One of my favorite genre trajectories of the last few years is the modernization of the old school adventure game thanks to the folks at Quantic Dream and Telltale. While I’ve been fairly cold on David Cage’s works, Telltale has done a stellar job in popularizing the genre with the likes of the The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us. The more cinematic and engaged gameplay experiences have brought to life an otherwise fairly uninvolved genre that hadn’t otherwise found much life in the modern game industry.
When you really think about it, these new types of adventures games are the perfect fit for Japanese director/producer/madman, SWERY. While I enjoyed watching other people play his previous game, Deadly Premonition, and experiencing its story from the passenger seat, actually playing the game was like a punishment for some heinous crime from a past life. Abandoning the action genre and embracing Telltale’s brand of episodic adventure game philosophy perfectly fits SWERY’s new Xbox One exclusive franchise, D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die. It intelligently leverages SWERY’s keen eye for cinematography and storytelling, and despite some counterintuitive design decisions, the start of the first season of D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die is incredibly promising and highly engaging.
If you’re into that sort of thing, of course.
D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die has you filling the gumshoes of former Boston detective, David Young. David has turned private investigator after a brutal attack left him hospitalized and amnestic in addition to his wife being murdered, bizarrely with all of the blood drained from her body in the process. All he clearly remembers from that night is his wife prompting him to “Look for D.” with her final breath. Assuming “D” is Peggy’s murderer, David embarks on a manhunt to find him or her, thanks to an unusual power he gained from that traumatic night: the ability to “dive” into the past by using certain, special objects called “mementos”.
It’s a rather complicated set-up which is harder to grasp than Deadly Premonition’s fairly simple premise which may turn some off initially, and only gets far more complex the deeper you dive into D4’s tale. Thankfully, D4 contains plenty of footholds for players to find traction in through SWERY’s now signature charming, strange and intriguing characters and cinematic flair.
D4 is much more knowing of its own bizarre nature than Deadly Premonition ever was, which ultimately works greatly to its advantage as it finds ways to constantly subvert your expectations. From hilarious meal scenes between David and his former partner, incredibly off-beat quick-time action sequences, to even simple endearing character moments, D4 had me invested in its David Lynch-esque narrative almost immediately, and kept me engaged throughout. It’s hard to imagine anyone not finding something to enjoy in D4’s story if given the chance to experience it.
What might be more divisive is D4’s gameplay. There’s very little to grasp here systems-wise beyond the standard adventure game beats of moving from scene-to-scene, exploring the environment, engaging with characters and solving puzzles to progress the story forward. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before from the likes of Telltale and Quantic Dream, though it's mostly well-executed here. Also as someone who isn’t opposed to this particular type of gameplay loop, I felt satisfied enough between discovering some of the crazy interactions and ridiculous quick-time combat moments in D4. Though you’ll probably know in advance whether or not you’re interested in playing this kind of game.
But D4 has a particular issue that might even annoy fans of these kind of adventure games. D4 has a stamina system where every action you make, from talking to someone to picking-up an object burns a large chunk of your stamina away. The easiest way of replenishing your stamina is by eating food. You burn through stanima fairly quickly, which frequently forces you to temporarily postpone your mission to visit the in-game merchant to refill your stamina meter. It constantly derails your momentum, and sometimes actively discourages you from exploring the environment or characters’ dialogue trees to avoid getting a “Game Over” screen.
Part of the reason it feels like this system exists is to introduce some sort of challenge in an otherwise effortless experience. And while it’s promising that this was on the mind of the developers during development, it’s a clumsy system that feels counterintuitive to D4’s strengths of player-led world, environment and character development. It gives people who are already fairly unsure about the adventure game experience even more reason to steer clear, and may even test the patience and sanity of stalwart adventure game fans.
But thankfully that’s most of the bad news out of the way. The rest of the production of D4 is quite excellent. Visually the game is light-years ahead of the atrocious looking Deadly Premonition. It has quite a well-realized cartoon art style that Access Games gets a surprising amount of fidelity out of to create some really striking visual moments. The score also constantly delights, with a wide variety of off kilter musical genres -- from Celtic punk music to crazy horror themes -- that are introduced and explored in really fascinating ways. I rarely do this ever, but I can’t wait to purchase D4’s soundtrack when it becomes available.
There is one thing to be mentioned though is publisher Microsoft’s support of D4 going forward. Stealthily released with little to no fanfare, D4 just kinda of appeared out of thin air. This is a shame for a game that I generally believe is great, but is even more unfortunate considering the lack of any clarification of its future. Introduced as “Season 1” and containing only the prologue and first two episodes, Microsoft has given no word on whether the season will continue on, and if so, in what form. This even becomes more worrying when SWERY constantly goes on Twitter, using hashtags to promote his game such as #SaveD4. The lack of support from Microsoft is extremely disappointing, and this fact should be communicated to consumers before they choose to invest in a potentially already doomed franchise.
Despite its questionable life after this initial release, I believe D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die to be a great experience. The only true blemish marring D4’s otherwise highly intriguing and entertaining duration is its confounding stamina system that seems to combat the game itself. But if you have the patience to overlook that, D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die is an unique and endearing experience which I desperately hope continues well past these first two episodes.
The dream is real: six seasons and a movie. Let's make it happen, people.
FOUR OUT OF FIVE
(A great game that largely succeeds, but stumbles in some notable ways.)