D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die – Season One Review

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It can be easy to slip into a bit of a jaded funk when you write about games all day. You see a lot of titles recycling the same ideas (not always a bad thing, but one unlock-based progression system tends to blend into another after a while,) and can fool yourself into thinking you’ll never see anything new again. Then D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die comes along and reminds you what an idiot you are for believing that for even one second.

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Here’s a scene which occurs in D4 like it’s just no big deal. Forrest “Teddy” Kaysen, portly companion of protagonist David Young, has re-made breakfast, because the first set of food was spilled when attempting to retrieve a baseball from Young’s housemate Amanda. Who is a cat. She’s also a woman. But, no, seriously, she’s a cat.

Anyway, the thoroughly Bostonian Kaysen is stuffing whole hot dogs in his face (three at a time,) while explaining that his wife doesn’t really understand him because she’s from New York, where they have a whole different approach to reconstituted meat foods. Meanwhile, Young is using a halved hot dog of his own to recreate the dancing rolls scene from Gold Rush, much to Amanda’s amusement.

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In any other game, this would be the weirdest thing that happens. In D4, it’s just another scene.

D4 is a Swery-directed game (the man behind Deadly Premonition,) and was originally an Xbox One exclusive with Kinect controls. That should explain its eccentric set of characters and bizarre nature, but may also give PC players some nervous palpitations.

The Deadly Premonition PC version was not at all good (I’ve heard that the original console versions were also replete with technical issues, but that’s by-the-by); restricted to 720p, with constant crashing problems, and some irritating sound bugs. I can understand why that, combined with “it’s a port of a motion control game,” might give people cause for concern.

Don’t worry. D4’s PC version was handled by different people and, while not stuffed with options (it’s not really that type of game,) the release functions and performs just fine. It happily defaulted to 1080p (4K support is mentioned, but I don’t have the monitor for it,) never crashed on me, and maintained pretty consistent performance throughout a 5-6 hour play time.

I ran into just two things that I’d consider problems. First, mouse pointer speed is determined by a five-point slider (where point three is ‘normal’) and none of them felt particularly natural. ‘Normal’ didn’t feel awful, but nor did it feel like just moving the pointer around on the desktop. You can play with a gamepad as well, but if you stick with the mouse (as I did, proving that it wasn’t that bad) you’ll probably have to put up with slightly accelerated or sluggish pointer movement.

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No expense spared for the PC version.

Second, I think the vsync does that weird thing where it’ll cut your frame-rate to 30 if things get a bit heavy (Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag did a similar thing.) The frame-rate largely stuck around 60 for me (on an i3-2100/8GB RAM/2GB 7870 setup,) but whenever there was a conversational interlude with a character on either side of the screen, it defaulted to 30. It’s also possible that those particular scenes are just capped at 30fps, I suppose.

Anyway, neither of those things should really put you off D4’s PC release, which is easily one of the most consistently funny and strange things I’ve played this year.

The premise of a time-travelling private eye who’s trying to solve his wife’s murder may not sound especially amusing, but as anybody who played Deadly Premonition will know, under Swery’s guidance it absolutely can be. David Young gets mixed up in grief, obsession, and the trafficking of a borderline supernatural drug called ‘Real Blood’; but he also runs into campy fashion icons who think their mannikin companion is alive, takes impromptu quizzes on aircraft design, and defeats foes with the power of baseball. All this, plus some smooth sax on the soundtrack.

At first I thought the amnesiac(ish) detective with a dead wife and an apparently supportive friend named “Teddy” was going to take the plot down a very Memento-like road. There’s definitely something to that (the trinkets Young uses to go back in time are even called mementos,) but I was pleased when the game used some dialogue to almost directly laugh off the idea that maybe David just killed his own wife.

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I present this screencap with no further explanation.

D4 essentially plays like a very odd Telltale title. Movement is somewhat restricted, with Young only able to pivot and peer on his current spot, or move (as indicated by some footprints) to another point in the room for more pivoting. Points of interest are marked with an exclamation point, and hovering over them for a second or so provides further investigation in the form of additional text popping up. This is worth doing for information, laughs (the text on a fire extinguisher that you’ve previously used to no effect reads: “Don’t bother / Nothing will happen / You’ll only be sad”,) and to earn ‘credits’ that you can spend on various helpful and cosmetic items.

Naturally, you spend them with Amanda. Who as well as being a cat, runs a shop.

Interacting with things chips away at David’s stamina bar, which needs to be semi-regularly refreshed by chomping on some of the many, many different food items that tend to be scattered around the scenery. If you somehow manage to run low, Amanda’s shop can sort you out.

Each episode in this ‘season’ (featuring a prologue, and episodes one and two) is stuffed with things for Young to look at, read, poke, and, potentially, wear. I considered myself fairly thorough when going through the game, but was constantly surprised when the post-episode summary would say “nah, you missed about 40% of the objects and a bunch of side stuff.” In that respect, D4 is an observational detective’s dream. Especially if you like poking around in obscure corners for outlandish new beard styles. Or scrapbook entries about hockey.

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Or, you know, fortune cookies.

Every so often D4 will break out an action sequence (possibly life-threatening, possibly just David taking a much-needed swig of Tequila,) during which you need to deploy your precision mouse-sweeping skills. The motion controls from the Xbox One version have made a pretty smooth transition to PC. Instead of waggling your hands around, the quick(ish)-time actions demand that you drag and drop things with the mouse, make sweeping motions to follow arrows, and similar such controller manipulation.

It’s not particularly strenuous (though the mouse speed issues I mentioned earlier can make it a little harder than it should be,) but D4 at least makes up for this with some absurd and wonderful choreography. You won’t feel especially challenged, but the actions unfolding on-screen are always pretty mesmerising.

That feeling of “wait, what am I seeing here?” goes for the more stationary sequences as well. Swery’s take on American characters and dialogue is always worth seeing, whether it’s the small-town/Twin Peaks approach of Deadly Premonition or D4’s whimsical yet tortured private detective meets buddy-cop-ish episodic series about time travel. In Boston.

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Don’t mess this up, David. The world is counting on you.

The only indisputable down side to picking up this release is that, as yet, there’s no conclusion to David Young’s jaunts through time. Further seasons have been hinted at in the lead-up to this PC release, but aren’t confirmed. Of course, the more people who do decide to embrace their love for seriously offbeat investigation, the greater chance Season Two has of showing up. But as someone still waiting for Anachronox to conclude, I can’t blame people for being wary of a game that ends on a great big cliffhanger.

D4 is unique, outlandish, and an extremely enjoyable title. One that will leave you wanting more, but also, dangerously, may not be able to quench that craving.

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