Goichi "Suda51" Suda's star may not be shining so brightly these days -- Killer is Dead is but the latest in a growing string of Suda51 projects to earn lukewarm reviews and tepid sales -- but that's OK, because we still have Swery65.
Maybe it's not entirely fair to compare Swery65 (that is, Hidetaka Suehiro) to Suda51, but it's hard to resist the temptation. Both make quirky, oddball games with a predilection for violence and casual obscenity. Both seem to have a fascination with the detective genre, mixing equal parts noir thriller, classic Famicom text adventures, and Get Smart in their projects. And both seem perfectly content to pursue their respective obsessions off in the niches, without necessarily aiming to top the charts.
Perhaps the most important difference between the two would-be auteurs is that Suda51 has been peddling his distinctive style of games for about 15 years under the auspices of Grasshopper Manufacture, whereas Swery toiled in the trenches working on projects like Spy Fiction, Extermination, and Tomba! 2 -- solid titles all, but decidedly not a reflection of the intensely unusual worldview demonstrated in his breakout title Deadly Premonition and the upcoming Xbox One exclusive D4.
If someone told me D4 was the latest game from Grasshopper, I'd absolutely believe it. Like so many of Suda51's projects, D4 is set in a reality very nearly mundane but for the fact that it's been twisted with a touch of dreamlike surreality. It combines psychological horror, mystery, and screwball comedy all at once. It makes use of a unique control interface. It features heavily stylized graphics. Frankly, you can't deny the similarities.
And yet, the differences show through in the specifics -- literally. You can see the same fascination with minutiae that made Deadly Premonition so engaging on display here. Despite the fact that D4 takes on a format almost resembling a graphical adventure, with limited movement in a handful of confined spaces possible at any given moment, the protagonist (David Young) can dwell on trivial details for as long as the player likes. This makes sense -- it's a murder investigation! -- but it offers a sort of richness to the confined world that you never really see in contemporary Grasshopper games, which tend to encourage a faster, breezier play style.
It's probably not a coincidence that the guided tour Swery65 presented at Tokyo Game Show this year began with David in a bathroom, transfixed by his reflection in a mirror -- after all, many rapt endorsements I heard regarding Deadly Premonition centered around the fact that you could waste endless hours shaving and attending to other toilette details in that game. Clearly Swery65 knows his fanbase.
Storywise, D4 -- which is short for Dark Dreams Don't Die and has nothing to do with the late Kenji Eno's horror adventures D and D2 -- lifts a page from the television series Quantum Leap, or more recently Square Enix's beleaguered Parasite Eve semi-sequel The 3rd Birthday. Young's wife has been murdered under suspicious circumstances, and the game consists of him traveling into his own dreams to unravel the mystery behind her passing.
The dream-diving plays out in part like a genuine investigation, as David takes notes and investigates suspects, but by no means does D4 play the whole thing straight. After coming to in an airplane restroom and poking around for information, David steps into the galley and speaks to the stewardess. (He can also "investigate" the stewardess, which causes her to jump slightly, startled, but she seems otherwise unperturbed by the molestation -- video games, everyone!) But after pilfering through the galley, he steps into the aisle of the plane and begins interrogating his suspect... who quickly escalates the encounter into violence.
At this point, an utterly ridiculous series of quick-time events kicks in, as the player counters David's opponent's attacks with Kinect gestures. It's a flashy and not-at-all realistic battle, with perfect execution often resulting in David comically preventing injury to other passengers or deftly skirting around seemingly impossible situations (like leaping onto the seats to avoid the beverage service cart his foe sends barreling down the aisle). At one point, a makeshift baseball game ensues... and even if the player manages to play perfectly, the battle still comes whimpering to a halt when David puts down his foe only to get a last-ditch kick to the crotch in return, ending the fight in a draw.
The battles aren't the only element of the game that incorporates Kinect; the entirety of D4 has been designed around motion controls, all the way down to the investigation of minute details in the procedural scenes. Players can elect to use traditional controls instead, but honestly even as someone who hates the idea that their body is the controller, I think D4 looks much more interesting with Kinect. Certainly the physicality of the fight scene inputs, which map pretty closely to David's on-screen actions, adds far more to the scripted combat than merely pressing buttons would.
Microsoft hasn't announced a firm release date for D4, so we can safely assume it won't be arriving until well into 2014. But I'm certainly eager to play more of it and get a sense of what makes D4 a Swery65 game and not simply a Suda51-come-lately.