D4 is like a bizarro-world version of Heavy Rain, a weird mixture of the mundane and the insane – but it’s got a lot of problems. You play a bubblegum-chewing detective with the ability to delve into the past by touching objects, whose wife was killed two years ago, but just explaining the premise doesn’t tell you much about why you might want to play it; it’s like describing Twin Peaks as “a small-town murder mystery”. The reason you might want to play D4 is that you have no idea what to expect from it.
You’d expect something nuts from the creator of Deadly Premonition – the person who wrote this scene, surely the most bizarre in all of video games – and D4 doesn’t disappoint on that front. Here are some things that happened in the first hour:
-I was physically assaulted by a meowing woman in a leotard with an actual live mouse sticking out of her mouth;
-I listened to an extremely fat man wax lyrical about clam chowder whilst disgustingly and graphically shoving five stacked slices of pizza into his mouth;
-I pushed an owl;
-I swung the leg of a dismembered mannequin at a baseball, hitting a drug dealer in the face and dislodging his glass eye.
Here’s the problem, though: Deadly Premonition’s weirdness was otherwordly, and sometimes felt borderline accidental. D4’s weirdness is extremely ostentatious. It shoves is strangeness right in your face, from the off, and it’s difficult to create accidental poetry when you’re being bizarre on purpose. Knowing that he has a reputation for being super-weird, it’s like director SWERY is suddenly trying too hard.
The bigger problem, sadly, is that D4 is built around a Kinect-reliant interface that unfortunately doesn’t work. As ever with Kinect-centric games, it’s sometimes hard to tell whether it’s Kinect or the game itself that’s at fault, but navigating D4 with motion controls is torture. D4 plays like a point and click adventure, and you hover your hand around to examine things. The only way to move around is to hover over different areas in the room and close your fist, which works about 70% of the time. Swiping your hand to look around, sadly, works more like 50% of the time. Both are painfully slow.
Unfortunately it also has a lot of QTEs, and there are few more infuriating combinations in the world of video games than QTEs and motion controls. Even though what’s actually happening during the QTE sentences is always enjoyably bonkers – an extended fight scene aboard the plane soundtracked by what can only be described as “bagpipe punk” was a particular highlight – it’s difficult to pay attention when you’re flailing around trying to get Kinect to recognise you PERFECT gestures.
Because the whole game is built around gestures, it feels almost as awkward using a controller – you use the sticks a lot to open doors and lift things up, a la Heavy Rain, but the fact that you have no direct control over your character (David, if you were wondering) makes it feel unnatural. Still, at least it’s playable.
Anyone who loved Deadly Premonition will probably be ready and willing to deal with awkward controls to experience SWERY’s next game, though, which makes it rather more disappointing that it’s so overwrought. The first three episodes are a mish-mash of strange events, the lowlight of which is an interminable period in an aircraft cabin with some extremely irritating characters. Once David dives into the past, it’s all about collecting clues and talking to people to progress the scene, which means having to endure really a lot of terrible voice acting. David is supposed to be Bostonian, but his accent is all over the place; despite that, it’s one of the better performances next to the inane screeching of some of the one-note supporting acts.
One character is a fashion designer who is in love with his mannequin, for whom the voice acting direction appears to have been “try to sound like a really embarrassing send-up of a gay person from 1970s British television”, except through a Japanese lens – so it’s like a Japanese interpretation of a Western stereotype of flamboyant campness, which amps it up even more. Actually all of the first three episodes of D4 have that feel: they’re like an imitation of an imitation. It’s like SWERY is trying to imitate his own knack for the bizarre, at the same time as imitating an American murder mystery story.
I’d love to be able to tell you that D4 was endearingly wacky, but instead it feels like it’s trying too hard. It’s self-consciously bizarre. It’s trying to be Lynchian and surreal, but instead it’s nonsensical; it makes me wonder if Deadly Premonition’s more understated and affecting strangeness was perhaps a fluke. (You know a game is truly Out There when Deadly Premonition’s strangeness seems understated by comparison.) It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, which is not a bad thing in itself – but it really does feel like it’s just throwing stuff at the wall, and so far nothing has stuck, for me.
I have a great deal of affection for this developer and for its previous work, so I’ll be playing the next few episodes despite the fact that these first three left me cold. But my expectations for the rest of the series are not exactly high.