As far as I’m concerned, D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die is the best reason to own an Xbox One, you simply won’t find anything else like it on any other platform. It is an utterly baffling mix of procedural cop drama, Quantum Leap, and general madness, all presented in Swery65’s trademark insane yet earnest style. This game isn’t ‘trying’ to be funny, it is instead genuinely funny, and manages to tell an oddly gripping narrative with its humor. It’s a game that will be greatly enjoyed by fans of Swery’s last title, Deadly Premonition, because this falls very much into that game’s mold but cuts out the tedious open-world bullshit that plagued the small town of Greenvale. It’s a leaner game and while its oddly done episodic structure and heavy emphasis on Kinect controls may scare some off, it’s an adventure more than worth having.
So rather than start off by delving into the madness that is this game’s story, let’s begin by talking about its gameplay. No one was really sure what to expect going into this game based on the previews and even after finishing this first season it’s hard to really classify D4 but for lack of a better term it is an Adventure game. Similar to Telltale’s recent stuff, you’ll be walking your way around an environment, looking for clues, talking to people, and completing the occasional contextual QTE. Just like those games, there are also more action packed sequences that string a bunch of prompts together and rely on you having quick reflexes and good timing. The major difference here is that everything is designed to be controlled with the Kinect; you can use a controller instead but we’ll get to that later. Prompts often involve you swinging your arms and moving your hands in ways that are more or less analogous to the actions on-screen which can actually get fairly immersive and is surprisingly fun in the game’s more fast paced moments. The Kinect 2 camera is better at reading actions than its forebear and while more precise moments still feel somewhat off and slow, it reads faster simple movements quite well and the voice recognition stuff is top-notch. Everything single dialogue option can be chosen by speaking it aloud and frankly I was impressed with how well the Kinect was able to keep up with the things the game expected it to understand, not once did I ever have to repeat myself. As I said, you can also control things with a controller but it’s a lesser experience to be sure. All the context actions are replaced with movements of the analog sticks and occasional button presses and these simply don’t feel as tactile or as easy to anticipate as the Kinect movements do. Similarly much of the stuff that isn’t context based is done with a cursor controlled by the left stick or your hand via Kinect (including character movement) and while the former is certainly quicker at times, I found the latter to feel more natural overall. Thankfully though you can switch back and forth between control schemes whenever you want, allowing you to control segments in whatever way you find the most comfortable.
Story-wise this game is much like Deadly Premonition, it has a relatively simple premise on the surface that belies its crazier depths and bizarre characters. The plot here is that you are David Young, a former detective with the Boston PD whose witnessing of his wife’s murder two years prior caused him to leave the force. During that murder, the killer shot David as well, erasing all of his memories of the killer (who David knows only as “D”) and bestowing upon him the ability to travel back in time by focusing on mementos from specific events. Using this strange new power he hopes to eventually reveal the identity of D and solve his wife’s murder while also solving related cases on the side for the BPD with the help of his former partner. This first season of D4 focuses on David trying to solve the mystery of a witness to a major drug case vanishing off of a plane mid-flight just before it crashed. At this point things sound fairly normal, maybe slightly fantastical, but not out of the realm of network TV. In fact I’m pretty sure this was the plot of an old X-Files episode, but of course the X-Files never featured a flamboyant agalmatophiliac fashion designer who constantly screams “AVAAAAANT GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARDE”. And that is exactly where D4 gets crazy in the best ways, with its insane characters and characterizations; even the more milquetoast members of the cast (milquetoast being a relative term here) are rife with strange and endearing affectations which the game is more than eager to show off. While you can bust your way through the story in fairly short order, doing so will cause you to miss out on the best parts of this game, the pointless but incredibly entertaining side cases. These take the form of things like quizzes on aeronautical practices and history, grotesquely amusing dinner conversations between David and his former partner who eats like a T-Rex, and buying cat food for your roommate Amanda who is fully convinced that she is a cat herself. It’s during these moments that the game really shines and Swery’s earnest yet bizarre dialogue style is readily apparent; there aren’t really jokes being made here, rather the situations themselves are naturally funny and watching them being played out in such a genuine fashion only makes things funnier.
Moving onto the presentation, it’s quite similar to that of Deadly Premonition though with some cel-shading and a much more vibrant palette layered on top. Where DP looked washed out and dull (which worked quite well with its setting), D4 is colourful and stylized which lends it a somewhat electric air that fits the bombastic ’80s cop drama vibe the game has to a tee. Something that hasn’t changed is the developers love of incredibly deliberate animations; everyone does even the most mundane actions with an insane amount of purpose, like the body language equivalent of Shatner’s acting style. It makes every scene a show and heightens the hilarity of the game’s already absurd script. The sound design is similarly goofy yet well suited to the subject material, the music is full of gloriously over the top saxophone and the voice cast is filled with Boston accents that are just the right kind of incorrect. While I really the enjoyed the soundtrack, it does lack a good iconic “Life is Beautiful” kind of number, but it does the job more than adequately and keeps things off-kilter in a good way.
In the end D4 was an immensely enjoyable experience that encapsulates everything I loved about Deadly Premonition and streamlines it while wrapping a new story and set of interesting characters around it. This kind of content won’t be found anywhere else and while I won’t say it’s necessarily worth buying an Xbox One for, it’s certainly something that could and should play a factor in your purchasing decision, and is at the very least worth chipping out the extra cash to get a Kinect included model if you do decide to go down Microsoft’s road. While it’s unclear exactly what the future holds for this game as the seasons go on, I’m excited to see where things go and it’s awesome to see Microsoft supporting unique and quirky titles like this that break so far from the norm. I can happily recommend D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die to anyone with an Xbox One and as such I’m giving a 4.5 out of 5 stars. While the control scheme can be a tad wonky at times and I’d like to see some more solid info on exactly what the future content schedule for D4 is, it’s still the best use of Kinect I’ve seen and while the exact future of the game is uncertain, as long as there’s more D4 in store, then I’ll be more than happy.