Game Review

by Dave Riley,

D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die


D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die
Private investigator David Young uses his supernatural powers, granted by a bullet lodged in his skull, to track down leads on the murder of his wife, Little Peggy, in his unending search for the mysterious "D."

A giant man in a surgical mask and crisp white suit steps out of the airplane bathroom, scraping his cutlery while the sounds of a smoky saxophone tootle through the air, and you can't help but think, "we're still doing the David Lynch thing, huh?"

Swery65's crime-solving, episodic murder mystery, D4, folds Deadly Premonition's Twin Peaks vibe (though some might replace "vibe" with "wholesale lifting") into another well-worn tribute: Memento. Like Memento's Leonard Shelby, David Young witnessed his wife Peggy's murder--she was pregnant, if dead wife wasn't strictly enough noir motivation for you-- and lost his memory. Now searches for her killer with only the cryptic clue of "Look for D!" to guide him.

But David Young has an advantage over Leonard Shelby: psychic powers. Ex-Boston PD, David is now a preternatural private eye. The bullet lodged in his brain on that fateful night grants him the power to dive into the past using mementos, spiritually charged artifacts linked to Real Blood, the designer drug implicated in Peggy's death. David pursues these mystical leads in the hope they share connection to the mysterious D, who could be any D he meets: a Duncan, a Derek, or even David himself (gasp!)

David's first opportunity to flex his supernatural muscle is solving the mid-flight disappearance of a key federal witness. Using a dead Federal Marshal's blood-soaked badge, he is able to jump back to the scene of the crime, investigate, and, possibly, change the past… but not before a long-winded dinner table discursion on the merits of clam chowder, overseen by Amanda, a non-verbal blond in a one-piece bunny swimsuit who either thinks she's a cat or just plain is a cat.

After all, this is a Swery65 game.

Set almost entirely aboard an airplane, D4 ditches the tacked-on combat and open world oddities of Deadly Premonition, but despite its closed quarters and three-hour runtime, there's no lack of stuff to see. For something that plays like a Telltale adventure game--get a puzzle piece, do a Quick Time Event, "Next Time On…"--it's almost astonishing how many interactive objects scatter the plane's straight-line landscape. D4 is layered not just with goofy costumes and collectable magazines, but whole conversational tangents, like aeronautic pop quizzes, you'll miss if your nose is stuck to the critical path. Tutorial pop-ups remind you about the game's Detective Vision equivalent at every opportunity, paradoxically urging you towards the standard adventure game hunt and peck and away from the oddball activities hidden off to the side.

There are many systems to keep track of, meters for Stamina, Vision, and Life that deplete when you interact with anything, search for clues, and flub QTES, but none of them amount to anything. Though running out of Stamina or Life is a game over, maintaining them is almost a matter of course. You'll find enough life-sustaining hamburgers and cans of Boston baked beans while rummaging through overhead bins to get you through the game, and so it seems these resource bars only exist to remind you you're playing a videogame. The Kinect-style minigames and Quick Time Events (left over from the original Xbox One release) also suffer, their Fruit Ninja swiping substantially less exciting with a controller in hand.

There's a surprising lack of puzzle solving, given this is a game about sleuthing. In each of the two episodes you're tasked with collecting a number of clues: witness statements, broken pens, tickets to baseball games. When everything's in order David closes his eyes, the camera dramatically swoops around him while chunks of dialogue lace together in the aether, and he exclaims, "I got it!"

But this psychic detective is a little slow. Any of the initial mystery's nine clues will crack the case wide open for even a half-conscious player, yet you're forced to putter through the airplane cabin and ferret out the rest of them before the game will let you proceed, blurting out the answer you the answer you already knew as if it's doing you a favor. The worst thing an adventure game can do is force you to go through the motions, and, really, you aren't even solving anything in the first place. There's never a final exam here, no opportunity to show what you've learned. You're just there to scrounge for hints until the moment of revelation comes and David announces the solution without so much as a multiple-choice quiz to prove you were paying attention.

Lacking propelling gameplay, all you have left is the thirst of seeing what quirk waits around the next corner. The writing throws everything it can at the wall in hopes that anything might stick, but anything that does often wears out its welcome just as quick. The sonorous giant Roland Walker is fascinating while he's folding himself into an air vent mid-conversation, but the novelty of his stilted, eternal speech evaporates bit by bit with each strung-out syllable, until you're buttoning through the dialogue, forcing him to get to the point. Time is the enemy of this tepid surrealism and D4 presses its luck, extending every interaction into an eternity of herky-jerky gestures and muddled idiosyncrasies.

The oddities are granted space to become boring. With everything so pointedly kooky, there is no reference point, no meaning. Even as it cribs from Twin Peaks, this game lacks the contrast Lynch achieves between the weird and the town's quotidian life and placid veneer. Neurotic, disaster-obsessed passenger or flamboyant, mannequin-toting fashion designer, or anthropomorphic, swimsuit-wearing catgirl, it hardly matters which is which. When everything is strange, strange becomes normal, not worthy of comment; what's valuable here is too often lost amid the avalanche of every other similarly zany occurrence. Eventually, you're going for Vision mode even before the impatient tutorial prompt hovers onto the screen. You've had enough. You'd rather just get on with the plot.

And yet, even as weird becomes routine and routine becomes irksome, you can't help but give them credit for trying. The hyperactive characters may test your patience here and there, but the peculiarity of the game as a whole compels you to play it to the end. As with Deadly Premonition, this game's biggest lure is its skew: it's not revolutionary, not in any significant way, but it's tilted just enough to make you take notice. In a medium where Telltale has, over three short years, converted the freshness of is Walking Dead series into to a factory process that churns out Game of Thrones, Borderlands and, soon, Minecraft and any Marvel property you can think of, this is worth experiencing just for the rare opportunity of playing something seemingly unbound by corporate formulae. At least it's not another Gears of War, right?

Imperfect though its stabs at fresh and funky silliness may be, D4 is appreciable for its distance from the focus group mentality that binds any game with a budget. This might not be exactly what you want it to be, but it is inarguably what its creators want it to be. Even as it falters, stubs its toe on cringe-worthy writing and repeats its singular, off-brand Celtic Rock song (well, we are in Boston) on loop across its few action scenes, you're willing to believe that this game is better than the sum its parts.

The wheels of game production turn ever on. As the pressure of expanding budgets makes games like this the exception in a world populated by Final Fantasy, Assassin's Creed and, paradoxically, the Telltale Adventure Game model itself, the Season One moniker slapped on this PC port begins to feel like the twist of a knife: the mildly laughable suggestion that there would ever be a Season Two. Despite D4's ham-fisted grabs at Twin Peaks touchstones and its persistent supposition that "eccentric" is an express shortcut to "intriguing," somehow it's still disappointing we might never see any more of it.

Overall : C+
Graphics : B
Sound/Music : B-
Gameplay : D+
Presentation : C+

+ D4's qurkiness, overplayed thought it may be, distinguishes it from any other similar, usually self-serious, adventure games
Ends on an extreme cliffhanger with questionable hope of further episodes

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