D4: Dark Dreams Don't Dieis a surprisingly layered, dense game – especially for a linear, point-and-click adventure about a man with a bullet in his forehead and the ability to travel through time. It's equal parts gruesome, funny and quirky, combining elements of sci-fi with classic cop drama and thriller tropes. However, the most surprising aspect of D4 isn't its story – it's how well the Xbox One Kinect controls work.
D4 is wonderfully weird, and it's a fun Kinect game, to boot.
D4 follows the investigations of private detective David Young, a former member of the Boston Police Department. He's obsessed with finding the crooks who brutally murdered his wife a few years back – a crime he was once suspected of committing. He doesn't remember everything from the night she died, but he left the scene with a bullet in his forehead and the ability to touch certain objects to travel back in time to their places of origin.
D4 is a cel-shaded point-and-click adventure game, similar in style to Telltale's The Walking Dead, but heavy on action and ridiculous Boston accents. This isn't "choose your own adventure," however – players at times have the ability to choose the order of dialogue options, but everything shakes out the same in the end. The joy of D4 is in exploring the provided areas and piecing together clues using motion controls and voice commands.
The main control mechanic can be completed with one hand: a tiny on-screen image of a hand follows your own hand's movements, and making a fist selects certain objects or actions, such as "walk here." Usually when David stops in a new spot, players can swipe the screen left or right to get a 360-degree view of the immediate area. Interacting with things spends Stamina, which David regains by finding food and chowing down.
Since D4 is a detective game, there are plenty of things to uncover in most of the scenes, and David has a clue-finding power called Vision to help hone in on the important bits. Playing with Kinect, bring both hands down, and then up to your temples, and the screen greys out with all interactive objects highlighted in yellow. Some of these are food, others are clues, and others are extra things for curious players to poke at. You don't need to use Vision, by the way. You're free to instead wander around the scenes, stumbling on interactive objects as you go.
During one of the early investigations, for example, David has three mysteries to solve at once, each with two or three clue pieces. He's on an airplane and the clues are scattered around the seats and passengers, and David gathers them by talking to certain people or picking up important objects. There are plenty of things to poke at, turning the entire airplane cabin into a rich mystery tube.
It's not only motion that drives D4, but voice, too – playing as a detective, it's intensely satisfying to actually interrogate a suspect, using your own voice to ask a question from a lineup of possibilities. There's a timer on these scenes, creating a delicious tension, and the Kinect picks up these phrases even when spoken at conversation-level from across the room. There's no need to shout or over-enunciate anything, as long as you're playing in a relatively quiet environment. These sections feel like a dinner murder mystery party, as if you're actively putting together pieces of David's puzzles.
The clear-cut action scenes, where David fights a rogue drug dealer or a woman who thinks she's a cat, are controlled like a rhythm game that asks the player to perform broad arm swipes or other conductor-like motions on the correct beats. These sections are tense and hectic, and ultimately the most satisfying moments of D4. Kinect picks up the quick-changing movements without many hiccups. Plus, during these fight scenes, the characters' corresponding actions are exaggerated and filled with funny moments, like David catching a mouse in his mouth in the middle of a scuffle. Even if you do fail the rapid-fire motion-making, these scenes are still enjoyable.
Meanwhile, the riddles in David's life are strange, time-bending and gruesome. His wife's death is connected to a series of murders involving a new drug called Real Blood. David's investigation takes him back in time, aboard a plane that went down after being suddenly and illogically struck by lightning, and even further back, into his wife's childhood playground of a blustery, iced-over lake.
The story is packed with symbolism and things that are just plain weird, and it all works together beautifully. David is a capable detective – he finds a few leads and follows them back and forth through time, meeting a wide range of wacky characters, including a flamboyant fashion designer with a mannequin for a girlfriend, a paranoid plane passenger, a drug dealer, two air marshals, an intimidating yet artificially polite airline steward, and a man so tall that he has to stand in the plane with his head cocked to the side. He takes up three seats when sitting, and he's dressed in a white surgeon's uniform, complete with a surgical mask. He carries a knife and fork and he speaks ... ridiculously ... slowly.
That last bit should be annoying, but like the rest of the game, the things that should be frustrating are instead endearing. I don't know for sure what this surgeon's role is in the game, but I adore him and I don't mind waiting for him to finish his thoughts, which move about as quickly as a northbound snail riding a southbound turtle. There's something in his eyes and within his vague wisdom, that lends him credibility and engenders respect – expert storytelling.
As a Kinect game, D4 gives me hope for the innovation and technical acuity still to come in motion-controlled gaming. There's nothing terribly innovative about D4's Kinect motions, but they're implemented well and they meld with the story brilliantly. The only times I have issues with D4's motion controls are when someone walks in front of the Kinect – this instantly and without fail pauses the game while the Kinect searches for who is playing. The player then raises one hand and the game is back on. It's not terribly invasive, but it does happen at times.
Overall, D4 is utterly charming. It's also thought-provoking and very, very silly. To substantiate the main game, there are leaderboards that track things such as "calories consumed" or "distance traveled" throughout individual plays. It's all very fun, even when addressing the gory details of a murder, but that's not where it stops. The story, while generic on the surface, is engaging and wild enough to support an episodic format. I want to know what happens next. I want to interrogate more people. I want to find out who killed my wife, and I want to try to bring her back. I also want to talk to that surgeon again, no matter how long the conversation takes.
This review is based on an Xbox Live download of D4, provided by Microsoft.
Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.
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