D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die is a game with big problems that is all but impossible to dislike.
As David Young, former detective now out to find the culprit behind his wife’s death, D4 took me on an adventure seemingly designed for one purpose: making an impression. Swery and his team at Access Games developed a rather passionate reputation after their eccentric cult classic Deadly Premonition became a surprise hit, but where DP was overburdened by its mechanics and ambition, the significantly smaller D4 proves a far more suitable conduit for whatever insanity Swery manages to dream up.
D4 falls somewhere between the modern adventure game as told by Telltale, and the QTE heavy efforts of Quantic Dream. Having been originally designed to be played exclusively with Microsoft’s Kinect, D4 focuses itself around single screens and simple gestures, an interface that at first feels moderately restrictive but ultimately works in the game’s favor. It’s always clear where you’re supposed to look, what you can interact with, and when you’ve missed something important, as well as being generally straight forward and intuitive where a more traditional control scheme may have been overbearing.
What’s so endearing to me however is in the ways D4 appropriates mechanics from other games that ultimately have no reason to be here. There’s a stamina bar you refill by picking up food that’s been for some reason stowed throughout every level, a health bar that takes a slice off when you fail a prompt, and a credit system that rewards you for almost every action you take and can be spent on a rather outrageous number of unlockable costumes. In most games I’d scoff at how pointless it was to include things like this, but with D4 it becomes part of its personality. There’s a feeling that Access Games do not completely understand how to make the game they’re trying to, which leads to them pilfering bits and bobs from other games to fill in the “game-y” portion of D4, but they display such an infectious enthusiasm in everything they do that I eventually stopped caring about the trivial bits of D4 and in some ways even found them charming.
D4 is so entirely detached from its peers in almost every way, that these little touches mostly amounted to winks and nods at a medium Access Games clearly loves working in, and thankfully never encroach upon anything else in the game. What is left then is a crash course through a world of extremes, from D4’s over-the-top characters, to its love of ridiculous dance-like fight scenes. D4 is obsessively spectacular, each scene enriched with a playful gravitas that would seem excessive if it wasn’t for how much more absurd the rest of the game is. D4 made me laugh more than any game I can remember in a long time, and I think it’s because it always seems in on the joke. It isn’t necessarily trying for comedy, but it’s aware of itself in a way most similarly bizarre games completely miss, playing to its strengths and remembering to have fun with itself instead of just the player.
My biggest disappointment with D4 is mostly in how it chooses to portray some of its characters. There’s the damseling of David’s wife right from the start, taken a step further by the way D4 infantilizes her at every point. Some characters spout blatantly sexist commentary, and in general the women of D4 end up feeling like they were included mostly to ridicule, injure, or give David someone to fall into a compromising position with. I also found the token person of color to be problematic, as he’s portrayed as almost alien in his mannerisms and how he shows up inexplicably throughout the game mostly to be unsettlingly weird in a way that isn’t shared among the other characters. None of this is done in a way that feels intentionally malicious, but they were enough for me to shake my head and wish D4 had done better, because in general it avoids most of the worst ways women and people of color are often portrayed and at points almost came close to being one of the better instances of representation in games.
On the PC port... After the mess that was Deadly Premonitions’ PC port, a lot of people are no doubt justifiably concerned as to the technical state of D4. Thankfully, D4 is (mostly) a big improvement. I experienced no crashes or major bugs throughout my playthrough, and using a mouse proved a serviceable stand-in for the Kinect (though some immersion may have been lost in the transition). Optimization isn’t as lucky, with some shockingly high system requirements that seem to be mostly accurate (I experienced some serious frame-rate drops playing on a machine that hits the minimum requirements and which has managed to run far more intensive games in the past). It never became unplayable due to the lax pace of the game, but for whatever reason speaking to characters caused the frame-rate to drop into the teens where it had previously been smooth. It isn’t anywhere near the problems Deadly Premonition faced, but if you’re concerned about whether or not you can run it downloading the demo would definitely be a wise choice.
D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die is an imperfect creation, one that’s janky, at times conflicted with itself, and which may never be finished (this being only the first season and ending on a huge cliffhanger). But it’s also one of the most earnest games I’ve ever played, with a passion that shows up in even the endearing ways D4 fails to reach its full potential. It’s a game that I want to love unconditionally because D4 deserves it. It deserves a shot and a chance to do better, and for whatever faults it may have I feel no hesitation in saying everyone should play it.
D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die was developed by Access Games and is available on Xbox One and Steam. It was reviewed on PC using a copy provided by the publisher.