If David Lynch made games...
What is D4?Wholly unrelated to D-2 on the Sega Dreamcast (as you'd expect, there was no D3 anyway), D4 stands for Dark Dreams Don’t Die. Any clearer? No? Well, you’re not alone, it’s intentionally cryptic. Originally designed to be a Kinect title, it’s the latest release from Access Games and Japanese games director Hidetaka Suehiro a.k.a. SWERY, the creative team behind the utterly mad Deadly Premonition. That title slowly gained a cult following in spite of its clunky mechanics and rough edges. What it had in its favour was a strange, dark, compelling story that was quite unique.
D4 treads some of the same paths (fans will note Forrest Kaysen turns up again) mixing brooding noir elements with outright absurdism; its style is distinctly Japanese, and fans of the likes of Suda51 should feel right at home. There’s no point going into depth regarding the story, in fact if you’re interested I’d suggest you avoid any discussions that aren’t heavily edited for spoilers. It's a tale that needs to be enjoyed for its twists; commit to it, go in cold, and let it surprise you.
It is, however, not giving too much away to say that you control David Young, an ex cop with some special powers which allow him to transport to different places and times in order to solve mysteries. The thing that’s really driving him forward though is the unsolved murder of his wife. With some bizarre characters, it’s like a mind bending neo noir crossed with The Chuckle Brothers at times.
In short, it’s unlike anything on the Xbox One at the moment. If you like it, you’ll probably really like it; if not, well...
What kind of game is D4?The gameplay is similar to many detective titles that utilise point-and-click mechanics, in that movement is not totally free, you have to stick to going from point to point. Once there, it then becomes a question of investigating the environment by looking around and picking out the items of interest. The easiest comparison would be The Walking Dead, where the story took the lead and the amount of input was largely minimised.
Similarly, much of the enjoyment in D4 comes not from the big show stopping drama but instead from the emergent atmosphere that grows out of the smaller moments; little conversations, and asides that accrue to create a sense of place, all helped by a voice cast that injects just the right amount of hammy acting. It's like pulp fiction for a genre you can't quite identify.
SWERY’s vision hinges on a fairly disparate, some may say chaotic tapestry of interactions. One moment you’re dolefully pining for your dead wife, the next you’re reading a sports magazine and chatting comedically over a meal, whilst your ex partner scoffs down hotdogs in a comic strip fashion. In short, it’s distinctly oddball in its Japanese flavour. The raft of clothing options, insane characters and general unexplained weirdness makes it the kind of ride you not only have to accept, but relish.
Yet, at its core there’s a very real detective story, layering some interesting sci-fi ideas, that’s perfect for episodic content. A new drug, murder, a collection of suspects; it’s all very traditional in its set up, but with a sprinkling of oddity when you least expect it. There’s more than a hint of a certain Hollywood thriller, but I’ll leave that thought hanging, for fear of spoiling things.
Is D4 still a Kinect game?Yes, in terms of controls, you can choose to go for the full blooded Kinect and voice control, as the game was originally envisaged, or opt for the vanilla controller. Access have done well in making sure that the gestures needed are fairly bold, and you can play from a sitting position. However, I still found myself reverting to the pad. Simple motions, like pushing towards the camera just weren’t at the level of precision that would allow me to play without feeling conscious of it.
You can change between either control method easily and quickly, just by holding a button on the pad or an arm above your head. In some ways it’s too quick, as I scratched my head more than once and switched. Voice control is included, in a fashion. It’s tailored to US-English, so it's worth making the point that it may not work that well. It’s only really utilised for a few conversations anyway, so it’s not a large aspect of the game.
How does D4 play?At its heart, it’s quite a conservative game, with the point-and-click style laid over some weird ideas and even weirder characters.
The items you find can be either pushed or grabbed, and if you leave your cursor hovering over the object for a few seconds, David’s thoughts on the subject will pop up, gaining you credits. This is all part of what SWERY hopes to be a “mystery that focusses on replicating sense and empathy.” It plays with perception, and the sense of something being fractured, delving into noir inspirations extremely well, yet with an inimitably Japanese score and often kitsch atmosphere that juxtaposes with the darker elements.
The gameplay is all about interacting with objects, as you’d expect. All interactions gain you credits, even putting a toilet seat down (once again, videogames at the forefront of teaching good etiquette!) and there are additional bonuses lying around. These aren’t just distractions designed around the acquisition of clothing for your character wardrobe, you need them to buy food and drink, with each tied to a gameplay mechanic. Food keeps your stamina up, which is essential for doing anything. The fact that actions cost stamina introduces an element of tactical conservation to proceedings. Why lift that fire extinguisher if you’re sure it won’t yield anything and you’re already low on stamina?
Drink replenishes your Vision, which allows you to see which items are of particular interest in a scene. Together, they seem to almost add an in-built timer, without the need to specify it with a clock face, there’s only so much food and drink lying about, and the scavenging hunt for nibbles will also often lead you to uncover new clues. It’s not really a strict system, as you quickly amass extra credits, so you can purchase food from Amanda, a woman... who’s also a cat... and your roommate. Don’t ask.
The real departure from the point-and-click staples is the use of Quick-Time-Events for key moments. These were seemingly designed around Kinect originally, so when transferred to the controller appear quite rudimentary in places. Asking someone to input two button presses for any action is akin to not bothering. As with all QTEs, going all the way back to Shenmue, they work in as much as they break up actions that could become monotonous.
Also keeping you on your toes are the prompts during cut-scenes to see David’s emotions about particular objects and people. With one eye on the stamina gauge, and one on the possibility of extra prompts, it avoids the trap that so many detective games fall into of allowing the pace to fall and the player to slip into an inattentive frame of mind. If you’re playing, you’re paying attention - the story alone should see to that.
For the price of £11.99 you’re getting a Prologue and two chapters, with each chapter lasting somewhere around a couple of hours. There’s some replayability in the fairly condensed environments, as I was aiming to be a completionist, yet still missed a few objects and missions. The beauty is the story's fleshed out by interactions, so there's a real reason to want to sit down for a meal with Kaysen, for instance. There's also the lure of Easter Eggs and getting all the wardrobe options, if that kind of thing tickles your fancy.
Point and click
- Weird, compelling story
- Novel food-centred gameplay
- Great score
Point and laugh
- Some repetition
- Fairly short
D4 Xbox One ReviewDark Dreams Don’t Die is exactly what you might expect from the writer / director behind Deadly Premonition. It’s tighter in terms of controls - thanks in part to a fairly conservative approach to navigation - and its far more accessible, but for all the streamlined mechanics and additional polish, the story at its heart is still suitably brooding and silly in equal measure.
If you’re looking for something unique, and you appreciate a plot that’s clearly got some design behind it, beyond the usual waymarkers for set pieces, then this is well worth a gamble; you might hate it, but then, you might just end up wondering why all games aren’t made like this.
Ultimately, it rests on its story, if you rate that highly, then you'll be eagerly awaiting the next chapters. After all you don’t get many time travelling detective stories with comedy turns and an emphasis on calorific intake. D4’s probably the best... in fact, it’s probably the only one.
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