A long-running joke of mine (that I’m probably the only person who finds funny) is that Deadly Premonition is my favourite game I’ve never played. Surrealism, offbeat humour, a subversive approach to game design norms, and jankiness that unintentionally (?) enhances all those things are Extremely My Shit, so Deadly Premonition seems like a game tailor-made for me. I’ve even bought it on just about every platform it’s available on, I’ve just never been able to make time to actually, y’know… play it.
I have, however, played Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise, and it’s a game that’s quickly earned a place among my favourite games of all time. It’s every bit the bizarre, hilarious adventure I expected, but it’s more than that—it’s a wholesale rejection of the idea that a game can be objectively “good” and an argument against the markers of quality that are often assumed to be inarguable. It’s a surrealist masterpiece.
Deadly Premonition 2 tells the story of FBI agent Francis York Morgan as he investigates a strange murder in small town Louisiana. But York isn’t your typical detective. His dissociative identity disorder means he frequently narrates his movements to “Zach”—an alternate personality implied to be the player—and typically does this out loud, much to the confusion of onlookers. He’s obsessed with cinema, and frequently gets derailed with pointless film trivia or lengthy monologues about his favourite movies. His style of investigation relies wholly on “oracles” that he witnesses through hallucinations, which he’ll follow diligently even at the expense of more obvious, logical leads, yet these oracles always end up leading to a truth that he otherwise would never have found (at least in York’s version of the story—he’s established early on as narrator who’s far from reliable).
This results in a medley of outlandish scenarios that wind up being as unpredictable as they are funny. In one early example, an oracle to do with “knocking down the ten maidens” sees York doing everything he can to try his hand at the town’s sole ten pin bowling lane, which is fiercely guarded by an extremely superstitious elderly lady. Where a typical detective might give up and follow an actual clue, York dedicates himself to finding a way to use the woman’s superstitions to keep her away from the lane long enough for him to bowl a strike. By fate or coincidence, the woman witnesses York’s achievement and is impressed enough to strike up a conversation about her own bowling prowess, and coincidentally (or fatefully) drops a vital clue amid all the chatter about whether York has the ability to one day go semi-pro (but certainly not pro).
Such situations are the norm in Deadly Premonition 2. You’ll solve cases by skipping stones, learning skateboarding tricks, shopping for dubious “voodoo” memorabilia, and searching all over town for an assortment of canned goods to give as an offering to God. You’ll regularly venture into an “otherworld” ostensibly made up of the psyches of suspects in the case, and find vital clues by witnessing their memories from inside. The actual mystery itself is captivating enough itself—one murder becomes a string of them, all leading back to the powerful, dangerous family that owns most of the town—but it’s the bizarre way that you uncover crucial information for the case that is the real edge-of-the-seat stuff.
It’s important to keep in mind that surrealism isn’t just “wacky humour”; it’s a deliberate effort to deconstruct assumptions about what is “normal” and challenge the rules of the medium. Deadly Premonition 2‘s surreal storytelling is a clever rejection of the tropes that come with detective fiction, but perhaps the far more interesting thing about it is how the core of the game works to challenge (or outright break) the conventions of game design. It’s clearly worked, because Deadly Premonition 2 has been an incredibly divisive game, but even the positive reviews often come down along the line of “it’s an excellent story that’s sometimes held back by poor design and lack of polish”. It’s certainly unpolished, and full of “poor design” at least as far as the normal “rules” of game design go, but these are far from failures on the game’s part—they’re a fundamental part of the ideas that are being explored.
The bulk of Deadly Premonition 2 takes place in an open-world environment that’s largely empty, where getting around can be a nuisance because a skateboard is your sole form of transportation, and where NPCs all run to their own schedules that are often not very convenient for what you’re trying to do. It’s the sort of game where you’ll pick up a main story quest on a Wednesday (in-game time) that requires ordering a specific dish from the local diner that’s only sold on Mondays, and leave you with little to do to pass the time other than sleep the days away in your hotel room or pick up odd jobs hunting killer bees in the local graveyard.
It’s inconvenient and pointless, but very deliberately so—it satirises the open-world genre as a whole by taking its conventions to ridiculous extremes. I’ve seen a lot of commentary suggesting that Deadly Premonition 2 gains nothing from the open-world structure, and that it’d be better to be a more directed, linear game. Frankly, that’s true of every open-world game ever, only where every other game tries to mask that with a constant stream of busywork and NPCs who are conveniently always right where you need them to be, Deadly Premonition 2 says fuck it and lets the stand. Being pointless is the point, and it’s a bold statement in a medium that shows no sign of slowing down with the “how big and realistic is my open world” arms race.
Crucially, this setup is never so inconvenient as to become frustrating or tedious. Le Carre isn’t a huge town, so even when you have to skate from one side to the other, it never takes too long. You unlock fast travel early on, which cuts out a lot of potential nuisance from getting around (and as a bonus, it’s tied to a wonderful subplot about a proto-Uber and its creator’s genius idea to keep travel cheap by technically not employing its drivers directly). When you need to pass time, there are a variety of ways to do so quickly and easily, like resting in your hotel room or smoking (though, in both cases, you’ll want to keep an eye on your BO level).
The thing that’s proved far more controversial in Deadly Premonition 2 is the frame rate. It’s dominated the conversation around the game since launch day, and I’ve seen plenty of suggestion that it’s “unplayable” and should never have been shipped in such a state. Yes, the frame rate is far from stable, and often drops to incredibly sluggish territory, but it’s far from “unplayable”. But more importantly, I genuinely think it adds a whole lot to the surreal atmosphere of the game and the recurring theme of subverting the rules of game design.
Deadly Premonition 2 is unpolished and messy, but I’ll always take a technically clumsy game that actually explores interesting ideas over the hyper-polished nothingness that you typically see in a blockbuster game. There’s a common assumption that some arbitrary number of frames per second is the minimum any game can run at to even be considered functional, but Deadly Premonition 2 throws that idea out the window by regularly dropping below the “standard” while remaining perfectly playable. I’m not going to suggest this was a deliberate move on the developers’ part—in fact, there are already plans to “fix” this “issue” through updates—but, unintentional as it may be, the clumsy frame rate adds so much to themes and surreal, subversive nature of the game. I’ll genuinely be sad when it gets patched out.
That isn’t to say Deadly Premonition 2 isn’t without some more concerning issues. In particular, there’s been a lot of valid complaint about the handling of Lena, a transgender character who plays a significant role in the story. Despite York leaping into a righteous monologue about accepting people for who they are when he learns of the bigotry that Lena faces, he’s quick to misgender her and use her old name, sometimes quite aggressively, in the course of his investigation. One could argue that there’s a statement in there about self-righteous “allies” who are far more bigoted than they’d like to think, but Swery, the game’s writer and director, has made clear that this wasn’t his goal, and he’s committed to reworking these scenes to remove the unintended transphobic elements.
Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise is a lot of things. It’s a surreal murder mystery that’s unlike any other detective story you’ve played, read, or watched. It’s a hilarious delve into the mind of a wonderfully odd FBI agent. It’s a subversive rejection of a lot of the assumed rules about what makes a game “good”. It’s a janky, clumsy game whose “flaws” add so much to the atmosphere of the game—not “so bad it’s good”, but good in a way that challenges assumptions about what “bad” actually means.
It’s exactly the kind of surrealist brilliance that makes the first Deadly Premonition one of my favourite games I’ve never played, only wrapped up in a game that I have.
Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise is developed by Toybox Inc and White Owls, and published by Rising Star Games. It’s available now for Nintendo Switch.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.