Is That All There Is?
HIGH The main character can cosplay as York Morgan.
LOW There's a sliding tile puzzle, which is game design speak for: "We Give Up"
WTF Why are there ending credits after five minutes of gameplay?
It may be time for video games to sit down and start defining some terms.
On its welcome screen, D4 bills the $15 product just purchased as 'Season 1', which consists of a prologue and two 'episodes'. When The Walking Dead used these exact same terms, 'episode' meant a self-contained story which, while part of a larger narrative, had a beginning, middle, and end. A 'season' collected all five of those stories into a complete, polished product.
D4 asks players to accept considerably less.
In its parlance, a 'season' is the first half of the first part of a story of indeterminate size and length, the scope of which isn't even hinted at. An 'episode' is 2-3 scenes, lasting anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour.
That there's no governing body watching over video game marketing is lucky for Microsoft studios and Access Games, because calling this anything approaching a finished product borders on false advertising.
Length aside, D4 is an interactive movie that liberally cribs from David Cage and Telltale Games, and comes from SWERY, the director of 2010's best game, Deadly Premonition.
Players take control of David Young, a private detective attempting to prevent his wife's murder by using 'mementoes' of crimes as doorways for him to 'dive' into the past, where he becomes a part of the crime he's trying to solve—a fairly novel form of investigation, actually.
Presumably over the course of the entire D4 experience, David will find evidence from the day his wife was murdered, allowing him to dive back and obtain the answers that were erased when he was non-fatally shot in the head. For the moment, the game is concerned with much smaller, less compelling stakes.
Instead of looking into his wife's murder in any sane or logical fashion, David seems to be investigating random people based on whether or not their names start with the letter D. His wife's final words were to 'find D,' and since he has no idea what that meant, he's been flailing around ever since.
This episode has David investigating the disappearance of a drug courier from a Boston-bound plane—a courier who works for a crime figure who goes by "D."
The trip to the plane is treated as a self-contained mystery, full of the bizarre characters and wild tonal shifts that SWERY is famous for. And, as long as David is actively walking up and down the length of the airliner, gathering clues and interviewing suspects, the game works extremely well.
Fundamentally being a point-and-click adventure, players move David between a preset number of locations in which he's free to look at and interact with his surroundings. Scouring the plane for clues feels satisfying, and all of the characters are written well enough that talking to them is a pleasure.
The mystery aspect is considerably less substantial—there are only five named characters on the plane, and the villain can't be three of them for a number of reasons. Of the final two, one of them spends half their time onscreen inhaling doses of a nefarious, society-ruining drug.
Huge questions are hinted at regarding David's powers, his wife's childhood, the secret identity of a deep-voiced man who turns up at key moments to conspire with David's ex-partner—but nothing comes of any of them. This would be acceptable as table-setting for later 'seasons' if the game succeeded in telling a coherent story about the disappearance on the plane, but D4 can't even manage that.
When the credits roll for the third and final time, not only has nothing been revealed or resolved, but the point that the developers decided to end on is the exact moment that things start to get interesting.
From a technical standpoint, D4 suffers by being designed with Kinect in mind. Every screen requires players to interact with the environment by slowly moving their hand through the air, then either making a fist to select something, or shoving their hand forward to push it. It's glitchy, unintuitive, and a perfect example of why Kinect hasn't caught on with the public—using thumbsticks to move a cursor around the screen is leagues better than trying to make a camera turn with sweeping arm gestures.
There's also an incredibly questionable design choice made in the otherwise wonderful investigation scenes.
David has three stats that players need to look over. The first two make perfect sense—health can be damaged during QTEs, and losing all of it means failure. Vision can be used to highlight interactive areas and locate clues, and must be refreshed by finding something to drink. Problems arise with the third stat: Energy.
Investigating this is tiring work, it seems, and David can only click on five or six interactive areas before he must find food to eat, lest he faint from hunger. This system is a full-stop disaster, which seems to have been included solely to pad out the game's running time.
Instead of simply clicking around environments, looking for clues and talking to suspects, players must be constantly pause their investigation to search for random foodstuffs, or for points to buy food with. If they're absolutely stuck, they can just dive out of the mystery and back to their apartment, where David's former partner will prepare a disgusting feast and complain about his marital troubles.
Unlike the food and sleep mechanics in Deadly Premonition, which were part of an effort to make its places and people feel real, this massively unrealistic hunger meter serves as nothing but a distraction. Worse, it comes off like a trick being pulled on the player in the hopes that they won't notice that they've been sold even less game than they'd suspected.
Just the little piece of D4 currently for sale suggests that its developers have constructed a rich, fascinating world that I'd love to explore, and that it has most of the gameplay elements in place to make it a pleasurable experience. It's only D4's shocking lack of story that keeps it from being an exceptional title.
To be clear, I wasn't expecting a complete game from D4—the episodic model guarantees a certain amount of waiting around on the part of the consumer—but this doesn't even feel like a complete episode. It's closer to a demo, with just enough content to serve as proof of concept, and a contrived cliffhanger to convince players to put up the cash for the final product. That someone made the decision to sell it is galling enough to wipe out almost all the goodwill that its play and story engenders.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the XBONE. Approximately 3 hours of play were devoted to single-player modes, and the game was completed.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains intense violence, blood, sexual content, strong language, use of drugs and alcohol. It's generally violent, alcohol is used as a healing item, and the player is shown pictures of people who have been compressed into cubes of meat. So no, this is not for your children to play, no matter how much they loved Deadly Premonition. Wait, I'm getting a message, hold on… it seems no children loved Deadly Premonition, so you should be fine denying them this.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: No audio cues and everything's subtitled! It's almost too good to be true!