D4 review: fire walk with D

D4 is so weird, strange and different that it's hard to pass up

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform Xbox One
Publisher Microsoft Studios
Developer N/A
Release Date

How far are you willing to go for something different?

D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die is absolutely one of the weirdest games you'll play this year. This is a Swery65 production after all, and you can't expect normal from the guy that made Deadly Premonition.

But for as many moments of the sublimely surreal as D4 generates, there are just as many clumsy, uncomfortable choices that seem designed to frustrate and bore. I want my weird, I'm starving for it. I just wish it didn't mean wading through so much that's just plain bad.

I had to wade through the bad to find the weird I'm starving for

You're detective David Young, a man whose life came unstuck from its track in a single moment of tragedy. But that moment also granted him a strange power: The ability to leap through time using mementos that provide a bridge to the past.

Young casts off the remaining vestiges of his past life, living in squalor and working out of his dingy bathroom with a single goal in mind: Find out who ruined his life and maybe, just maybe, prevent it from ever happening.

His travels into the past and pit stops in the present play out a little like a Telltale adventure: Young walks between predetermined points and searches his environment for objects he can interact with. Sometimes, he uncovers an important clue, sometimes he muses on a toilet. It's a crapshoot, if you'll pardon the pun.

Perhaps the oddest bit (well, oddest of the unintentionally odd bits) is that D4 is designed to be played with Kinect. Use your right hand as a cursor to search for objects, lean left and right to look around, speak one of the preselected dialogue options rather than select them manually, that sort of thing.

But D4 does what so few Kinect games before have done and uses Kinect in ways that are fun more often than cumbersome. Navigating the world and searching for clues is serviceable, but the too-rare combat sequences are where the motion controls really shine. Winding up with an invisible bat in my living room so Young can swing a mannequin's leg to drill a baseball at an assailant may be the satisfying thing I've done with Kinect ... ever?

A word of caution: Should your arms get tired and you decide to make the switch over to traditional controls (or if you've long since banished the Kinect to the tangle of unused wires behind the TV), the compromises motion control requires are very noticeable. Menus feel needlessly clumsy, the lack of direct walking control feels really constricting and Kinect asked if I wanted to switch to motion controls every time I shifted my position. No, thank you.

Action sequences take the biggest hit in the leap to standard controls, which require lightning-fast pressing of the analog sticks and triggers. What felt fresh and thrilling with Kinect turned into missing all the combat choreography while I strained my eyes waiting for the next prompt.

The novelty of motion controls may have completely evaporated for many of you, but D4 doesn't seem to have gotten the memo that most of the world has moved on. If you were feeling charitable, you might argue that nostalgia for a past that wasn't as rosy as we remember could be the latest in a long line of Swery65 hat tips to David Lynchian aesthetics.

Action sequences that were fun on kinect take a hit on the controller

Deadly Premonition was a pretty obvious love letter to Twin Peaks, and D4 is still referring to pages that could've been lifted from Lynch's coffee-stained playbook. Your first combat encounter, for example, is with a woman in a bathing suit who lives in your apartment and either thinks she's a cat, or is a cat. If you like your Lynch references a bit more direct, there's a giant, seemingly all-knowing man who speaks with an odd cadence and seems to struggle to crouch into frame.

The music hard shifts at a whim between celtic rock and shmaltz airlifted in from a 1980s mall food court. The action will completely halt so the characters can have extended debates about clam chowder. A bottle of beer will give Young the ability to spot hidden clues.

At these moments, D4 is at its best, taking the mundane and twisting it a few degrees, just enough to create a general sense of unsetting otherworldliness.

But where Lynch is a master of the weirdness IV, letting it drip just enough to sustain the discomforting vibe, D4 often lingers too long in each moment, turning something surreal into something that's just kind of dull.

d4 review screen 3

Take the aforementioned giant oracle. He speaks incredibly slowly, which is weird in a whimsical, hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck-kind of way. But then, conversations with him go on for way too long, so you lose the original pleasant tingles and are just left wishing he'd speed the hell up.

Pacing problems creep in on the actual gameplay in the same fashion. I loved all Young's oddly stilted, Boston accent-drenched observations about objects he stumbled across. But D4 makes the incredibly odd decision to make every action (including investigating objects) use up Young's stamina meter. If the meter empties (which it will pretty quickly if you investigate everything) you either lose progress or give up a sizable chunk of in-game currency.

Rather than let you explore this thoroughly weird world at your own pace, D4 pushes you to find the critical path through the game and not linger too long on anything. That may work for other games, but I want to lose myself in Swery65's worlds, not grind through them in a rush to the end.

Wrap Up:

D4 is so weird, strange and different that it's hard to pass up

I love a game that can surprise me, show me something I've never seen, so the chance to experience something completely otherworldly in a game is really difficult to pass up. If you feel the same way, maybe you'll be willing to push through some of the cruft to get to the delightfully weird bits of Swery65's latest. But it's a bummer that the biggest impediment to all the good D4 offers is D4 itself.

D4 was reviewed using a pre-release "retail" code provided by Microsoft. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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