This week, Zero Punctuation reviews D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die.
Delighting as it is that the drought is dying down, doing Destiny drained your debonair delegate. Dominant developers delay for a dog’s age, then deliver a desperately drab discharge and dare to describe it as the due destination for depictions of destruction. Dammit, I don’t desire to designate devotion to drudges as dull as ditchwater, so I’m declaring a downloadables day, derived directly from discovering D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die!
...which makes for a rather stark contrast to Destiny. While Destiny was hyped until its trousers burst, and has a media profile roughly equivalent to that of Benito Mussolini, D4’s release date was announced on the day prior. And even after that, I had to search for it on the Xbone store before it would grudgingly admit that it even existed. “Yeah, I think I saw it kicking around one of the sub-basements” it seems to say. “But why would you want to play that? Haven’t you noticed all these ads for incredibly boring games I’ve got plastered across my naked body?”
It’s entirely possible that the Xbone is embarrassed about it. It’s directed by a mysterious collection of proteins calling itself ‘Swery’, which previously made Deadly Premonition, the game that had a few technical imperfections in the same way that Ted Bundy had a few personality quirks that made him less than ideal marriage material, but was bizarre enough to attain cult appeal. So Microsoft seems to have shrugged its shoulders and let Swery make a new thing for the Xbone, whereupon he went “Oh boy, you won’t regret this Mr. Microsoft, Sir! I’m gonna do you proud, I’m gonna make use of that Kinect you like so much!” And I guess no one got around to sending him the memo that Microsoft’s been kind of distancing itself from the Kinect lately, on account of being a total waste of effort, plastic, money, space and time.
The Kinect dwells in that unholy place where the fitness and dancing games hold sway, and Rise of Nightmares showed us early on that it and core games get along like an Ulster Unionist cat and a Real RIA dog. But D4 has learned two important lessons from that example: A) let us fucking sit down rather than make us hold a pose halfway through doing the hokey cokey, and B) fuck the Kinect controls and just let us use a normal controller like what fucking human beings do.
Playing a Swery game is like looking through a glass-bottomed boat and seeing a seven-titted mermaid with the face of Phil Collins, strangely intriguing and the parts we recognize make it all the stranger, but we will remain forever separated by the glass, unable to do much more than glimpse each other’s worlds.
So our hero is private detective David Young, whose life fell apart when his wife was murdered and he was shot in the head. Alright, I’m with you so far, it’s Memento with anime haircuts. The bullet in the head gives Young the mystical ability to travel through time and interact with events associated with specific objects. Ok, bit of a wobble, but American television has broadcast weirder concepts. With her dying breath, Mrs. Young mentioned the letter D, and so David quests to solve her murder apparently by investigating every single human being on earth whose name begins with D. Starting to lose me now, wouldn’t he realize he needed slightly more to go on the first time he was arrested for stalking Donny Osmond? Young shares his apartment with an insane scantily-clad woman who thinks she’s a cat. Aaand I’m lost, Swery. I am officially lost, down the back of the fridge with a warranty card and a missing rice cooker attachment.
Since controlling a character directly with Kinect is like talking a blind person through an obstacle course with a fruit bat stuffed in your mouth, the game instead does the Myst thing where you hop from position to position and rotate in place, like a long-jump champion on a lazy Susan. In broad terms, it’s an adventure game, you look for objects you can interact with to solve puzzles. I say "puzzles", it’s mostly "find the thing that moves the plot to the next flag and give it a poke", although gameplay that straightforward wouldn’t be anywhere near satisfactory to Swery and whatever ancient space men he believes talk to him inside his brain.
So there's also a rather obnoxious stamina mechanic. Every action you take, from opening cupboards to asking someone an asinine question, drains a little stamina which is restored by hoovering up every random food item you find lying around, in cupboards, bins, and other people’s mouths. Young seems to metabolize like a fucking nuclear submarine, but I never did find out what happens if you let stamina run out. Taking an educated guess from the rest of the game, I’ll hazard that it’s something not fun.
Eventually, the exploration and discovery is broken up with action scenes, which are action in the sense of “We are considering illegal action on behalf of the concept of fun”, as D4 remembers that another person whose named starts with D is David Cage. Yes, it’s our old friend Quick-time events, that spectre at the feast that drinks all the Tizer and occasionally cries “Think fast!” and throws a plate at my face, where the action becomes cartoonishly high-octane and simultaneously impossible to focus on because we have to concentrate on the next button prompt, so it’s like swatting mosquitoes in front of a Punch-and-Judy-show. And these sequences don’t drain stamina. So we find ourselves in a situation where catching four dinner plates, rugby-tackling a passerby and hurling yourself through a plate-glass window somehow exerts us less than opening an overhead baggage bin.
At time of writing, D4 consists only of the first two episodes of what has been somewhat optimistically titled “Season 1”. And I’m impressed, because Heroes took a whole season and change to start getting shit, D4 has managed it by episode two. Episode one has some nice little ideas and a little bit of exploration, some, let’s say, flamboyant characters and even some spots of intrigue on its quirky clown trousers. Episode two, meanwhile, consists mainly of moving down a linear path to the end. And since that probably didn’t feel like enough, you have to stop along the way firstly to play what amounts to a hidden-objects-minigame, and then again to play what amounts to a sliding-tile-puzzle, because it is a sliding-tile-puzzle, and then go home and make your cat woman dress up like a sexy Dalmatian.
It seems to have been designed by someone who gets bored halfway through scratching their nose. But with that in mind, it’s strange how often D4 feels like it's hitting the same points as Deadly Premonition: a damaged detective with a diversity of duds and a disorderly diet, whose murder investigation takes him to a larger plot involving a red narcotic that may have supernatural effects, and it all got this air of cult American TV shows being pushed through the filter of Japanese oddness and attention deficit disorder, so while that is disarmingly different to the dime-a-dozen dreariness of Destiny and derivatives, demented displays don’t decrease dodgy design. Duh!
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- Do-wa-diddy-diddy dum-diddy-do