June 5, 2015 8:00 PM | Joel Couture
I am solving my wife's murder, chasing down an elusive character known only as 'D', and yet I still have time to answer airline trivia. To discuss clam chowder. To catch falling clovers. To try on various clothes to impress a fashion designer. This is the kind of surreal world Swery invites players to with D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die, asking them to indulge themselves in the unreal and the bizarre. The seriousness of the storyline is consistently undone by a cast infused with silliness and weird obsessions, and yet something about the cast of weirdos strengthens a sense of menace as well. It left me feeling like I was on shifting sand as I played, feeling that I couldn't possibly be in danger from these loveable goofballs one minute to feeling absolutely terrified of their presence the next. As always, Swery's work in capturing the loveable, quirky outward appearance of people's lives and the hidden darkness underneath is without compare.
When I played his previous work, Deadly Premonition, I felt that it was all of the gunplay and third person action junk that cluttered the game. It was endearing in its own strange way, but all I wanted to do was get to know the cast of oddballs that inhabited Greenvale without having to spend time shooting weird monsters. That line of thinking has been taken to heart for D4, as this game mainly focuses on conversation with unique characters and some light exploration. You don't need to drive around town to talk to a fashion designer who insists his mannequin is a living woman named Sukey - he's right there to chat with. You may want to dress better than I did, though. I am hardly Avant Gaaaaaaaaaarde.
Those conversations range from being informative to being downright strange and cryptic, which makes conversation so much fun and every character a source of excitement. Character was the main emphasis of each conversation, too, as talking to the people in the game focuses more on giving you an idea on the kind of person they are rather than on strict exposition. These aren't just nameless NPCs to talk to about in-game events and hand you clues, but real, fleshed-out characters with personalities and desires. They will communicate important information to you, but you need to pay attention and really dig. No one feels flat or lifeless in this game, and so I came to enjoy each meeting and learn what each character was like. D4 excels at this, filling the story with characters who stand out in what they say.
Visually, they stand out as well. D4 is very bright, and isn't afraid to give a character an outlandish outfit or little visual quirk to make them pop. Not everyone is as out-there as our fashion designer, but the pure white of the doctor's outfit or something as simple as a man in a single glove is made to stand out. Small details just stuck in my mined as I played, from a hair color to an outfit, and it also leads the eye to know who you can talk to. The game does have several unimportant characters wandering about, but you can tell at a glance who you need to interact with. Also, I tend to get names and characters mixed up until I'm used to a cast, but I never had that issue with D4. Everyone stood out with a visual personality of their own. It doesn't hurt that I often had some silly thing they'd said to remember them by, though.
It helped that all of those weird things were said by strong voice actors. I didn't recognize any of the names that scrolled by when the credits rolled, but they all did a wonderful job breathing life into dialogue that should have sounded outright unbelievable. They all have their own charms, with David's frustration coming out in his Boston accent and Duncan's wild delivery adding snobbishness and excitement to every word. I loved the manic nature of Deborah's panicked count of the amount of times the window had squeaked, the glacial pace at which the doctor delivered his cryptic lines, and the butter-smooth cadence of Phillip's aircraft trivia. It all clicked well, and each of these people did a fantastic job on their characters.
Still, how do you get these folks to spill the beans on what they know? The gameplay is composed of dialogue, and that's made a bit more interesting with the Synchro Rate. This is how well you choose to say and do things that main character David would. It gives you a hint as to how well you're doing on a given person or aspect of the case, which, in my case, was usually poorly. You can always go back and reload the chapter to try again, although I didn't notice many appreciable repercussions to screwing up except for some more varied dialogue. Things tended to roll along anyway, which can be considered a bit of a downer given the current climate of games whose narrative shifts depending on your screw-ups and successes (Walking Dead, Life is Strange, The Wolf Among Us). While I get a kick out of games with choice factored in, I prefer D4's single, twisting storyline. I liked trying to figure out the strange, surreal narrative rather than wondering if Forest would remember what I said about Hot Dogs.
It ain't all chatter, though. Sometimes, your mouth is going to get you in trouble, and you'll be thrown into quicktime events. Now, I love these, but am also bummed out by them, too. I want to watch what's happening, but I am still stuck keeping an eye on little meters and flicking controls when all of the good stuff is going on. D4 does well enough with these commands, sticking to stick motions and a few buttons presses if you're using a controller and mouse movements if you prefer the mouse. Most of these are simple, although sometimes the commands appear over top of each other, meaning I'm often waiting for the last command to fade away while the current one is in desperate need of being pressed. It happens fast so you only tend to lose a half-second or so, but it makes it hard to do really well on the first try. Still, the motions are easy, so it's not hard to keep up if you miss one or two.
But I wanted to see them. Some silly stuff happens during these sequences that looks awesome and also lampoons quicktime events. David is capable of some incredible acrobatics, dodging around coffee carts, thrown objects, and attacks with ease, often setting things right again. When a person is thrown in David's way, he doesn't just dodge by them - he does a quick dance, catching his partner in mid-step, and then returns her to her feet, unharmed. If he catches a thrown dish, he'll replace it on a shelf (provided you do better than me in quicktime). It's funny and exciting all at once, and I just wish that I wasn't watching buttons while he did these things. Still, this is a problem with quicktime events in general and not D4 specifically. D4 is great for a spectator, though.
The game does have a health feature if you start messing up too badly. You start with ten bars of health, and every time you mess up in quicktime (or touch something you really shouldn't while exploring), you lose one. It's not too hard to keep your health up, which is good because there seemed to be points where I couldn't avoid damage while playing the game. They're ugly surprises that seemed to show up even when I thought I was doing well, so I'm not sure if these happen due to past failures or if you just take unavoidable damage at times. Either way, you won't want to let your health dwindle too much, as a surprise hit might send you back to the beginning of the fight or segment you're in. It's nothing terrible and it did motivate me to do well, though.
You also have a stamina meter that drains at an absurd rate. David must have some sort of illness, as opening a door, turning on a faucet, and even sitting down take quite a bit out of the guy. To keep him healthy, you have to eat. Constantly. I was more concerned about keeping the poor boy fed than on solving the murder most of the time. There's food everywhere, and in all different types, so there's usually something you can cram in your mouth (I'm looking at you, Kaysen). There's a ton of variety and personality to the food, too, so at least you get to read about some interesting eats while keeping David going. I never actually ran out of stamina as I played, but I was constantly worried about where David's next meal was coming from. I'd hate to not have the energy to SIT DOWN.
You can mediate these problems a bit by collecting credits and buying food, healing items, and clothing for yourself. Amanda, your cat/person (Have I pointed out that the characters were weird in this game? Because they are.), is not only hilarious to watch because she is a person acting like a cat, but she also runs a gear shop for you. You can buy stuff from this shop using credits that you earn from doing anything in the game, and while the restoratives are helpful in a pinch, it's the clothing that you should be interested in. Clothes not only make you look good (and endear yourself to certain fashion-minded characters), but they also boost some of your stats. I got myself a pretty sweet Special Agent York outfit that bolstered my character, but there are an array of other hoodies, shirts, and other clothes that let you customize your character in many ways. Many of the hoodies have characters from other games on them, and it's just fun to be able to play dress up with David. Well, that and the stat boosts.
Once you're dressed and stuffed full, it's up to you to follow the storyline to the best of your ability. It's a twisting tale, one that leaves some large, outrageous questions unanswered by the game's conclusion. You have to come to D4 with a certain acceptance that the story will be weird, but not stupid weird. The game does have a tight narrative woven through it about experimental drugs that have unusual effects on abusers as well as the constant search for your wife's killer. It just happens to be told by really strange people who, while funny, still exude their own menace. D4's story can bounce from lighthearted to dark and back again within a single conversation, and its story is just so bizarre that it's hard not to keep following it no matter where it goes. You have to have a certain tolerance for oddness and a willingness to see where Swery is going with it all, but I liked what I've been shown so far.
I've only scratched the surface of the narrative within these few chapters, too. There are dozens of notes from Little Peggy (the dead wife), case files from his partner, books about hockey, and all kinds of other things that flesh out the game world and help clear up more of the story. This stuff is well-hidden, too, as I went through every object on every screen as best I could looking for those things, but didn't even find half of them. You can bounce back from your investigation (which involves traveling through time using mementos from crimes, by the way. Which only work when you're in your bathroom) to your apartment at any time to see if anything's changed there, collecting new items and bonuses. Knowing when to be, where to look, and what you should do is a big part of finding the really hidden stuff. There's also secret quests you can do for each character, such as catching clovers in a little minigame, that seem to have no bearing on anything but do make more clues appear.
D4 seems light and silly, but everything about it plunges into endless depths. It's not as simple as walking around and talking people, as health and stamina systems add a complexity to your actions. Those people don't feel like vehicles to move the plot so much as fleshed-out, albeit strange, characters who have their own personalities and quirks for you to discover. The plot itself, even as this chapter ends on a cliffhanger, still has many tiny details you'll never see unless you navigate the right conversations and complete the right quests. You can't even look at a doorknob without the game giving it lots of little pieces of description. The theme of D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die is that, on the surface, things may appear simple, but that there is so much depth hidden within. As silly as its screenshots make it, D4 is an intelligent, and above all, deep story told through great dialogue and some clever gameplay. Ending on an absurd cliffhanger, I kind of need the next season of chapters right now.
No, seriously. Right now. I'll wait.
The first season of D4 will be available later today for $14.99 on Playism (The Publisher's site), GOG, Steam, and the Humble Store. For more information on D4 and Access Games, you can head to the developer's site or follow them on Facebook and Twitter. You can also follow Swery on Twitter.