There is a little videogame sweeping the nation about now, and it's called Deadly Premonition. It is named for the fact that the hero's coffee tells the future. It costs 20 dollars, and consistent with that price, the quality of the gameplay itself is low. On a raw, mechanical level, Deadly Premonition isn't a well-made game. But Deadly Premonition is a great game. I don't mean that to say that the game is "so bad it's good", I mean that it's actually a ton of fun for every other reason. If you're willing to put up with short stretches of a bad videogame, the rest of the game is completely worth it.
I've explained this game to people as something that Suda 51, of Killer7 and No More Heroes fame, might make if he were on an ultra-low budget (this game is sold at full price in Japan, which is probably why it's only popular here in America). The action gameplay is poor, but in its exploration stage, the game is compelling. The low production values only work in favor of the atmosphere, compounding the feeling throughout that something is terribly off. The timing of the dialogue is often strange, the volume of the spoken dialogue (recorded in English for all regions the way Resident Evil was: the acting is...actually not that bad!) is frequently fighting with too-loud music. There are only about five pieces of music used regularly throughout the game, their use is often wildly inappropriate (especially "Life is Beautiful", whose use is not limited to light moments), and the list goes on. But the game is also frequently surreal on purpose, too, and you have to wonder if these elements are at least sometimes intentional.
As I said, the bad part of the game is the action game segment, which is a budget version of Resident Evil 4/5 with only four enemies, all of whom make the same damn noises over and over again. You're going to slog through shooting a lot of the same enemy over and over again. This whole part of the game is just trash: you can't really dress it up as ironically crappy or intentional or anything like that. Since the first part you get to play is one of these scenes, you're going to have to spend half an hour suffering with it before you get to the good part. Yeah, I know, but how long does it take for Final Fantasy XIII to get good again? 20 hours? People are putting up with that!
Make it through this bit, and you get to the game that Access Games and director SWERY-- who last gave us the forgotten PS2 title Spy Fiction-- really cared about making. If the first surreal, hilarious cutscene in the hotel doesn't do it for you, where the hero breathlessly describes the contents of his coffee, then this just isn't your thing. It's definitely intended to be Twin Peaks: The Videogame, as you're an FBI agent sent to a small town to investigate the mysterious murder of a beautiful young woman. There is tension with the local police, and the people in town are weirdos, and something really dark and terrible lurks behind the whole business, and so on and so on.
The agent (his catchphrase is "Agent Francis York Morgan. Please call me York. Everyone calls me York.") is an unusual fellow who makes for a very entertaining protagonist: he appears completely detached from all other human beings, save an invisible friend named Zach. York is kind of a dick to everybody else in the world, but he can't stop talking to Zach-- usually in front of people-- about whatever crosses his mind. He is particularly fond of 80's film: if you get into your car alone for a long drive you're almost guaranteed to hear one of York's long talks about, perhaps, how great Tremors was. As a result, I use any excuse to take a long drive in this game.
Because York tells Zach to "take over" during the zombie segments, I assume that Zach is in fact supposed to be the player. This is how York deals with the fact that he, for reasons he does not understand, has about half of his actions determined for him by an unseen entity. He doesn't know he's a videogame protagonist! That's my theory, anyway.
You can simply go from point A to point B and solve the case, but the best parts of the game are where it leaves you alone and lets you kill time in the town. There's a (very slow) running clock, and the people of the town really do wander around and live our their daily routines. There is quite a bit to see and do in town, and while none of it is directly important to the case, who cares. Go have fun and put off having to play another one of those awful Resident Evil bits. There are formal side-quests where you simply need to do the townspeople favors, there's fishing, or, hell, you can go to somebody's house, stand out by the window and watch them go about their life. You get points for these things, even! Here is a list of things you get points for in Deadly Premonition.
-Saving your game
-Collecting Official Deadly Premonition Trading Cards
And so on. There's so much to do, and I'm motivated to do it because if I do, I'm usually witness to another weird conversation. Usually said conversation gives me some tiny bit of character detail or backstory, which is more important to me in a game like this than the actual in-game reward. The cheap look of the game belies an impressive amount of detail, character, and charm, and you'll find a lot of that on the side. So really, I'm playing this game not so much because running around town finding items for people is inherently compelling, but to see what odd thing it will show me next.
For $20 the game is a steal. Having put about ten hours in, I'm not very far at all. While I'm not rushing (and I don't recommend you do), you're going to get a lot more time out of this game than the typical brand-new $60 release. Speaking of big-budget videogames, I'm not sure whether or not I'd like to see SWERY make one of those: it's possible that his genius is best used here.