When D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die first released, I paid zero attention to it. It was a platform-exclusive for a platform I didn’t own, I hadn’t played Deadly Premonition so I wasn’t eagerly awaiting the next game from SWERY like some were, and I also thought that the title was dumb. So despite this game having been available for many months now, I went into this playtest almost completely blind. That was for the best. If you had given me the elevator pitch for this game (It’s like a point-and-click adventure game but with a lot of quick time events!) I would have gone out of my way not to play it, but now that I have I’m glad I did.
The best and most important part of D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die is the character David Young. Despite being a point-and-click adventure, this isn’t a game that forces the player to put together goofy Rube Goldberg machines from collected knick knacks. The game is driven by the protagonist’s observations of and conversations with everything around him. Hover the cursor over an item and a sampling of bite-sized associations and opinions the character has will appear. These characterize the main character without forcing him to have some witty one-liner to comment on every item in his vicinity, and they also make it easy for the player to parse which items are important to investigate and which are just there for flavor. It’s a smart mechanic that streamlines story and gameplay all in one, and it will be sorely missed whenever I next play an adventure game.
The conversations with other actual characters are where the game most sets itself apart, though. The ways the characters talk gives the impression that the writer of the game learned American customs entirely through watching old episodes of Columbo. It’s fantastic. The characters waltz through basic human interactions to a rhythm all their own. Every familiar mystery story element ends up being present and accounted for, but I was never able to predict when or how they would be presented. Mystery stories succeed when they keep the viewer guessing, and this game achieved that better than any mystery I’ve consumed in a while. Not in the traditional way, but I surely had zero idea what was ever around the next corner.
This is a mystery story, so giving away parts of it would be a crime of the highest order. Let it suffice to say that the first episode of D4 gave me clues and made me want more—not because I’m particularly invested in resolving the death of David Young’s wife (though the story looks to be going more interesting places than that) but because I want to have the experience of finding those clues. This is a game all about the journey over the investigation. The voice acting is also fantastic, and without such unique performances I’m not convinced D4 would have come together.
I wish I could leave the playtest there. I really like the game I played and I tried to explain why (though seeing really is believing with this stuff). That would be irresponsible, though. While I managed to push through them, D4 has problems. First of all, the controls were originally designed for the Kinect and all the quick time events are still based on that design. Actions that once may have been intuitive such as raising the right hand to catch a flying saucer are now achieved by grabbing an icon and dragging it over the dotted line. Every few minutes I felt like my adventure game experience was being interrupted by a subpar EliteBeat Agents. I strongly recommend playing the PC version with a controller if you have one. The gamepad controls aren’t great, but they’re better than the mouse controls by a mile.
Secondly, all the delightful investigation and interaction with the world is limited by a stamina meter. I don’t understand this meter at all. The joy of the game is in looking at everything and discovering the colorful and off kilter world. I found myself having to ration my exploration, trying to guess what would be the most delightful things to interact with, lest I run out of stamina to stray from the central story path at all. It’s bad enough that I’m struggling with terrible controls to play the game, but the game also artificially imposed a limit on how much of it I’m allowed to see.
Lastly, this is not a great PC port. In fact, it’s a bad PC port. Beyond the control issues the loading times are genuinely unbelievable. When I selected “Back to Main Menu” from the chapter select screen, it took five whole minutes for the game to make it back there. It didn’t freeze, the little spinning icon in the corner never stopped spinning… but I still thought I had broken my computer somehow. I was actually worried enough that I booted up another game as soon as D4 finally sorted itself out. That game worked fine. When I went back to D4, though, it was back to waiting minutes at a time for chapters to begin and end. I never had another 5 minute wait, but I started timing them and I did hit three. Throw in some framerate issues, and this really isn’t an admirable PC-specific package.
So that’s D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die. It’s totally delightful and charming, and kind of like watching a train wreck that never quite actually falls off the rails. It’s also frustrating to play, frustrating to control, and poorly ported. That’s a bummer—this is a story that deserved better packaging.
Food for thought:
1. Let’s hear it for video game cinematography! Most games don’t get particularly ambitious with their cinematography but D4 does. Right away in the prologue chapter the game is giving you three or four angles on things happening simultaneously. The quick time events also show a rare sense of kinetic energy—I failed at least one quick time because I was watching what was going on behind the icons rather than the icons I was supposed to be dragging and dropping.
2. Is there anybody out there who’s eagerly awaiting a great supernatural detective videogame? Because in my time writing for this website I’ve already written about The Wolf Among Us, Murdered: Soul Suspect, and now D4. I wasn’t aware that this was a genre of game people were clamoring for. Also, none of the above three managed to be as good as Ghost Trick anyway.