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‘Deadly Premonition 2’ is a gripping mystery wrapped in an ugly game

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Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise is a conflicting experience. 

On one hand, the game’s narrative revolving around the mysterious murder of a young woman in a small Louisiana town is deeply intriguing with its constant twists and surprises that spin an ever-widening web of sadism, death, and terror until the very end.

On the other hand, the game looks and plays like shit.

As the sequel to perhaps the most critically polarizing game of all time, 2010’s Deadly Premonition, this duality fits like a glove and developer SWERY somehow manages to fulfill this game’s unique expectations. Both games center around mysteries with similar beginnings that only get more interesting as they go on, but just like its sequel, the first game is also pretty awful to look at, even for 10 years ago.

That earlier game follows FBI Special Agent Francis York Morgan as he works to solve a murder mystery in the small, rural town Greenvale, Wash. in the mid-2000s. Morgan runs into paranormal threats and wild characters as he divines answers from cups of coffee and frequently converses and consults with a voice in his head named Zach.

In Deadly Premonition 2, we see Morgan in two states: The first is the game’s framing device, with scenes of a cancer-stricken and retired Morgan being interviewed by two FBI specials agents in a dusty suburban apartment outside of Boston in 2019. The second, which accounts for the bulk of the game, unfolds in Le Carré, Louisiana in 2005. There, a younger, healthy Morgan is following a lead about a murder of Lise Clarkson, whose body has gone missing.

Lise’s body, cut into several pieces and frozen in a big block of ice, has only just been recovered in 2019. As the FBI agents poke Morgan for information, he relives his experience from that first big case to search for answers and clues himself.

Present-day Francis Zach Morgan chats with FBI special agents.

Present-day Francis Zach Morgan chats with FBI special agents.

This game is both a sequel and a prequel to Deadly Premonition. On its sequel side in Boston, it shows us where Morgan ended up several years after his Greenvale case wrapped up in mend-bending fashion. On its prequel side in Le Carré, we get to see where Morgan’s career began to take a turn into a weird, more sinister direction. He is chasing down the source of a strange red drug that turns people murderous, setting him on a path that leads to the events in the first game.

The seeds that are planted in Le Carré (literally, there is a murder-inducing drug made out of red tree seeds) are the same ones that drive the violence in Greenvale. It’s up to Morgan to put the pieces together to not only find out who murdered Lise and who took her body, but also get to the bottom of what is driving these disturbing acts.

The stories of both games are completely intertwined, which means the events and some of the characters in the first game are essential knowledge, and does a great job of getting you up to speed.

The way the story methodically reveals itself in Deadly Premonition 2, the madness only grows deeper. Each new lead brings us to more characters and more death in Le Carré, with each new morsel bringing a new perspective and a new piece of the mystery along with it. That story is what propels this game. The rest of the stuff in Le Carré just holds it back.

Livin’ la vida Le Carré

Where the town is boring and the people are weird.

Where the town is boring and the people are weird.

We enter Le Carré as special agent Francis York Morgan of the FBI. He insists everyone calls him York. But in the game’s opening in Boston, his name is Francis Zach Morgan and he goes by Zach. What’s the deal with that?

In the first game, we learn that York is actually an alternate personality of Zach. After experiencing a trauma at a young age, Zach created the York personality as a sort of shield. In Le Carré, Zach is just a voice inside of York’s head. In Boston, we see that he has confronted and overcome that trauma.

You still with me?

In the 2005 timeline, York has just arrived in town on a tip about Lise Clarkson’s murder. He quickly learns that the Clarksons pretty much run the whole town and their reluctance to York’s investigation only makes matters more difficult.

With his trusty new assistant Patti by his side, York explores Le Carré and examines crime scenes to follow the trail to the story’s end. Along the way, he obtains leads about where to go next from a voodoo priest called Hougnan, who appears as an oracular vision similar to how York would divine leads from coffee cups in the first game

Melvin and his daughter Patti are key players in 'Deadly Premonition 2.'

Melvin and his daughter Patti are key players in ‘Deadly Premonition 2.’

The more York learns, the more unhinged this game becomes. With its grotesque, drug-fueled murders and its zany characters sending out York to buy canned spinach from a vending machine, Deadly Premonition 2 channels a line-up of beguiling greats: Twin Peaks, True Detective, and The Shining to name a few.

These elements of classic murder mystery blended with paranormal activity and colorful characters makes for a very engaging story. Unfortunately, it’s all juxtaposed with GameCube-quality visuals, distractingly low framerates, awful character animations, poorly paced dialogue, boring combat, painfully slow exploration, and forced waiting periods with barely anything to fill the time with.

Exploration in Deadly Premonition 2 proves to be largely fruitless

For an extra dose of realism, Deadly Premonition 2 has an in-game clock that mimics real life. Businesses only operate at certain hours that can change depending on the day of the week, and characters are only available to interact with at certain times of the day. It’s not 1:1 with real time (the game clock moves one minute forward roughly every 12 seconds in real time), but it gives a good approximation. If you end up at a place like a bar before it opens, you can smoke a cigarette to make the clock speed up and have a few hours fly by in just seconds, so the time constraints aren’t completely disruptive.

To further this sense of realism, York has to go to sleep at night, change his clothes from time to time, and eat food or else he’ll get hungry or tired. At first I thought these requirements might be fun to play along with but I quickly ran into a problem where I needed to wait several days before I could purchase a specific food at a restaurant/bowling alley near the hotel in order to progress. Cigarettes don’t really help in these longer-term waiting periods, which means you have to sleep the days away, only stopping to eat once a day, which can take up a decent amount of real time.

On the first day I tried exploring the town with York’s skateboard – yes that’s how he gets around – checking out different locations and talking to various people. It wasn’t great. Le Carré is all but empty and characters don’t offer up much aside from fetch quests or unhelpful words when they’re not immediately integral to the story. I only found two substantive side quests that led to some meaty story beats.

I tried to pick up some jobs from the police department, things like killing alligators and squirrels with my police-issued rubber bullet gun, or looking inside peoples’ mailboxes. These little jobs are tedious. The game doesn’t tell you where you’re supposed to find anything, which leads to a lot of wandering around the open town aimlessly until you find a single squirrel to shoot or mailbox to loot. 

Even worse, it’s not always clear what you’re even supposed to do. One particular job involves killing a bunch of killer bees. I went all over that town on my skateboard and never once in my 20-hour playthrough did I find a killer bee, let alone the 30 that I needed. I found some nests in trees, but shooting them didn’t add to my tally. I don’t know what’s up with that, but that struggle to figure out what the game is even asking for only adds to the tedium. 

When you do finish the job, you get a little money and a crafting material that can be used to create a stat-boosting item at the local voodoo shop. The extra money is nice at beginning when York has almost none, but after the end of the first chapter, you earn enough through the main story quests to never really need to do side quests again.

Sometimes York just hums a song.

Sometimes York just hums a song.

That’s just as well, since wandering around Le Carré is so wretchedly boring. When York’s riding his skateboard, the same upbeat jazzy song loops the whole time (which sounds like a worse version of the song ) while York expounds about various topics. There are only a few topics he talks about, so you’ll end up hearing the same spiels a dozen times as he rattles off facts about lift bridges and anecdotes about past cases.

There’s also not much to look at in Le Carré, with its mostly drab colors, grainy objects, townspeople frozen in place in the middle of sidewalks, and lack of distinctive landmarks. There are some water towers, bridges to cross, and cars on the streets, but it’s all so dull. And when York is skating, the frame rate sometimes chunks along in such low numbers that it very well may hit less than one frame per second at times.

Luckily a fast travel feature unlocks after the first chapter, in the form of Y-Vern, a precursor to ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft. It’s a fun nod to the future from this game set in 2005.

There are still good things about the town, though, like a smattering of minigames that includes bowling and target shooting on a swamp boat. Some of the more eccentric characters also bring added color and texture to Le Carré, like the superstitious Mrs. Carpenter who has been bowling every day for 10 years since her husband died. 

York’s reactions to these charming parts of the town manage to make the otherwise unattractive sprawl seem more endearing. It also allows us to get a glimpse into the kind of person York is as he responds to the people and events he runs into. This usually involves him referencing obscure ’80s movies and marveling at the simpler, sometimes dated aspects of Le Carré life, but it’s an effective way to make York relatable to the player and leads to some more poignant conversations.

Clearly this obsession over movies followed the special agent into his retirement.

Clearly this obsession over movies followed the special agent into his retirement.

One character York runs into during the game, Professor R, is a trans woman. York’s cop friend Melvin has some reservations about her, hinting at possible prejudices he holds. York responds to this by saying very clearly and repeatedly that trans women are women, telling Melvin that his prejudices are not OK by any means.

Professor R is a very complicated character who turns out to be integral to the story and her identity comes up repeatedly. It’s clear that this isn’t a throwaway sentiment. 

In one conversation with Professor R, she waxes poetically about life, comparing it to a flame. She says that having her flame burn quickly and brightly before going out is better than a life of smoldering. York replies that having a bright flame only makes the scope of the darkness clearer, and there is plenty of darkness in Professor R’s life.

These more poignant moments act in opposition to the bad and slow parts of the game, somehow propelling it forward despite the odds. They’re so entertaining and thought-provoking that, like a bright flame of story, they serve to emphasize the dark, drab parts of Deadly Premonition 2.

Paranormal activities

A big part of the Deadly Premonition series is the paranormal forces that inject the world with horror and influence people to do horrendous things, like murder someone they love. On the story side, this element brings a layer of surprise to Deadly Premonition 2, making characters’ motives unpredictable as they’re influenced by otherworldly forces and leading to some truly sinister acts..

Unfortunately, the gameplay side of these paranormal activities leaves a lot to be desired.

That's pretty on the nose.

That’s pretty on the nose.

Throughout the game, there are moments where York finds “singularities,” which are areas of the world that are connected to the Other World. This Other World is basically an evil metaphysical dimension that is explained in the first game and is the source of much of the chaos in the series. York uses singularities to uncover the truth about what happens to various characters.

They’re represented in the game as mazes of hallways and rooms with red roots crawling up walls and “red souls” from the Other World trying to kill York. Even though the singularities are found in very different locations around the town, they all look identical once you step through the wobbly purple portal. 

As for the red souls, they leave much to be desired. In the first singularity, there’s only one type: a floating, hunched clown with a big pair of scissors. The second singularity adds a second red soul, a large man with a door chained to his back who will periodically shake back and forth to drop huge locks, which sprout legs and come after York. The third red soul you run into is a scantily clad woman who crawls on the ground and occasionally summons tentacles to lash out at York.

All of the enemies move slowly and in a straight line toward York. They’re not much of a threat to York, who can easily gun them down. I didn’t die once in this game. I didn’t even come close, despite my not bothering to dig deeply into York’s various upgrades.

All of the singularities just look like this.

All of the singularities just look like this.

You can augment his abilities using a voodoo altar that appears very conspicuously in various locations. With voodoo dolls, necklaces, incense, and masks, York’s stats like skateboarding max speed and bullet damage can be increased.

Spending time to find the necessary items strewn about the world – things like lizard parts, leaves, feathers, string, or alligator skin – is a chore. They either have to be found on the ground (with barely a glint of light to show that something is there) or obtained by completing side quests. The stat boosters barely help with the game. After getting a couple upgrades and not seeing much of a difference, I decided to skip them entirely.

It all just feeds into the voodoo sub-theme of Deadly Premonition 2, which seems apt for the location if not a bit overdone given the cartoonish ways people interact with that spirituality, as well as things like an ornate voodoo altar adorning a bathroom stall. It’s also a nod to the bigger picture of what’s going on, namely rituals and possession which are both aspects of Louisiana Voodoo beliefs and practices.

These paranormal happenings affect the story and characters in such a nuanced and mind-bending  way that it just highlights Deadly Premonition 2‘s shortcomings. When cutscenes and conversations prove to be infinitely more interesting than gameplay, it makes what you’re actually playing feel more like an afterthought. Sure, there’s 20 hours of game here, but it’s just so basic and repetitive that Deadly Premonition 2 would be better off with less padding.

A couple issues

I believe it speaks to the quality of the story that I came away from Deadly Premonition 2 feeling largely satisfied, even with so much working against it.

Along with many of the issues I’ve already mentioned, I want to point out that the game crashed five times during my playthrough. Most of the these crashes happened right before or right after a cut scene, and most times there was an autosave just before it so I didn’t lose much progress at all.

One time, though, there was a while I tried to save my progress. The game froze and I was forced to close and reopen it, and was dismayed to find that there was no autosave before this particular event. I won’t describe it in detail but I will say it was about a 30-minute segment where I had to follow something around to three different locations. It moved slowly, and if I got too far from it I had to start the segment over. It is the worst, most unnecessary part of the game… and I had to do it twice.

Please make sure you save often.

Patti can't save you from lost time.

Patti can’t save you from lost time.

I also ran into a couple bugs where part of my HUD disappeared in singularities, which meant I couldn’t see how much damage I was doing to enemies and a boss’s health bar never appeared when I got to it. Luckily the combat, including the boss fights, is so easy that it didn’t make a big difference. The HUD returned when I restarted the game.

One other bug I encountered in a singularity made it so I couldn’t aim my gun or shoot. The bug fixed itself after I was hit by an enemy. There may have been other issues, too; the point is, the bugginess is widespread and varied enough to be a recurring problem.

Lastly, I want to stress again that the first game is absolutely required to understand Deadly Premonition 2, as the newer game assumes players know certain things (including specific characters) and does almost no explaining of various elements that other game sequels would probably explain for new players so as not to alienate those players. 

Deadly Premonition 2 doesn’t care about alienating those players. It assumes that you have a solid understanding of the previous game. Certain things happen at the climax that, if you don’t know the first game, you’ll be left scratching your head unsatisfied with what just happened.

But in seeing the full scope of the game and its predecessor, looking back at the way these stories pan out and intersect, it’s impressive. Getting breadcrumbs of information through Zach in Boston and then expanding them out as York in Le Carré works wonderfully as a narrative tactic. It’s too bad so much of the game is bland, ugly filler.

Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise is out for Nintendo Switch on July 10. 

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