How do you even begin to review a game like Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise? This is the kind of sequel that exists almost entirely in spite of the critical reception of the first game, which remains an adored cult classic regardless of its harshest critics.
Frankly, it’s easy to see why – Deadly Premonition oozes unique charm and loveable jank, largely rising above its technical limitations and unintentionally goofy self-seriousness.
It’s the kind of wonderful accident we live for in a time of homogenised action titles and toothless horror and going back to the well was always going to be welcomed but risky. The problem with following up something that was so unintentionally what folks wanted is how do you recapture that same feeling?
Can you Mr Magoo your way into another cult classic? Director Hidetaka Suehiro (here on out known as Swery) and local Aussie developers Toybox Games have certainly tried – and maybe that’s the problem.
When gameplay footage from Deadly Premonition 2 first made its way to the public a few weeks back the response was…fascinating. Take a look around the discussions happening on Twitter or Reddit and you’ll find countless fans all praising the shoddy framerate and stiff animations. This is inherently a part of the Deadly Premonition experience after all – the first game isn’t beloved for its technical prowess so why would this one be?
Swery himself has weighed in on this issue, seemingly cutting it off at the pass by spurring on the apathetic response to the game’s glaring technical shortcomings. On Twitter, he has pointed out to those raising concerns about the technical issues that we know what Deadly Premonition is.
I fuck with that, in all honesty.
I’ve spent the last few weeks deeply entrenched in Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding, a game which itself largely defied a traditional critical narrative. Kojima crafted an experience that was outright hostile to some and stuck to it with the convictions of a mad scientist, something else I, of course, fuck with. I go back and forth on the merits of the auteur theory in media but ultimately this kind of single-minded, “art for the sake of art and not critical reception”, conviction Kojima brings to his games is something I do admire and Swery is essentially embodying his version of this philosophy.
Good for him, and good for those that vibe with it.
With that firmly in mind though, it does make the actual process of reviewing Deadly Premonition 2 a little tricky. Game reviews exist to talk about those technical issues, to explore the way the game falls short or succeeds and wax poetic about why – so how do you do that when the game is, apparently, intentionally falling short? The subjectivity of critical games writing means we’re likely going to see many answers to this question and if you don’t fuck with mine, I can’t entirely blame you.
I’m going to do my best to unpack why I feel the way I do about Deadly Premonition 2 and slap a score on it to reflect that. The score, and probably my criticisms, might not matter much in the grand scheme of Swery’s unique outputs but they come from a place of good faith and genuine concern. So, let’s pour a cup of sunshine and get into it.
Time is a Flat Circle
Deadly Premonition 2 builds on the foundations of the first game but doesn’t necessarily improve them. This is still an open-world survival horror game with smatterings of third-person shooter combat thrown in for good measure. You’ll still play as FBI agent Francis York Morgan (please though, just call him York, all his friends do) solving a string of insidious murders that may or may not link to the occult. Along the way, you’ll explore a small American town, familiarise yourself with the eccentric locals and play some minigames for fun while managing your hunger, sleep and hygiene levels.
It’s all here again and yet it’s all slightly off. We can unpack why in a moment but credit where credit is due, the game does differentiate itself from its predecessor’s original release with timeline shifts between each “Episode” of York’s investigation. Everything in Deadly Premonition 2 is framed through retrospect as York recounts the 2005 investigation to another FBI agent, Aaliyah Davis, in a 2019 Boston apartment. The disparity between the two Yorks is startling and the presence of another whip-smart agent should, ostensibly, be fertile ground for something far more engaging than what we get.
Let’s get the 2019 segments of the game out of the way now. Despite the marketing push around Aaliyah, these portions of the game feature barely any actual gameplay and even less agency for the new “protagonist”. Your time spent playing as Aaliyah is essentially a poor man’s adventure game as you’ll be rooted to the spot seen in the reveal trailer and only able to choose which lengthy dialogue exchange you’ll begin next. These conversations can last upwards of half an hour and contain barely a hint of the tongue-in-cheek charm you’d expect. Aaliyah and York will pontificate on the perils of drug addiction, gender politics and murder but in the kind of tone that makes it feel like a genuine attempt at dramatic dialogue and meaning.
Later Episodes change this up slightly but the Aaliyah portions of the game only ever serve to pad out an already stretched runtime and do a disservice to both characters in the process. Deadly Premonition wore its media influences on its sleeve and in these 2019 intervals, you can feel the subversive hero worship of a Logan or The Last Jedi seeping into the game. But while those pieces worked to say something about the diminished and disgraced legend at their centres, Deadly Premonition 2 merely dabbles in the aesthetics of introspection. York’s mistakes aren’t grave enough and Aaliyah’s interrogation of him not insightful enough.
Paradise City Limits
Things don’t fare much better during the 2005 investigation but there are at least glimpses of the game you’d want to follow up the first. Exploration is still the main thrust of things as you’ll be tasked with darting around Le Carré to talk to locals, investigate sites, collect trinkets and animal skins, the usual laundry list of open-world odds and ends. There are some small activities littered across the map, though none held my attention for longer than a few tries with the exception of the awkwardly wonderful bowling mini-game.
Le Carré itself is sparsely populated, dead quiet and far too big – so fans of the series will likely feel right at home here. Fortunately, improvements have been made to traversal; York has access to a relatively speedy skateboard and a fast travel taxi service that whisks you to discovered locations for a small fee. The latter you’ll be relying on a fair bit if you don’t want to listen to poorly mixed grinding wheel sounds and repeated dialogue that stops when you hit a bump and starts again from the beginning afterwards.
Those animal skins I mentioned earlier feed directly into an upgrade system of sorts as you can take them to a shaman who will fuse them into various charms for York. These trinkets can offer health and stamina boosts, as well as improvements for your gun’s power or capacity. That said, it’s entirely possible to get through all of the game’s combat encounters without these assists as enemy AI and scenario design is severely limited.
Stick ‘Em Up
Combat is almost entirely segmented off from the main game in small pocket shadow universes which York must navigate to reach a crime scene. No matter where you enter these from (a farmhouse, a storage unit, a mansion) the small maze inside will always be the same drab corridors and furniture. There are no puzzles in here, just twisted paths with the occasional locked door or dead end. It’s a disappointing lack of variety, especially when compared to the first game, and is exacerbated by the monsters you’ll face within.
York’s real-world gun (an animal tranquillizer) becomes an admittedly dope arm growth finger gun when he enters the “Singularity”. This twisted and gnarled branch operates in the same way as a handgun would, but with the added bonus of a Focus Attack that can lock-on and expel golden light for extra damage. Especially in the context of Swery’s original intentions for the first game to have no combat I adore this concept – a mystical finger gun is a great rebuttal to shooter culture.
A concept can’t really carry an entire portion of the game though and Deadly Premonition 2’s combat scenarios are too long in the tooth and never all that difficult. Enemies are slow and beyond some minor inconvenient status effects don’t present much of a challenge (including the handful of bosses). The melee options from the first game have also been removed leading to repetitive and lacklustre encounters bookending slow exploration sequences in Le Carré.
York’s investigation is also shockingly short and you can easily burn through the main quest line before you know it. There are some side quests to complete for the townsfolk but Deadly Premonition 2 is unavoidably very light on content, even with the glacially paced 2019 segments. Still, York remains as charming as ever and a beacon of amusing light in an otherwise drab game. His newest companion, spunky pre-teen Patricia, is also genuinely funny and sharply written for the most part.
While the shoddy technical performance of Deadly Premonition 2 has become something of a badge of honour it’s worth noting just how deep the performance issues run. My game crashed several times in completely different circumstances – mid dialogue, loading screen, middle of gameplay. Sometimes it was proceeded by audio bugs, other times entirely unpredictable. The game does auto-save but each of these crashes cost me at least half an hour of gameplay and is the kind of performance issue you can’t hand wave away with a wink and nudge.
Blessings Thoroughly Disguised
Then, of course, there is the frame rate which sits somewhere between charming jank and genuinely frustrating roadblock. During the more intense enemy encounters the game essentially becomes a PowerPoint presentation, chugging beyond belief and rendering aiming a waking nightmare. During other less demanding moments, such as riding the skateboard down the main street, this can happen too. Even writing that out I know that for some it will just entice them more and again, I gotta respect that on some level. Technical performance isn’t everything and what infuriated me is gonna amuse others, but it still stands that Deadly Premonition 2 is maybe the shoddiest game I’ve ever played on a Nintendo console.
Embargo restrictions and my ongoing battle with reviewing the un-reviewable keep me from too deeply diving into the story but there are elements that beg to be mentioned here. Again, sincerely critiquing something that is not presenting as sincere is difficult but Deadly Premonition 2 deploys some staggeringly offensive writing that doesn’t fall under the protection of satire.
I noted in my list of things I wanted from a Deadly Premonition sequel was better queer representation, as that game’s only gay character was a violent, sexually deviant, cross-dresser and unfortunately, Deadly Premonition 2 doubled down. Keeping things as vague as possible, the game’s treatment of a trans character is genuinely upsetting and runs through a string of problematic tropes and trigger points. To say this game retreads the mistakes of the first on this front would be an understatement and it’s an experience breaking story beat that throws the rest of the game off completely.
From a certain point on in the story, Deadly Premonition 2 starts to compact its representation issues until it hits on just about every offence you could imagine. Never mind the technical problems, that a Nintendo adjacent company decided this game was fit for 2020 social standards is baffling. In trading the Twin Peaks Americana tropes for True Detective style New Orleans charm, the game fully embraces a history of questionable Black media tropes while also making odd assertions about taking America back to a “better time”. Meanwhile, the depiction of an intellectually disabled character is up there with the game’s trans issues. It’s a baffling meddling pot of insensitivities and was, for me, the breaking point.
Mileage is very obviously going to vary on a game like Deadly Premonition 2 and I genuinely believe that should be embraced. For all of my (gameplay) criticisms, there will be another for whom they are points in the game’s favour and to them I say, have a blast. The shooting is janky, the combat repetitive and the open-world mechanics and survival elements entirely underbaked but if you’re charmed enough by the world you’re probably gonna love this.
That said, the game is plagued by unavoidably problematic writing and character work which for others, like myself, is too high a barrier to overcome. Those representation issues are very real and paired with the distinct dip in overall quality from the first game makes me question if Deadly Premonition 2 was even in on its own joke.
Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a digital copy provided by the publisher.