Remember Deadly Premonition? It’s one of the most divisive games ever to be released upon the world. Poor production values, bizarreness to the extreme, and campy…well, everything else, meant it was one of those wonderfully weird games that either clicked with you, or it didn't at all. Now, four years after the release of Deadly Premonition, comes D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die, the latest game from the creative mind of game director Hidetaka Suehiro, also known as SWERY. The question is: with SWERY’s signature zaniness laid on as thickly as you’d expect, is this episodic point-and-click adventure dreamy enough to appeal to a greater audience than his previous work, or will it be too erratic and esoteric to keep players clicking along?
D4 puts players in the shoes of the bubble-gum-chewing, hockey-obsessed, tequila-drinking David Young, as he spends his days consumed with solving the puzzling murder of his wife, Little Peggy. Once a narcotics officer for the Boston PD, David now remains a private detective with his attention fixed on cases potentially tied to his own. The setup might sound clichéd – that’s because at its core, it is – but due to the wild manner in which D4 tells its story, along with an eccentric and oddball cast of characters, it’s a long shot from a feeling familiar. For starters, David has not only suffered amnesia that keeps him from remembering the details from the night of Peggy’s murder (yes, more clichés), but during the incident he also mysteriously acquired the ability to travel back in time. To do this, David needs to come into physical contact with “mementos,” which are objects tied to a memory or event, and then he can travel to the point of its significance. This is referred to as "diving."
Moving through environments is done by a bit of point-and-click action, or by performing motion gestures in front of the Kinect. Want to move forward? Either click or grab the icon in front of you. Want to have a closer look at an item of interest? Just click or reach out and grab it. Both control options are self-explanatory and intuitive and shouldn’t take anyone long to get accustomed to. Adding an extra degree of depth is the ability to lean. With Kinect, this is done by tilting your head to the left or the right, granting you with an angled view of your surroundings; with a controller, the shoulder buttons will do the trick. This mechanic is typically used to uncover the location of credits, which serve as currency. So while you aren't able to freely move David through the world wherever you'd like, with the mechanics at your disposal, you can get a pretty all-encompassing look at what's around you.
We began our playthrough by taking the motion control route, but after about an hour or so, we switched over to a controller. While the motion gestures help to cement you into the game world and the shoes of David, always having your arms elevated and at the ready can quickly become uncomfortable. Plus, there was the usual gesture recognition confusion that intermittently reared its head. Mind you, it wasn’t horribly compromising to our enjoyment, but it, along with acute limb fatigue, was enough for us to go with the classic method of control during lengthier sessions.
The primary agenda in D4 consists of investigating David’s surroundings for clues and objects of interest, chatting with NPCs, and doing some very light puzzle solving. Like the best adventure games, the environments aren’t only populated with items that are essential to the task at hand; there are a bevy of inconsequential things to interact with around every corner. Reading about baseball or time travel in magazines, selecting which record you’d like to play while overturning David’s apartment for clues, or even throwing back a couple shots of his beloved tequila – these small and seemingly unimportant interactions are in abundance, and they not only help to build character for our protagonist and the game itself, but they also connect us to the experience.
One of the design choices that we didn’t like in any capacity, was the need to maintain David’s stamina meter by buying food items from a "shop" or finding them throughout the environments. If the stamina meter depletes, which is almost too easy to do, David will pass out and you’ll have to give whatever you were doing another shot. This doesn’t really set you back any but it feels like an unnecessary additive, incorporated only to inject a little tension and urgency to moments that don't need it. Hopefully in the chapters to follow this will be dialed back a bit, so we can remain invested in investigating every scene as thoroughly as possible without distraction.
When it comes to conversations and questioning the memorable cast of characters, there are typically three predetermined responses to choose from. If you select the reaction that you think best keeps David in character, more points will be awarded. Your performances in many different areas are all considered and factored into an overall score, adding a reason to replay chapters and even put your name on the leaderboards — yes, there are actual leaderboards in an adventure game. It's nothing that we felt compelled to do, but it's a nice touch.
While the standard searching and conversing is casually paced, there are QTEs that call for the most immediate of reflexes if you want to score exceptionally. With the Kinect these are mostly swipes that mimic the onscreen punches or dodges, and with a controller they’re directional and button prompts that also coincide with what’s occurring in the game. Because your inputs do genuinely feel connected to those of the character, these QTEs feel better than they do in most action games. And since missing an input here or there isn’t devastating, the sequences rarely frustrate; in fact, we largely enjoyed them when participating with a controller.
In what we're assuming is an attempt to keep things fresh and more engaging, there are a few puzzles and mini-games that add variety to the proceedings. For instance, one of the mini-games will have you moving a hand icon around the screen to catch falling clovers while simultaneously avoiding lightning bolts, and another will task you with locating all the squeaky windows in an airplane for a paranoid and loose cannon of a passenger. Don't expect any of these activities to be all that substantial when assessed on their own, but they did serve to reignite our interest when the pacing would begin to drag.
That brings us to the presentation, which is a big part of what makes D4 so enjoyable. The cell-shaded, comic book-esque visuals are fantastically stylish, and the amount of depth and detail are impressive. Character's faces don't quite feature the range of emotion that they do in, let's say, The Walking Dead, but they're more finely and softly presented here; just wait until you see David's face when he's engaged in conversation with another character — his head subtly bobs while his lips waver around as if he's losing his balance. It's these silly little touches that accumulate to make this a humorous and distinct game. You would think that it would be tough to combine dark and compelling subject matter, continuous cornball behavior, and an abundance of style, but D4 does just that.
Considering that this chunk of episodic content consists of a prologue and two chapters, it's longer than the hour and a half-ish worth of content we've been receiving from Season Two episodes of The Walking Dead. While everyone is going to participate at a varying pace, our entire session with D4 lasted right around three and a half hours — keep in mind that it could probably be finished much quicker if you don't have an interest in discovering all the tidbits in the environments. In that time, the number of places you'll visit is fairly limited. The predominant backdrops are David's apartment and an airplane with a big mystery that need solving. There's also a vague setting on a frozen lake that rears its head a couple times, but we aren't made clear of its importance just yet.
And ambiguity is part of what makes D4 hard to digest at this point in time. Are we utterly intrigued and on-board with future episodes? We sure are. But the way the story is told might be a turnoff to some people. So many plot elements and characters are introduced, though we aren't provided with many details surrounding their purpose just yet. The interesting thing is, at this point in time, this is likely just a shortcoming attributed to receiving the plot in an episodic fashion; we have to presume that subsequent chapters will present the context we're looking for. And maybe we're making a bigger deal out of this than need be, because if you dig into your surroundings with your best detective skills, you might unearth more details and truth of the events at hand.
D4 is a wacky and weird adventure game that takes a familiar core premise and spices it up with quirky characters, trippy plot developments, and time travel. Motion controls have been integrated in an intuitive way, which helps to invest the player in their role, but occasional recognition issues and arm fatigue might have you reaching for a controller instead. Either way you play, D4 is a solid start to the series, and it offers up enough offbeat humor and intrigue to satisfy the Deadly Premonition fans. There are gameplay elements that miss their mark, and the pacing isn't perfect, but it's not enough to kill these dark dreams dead. Someone tell SWERY that we're ready for more.