" sequences anyhow; the zombies are there to delay York from finding the pieces of evidence he needs to "profile" what happened in a variety of situations.

You know, a baseball bat is more traditional.

Would the game really have been damaged so much had the player simply been able to explore mysterious, Silent Hill-esque "dark world" locations looking for clues without being hounded by utterly generic and completely forgettable enemies? I can't imagine it would. If there was one thing I'd change about Deadly Premonition, it would be the complete removal of every bit of combat from the game—since it only ever serves as a distraction from the storyline that provides the game's heart and soul.

Oh, and about the profiling. It's these sequences, where York finds a certain number of items and the player is shown a video of what occurred, that has led many people to refer to Morgan as a "psychic detective," but I'm not really sure that's the game's intent. York never really refers to specific details that we're shown in the videos, nor are the videos themselves entirely accurate in depicting what literally happened at the scenes that York is investigating. It's far more likely that his "visions" are meant to serve  not as psychic knowledge of events that York wasn't present for, but rather audiovisual depictions of his guesswork, so as to give the player a window into how the game's version of "profiling" works.

There's one exception to this rule, however, and because it's the first sequence of profiling that appears in the game, it sets something of a misleading tone for the rest of them, as well as doing its level best to spoil a good portion of the surprises that the plot has to offer. This is the point at which I'd normally show the video, and discuss what's wrong with it, but that's too dangerous—the "profile" shows multi-frame glimpses of scenes ranging from the next chapter to the last hour of the game. The idea is that they'll go by so quickly that you won't get anything but the barest sense of what you've seen, but like the opening credits of Battlestar Galactica before it, they just serve to ruin the surprise of coming events by offering hints as to where the plot is going to go. In Battlestar Galactica there's at least some frame of reference for the things that get spoiled ("Oh, so this week Starbuck's going to punch a guy, and then a ship's going to blow up… haven't seen that before").

Here there's no such familiarity. York hasn't met a single other character yet (we've had glimpses in the opening movie), and here's a video showing much of the cast, not to mention some scenes that are so incredibly spoilery that I can't even hint at them for fear of ruining the effect.

Maybe that video was just included to be the "Deadly Premonition" of the title, but even so, it serves no purpose other than to deaden shock later in the game. Especially when you consider that York doesn't seem to have shared that particular vision with the player, and he'll never offer any suggestion that he had a "premonition" of events that were to later occur.

Far more important is the reference to the fortune he read in his coffee, but we'll get to that next time, when we take a look at York Morgan's daily grind.

I can't stress enough how important it is, for maximum enjoyment of Deadly Premonition, you know, when you've gotten around to buying a copy from Amazon, to skip this movie when you come to it—it's right at the end of the first combat scene, simply tapping the start button a few times will allow you to skip right through it, thereby permitting you to enjoy the game's surprises as they come.

And filmmakers, TV people, game designers, whoever—please stop putting clips from the end of your fiction at the beginning of your fiction. We don't need an assurance that something cool is eventually going to happen. Just trust your audience enough to let things build a little, huh?

Next time: The Daily Grind (Deadly Premonition is the Game of the Year, Part 4).