System: PS1, Sega Saturn, 3DO, PC | Publisher: Acclaim / Panasonic
Developer: WARP | Reviewed On: PS1 & 3DO
Before the likes of Resident Evil & Silent Hill, horror games endured a slow progression. It was only until the late 80s & the advances in hardware that we started to see these types of games begin to evolve. Proof of this came in the forms of Uninvited, Splatterhouse, Sweet Home and Alone in the Dark, showcasing their flair in their respective genres. Fast forward to 1994 & Capcom were hard at work to complete what would later become the first entry in the most influential horror game franchise of all-time: Resident Evil. However, they weren’t the only team at this time working on a debut horror video game.
Enter director, developer and composer; Kenji Eno. Eno had previously worked in video game development and composing for several years, even founding his first company at just 19 years of age. In 1994, Eno would form his second company, WARP, with their primary goal to develop games for Panasonic’s debut games console; the 3DO. He was still unknown within the industry at the time and with WARP being a new company, their first game very much depended on its success to keep the business alive. That game was D no Shokutaku; more commonly known in the West as D.
Today, I'll be diving into the first horror video game I ever played; one of the earliest examples of cinematic gameplay that pushed the boundaries of visual presentation at the time & certainly gave me some spooks. Let's break it down!
Let’s begin with the plot. Dr. Richter Harris is a Director at the Los Angeles National Hospital. One day, he suddenly goes on a mass killing spree & barricades himself in the hospital. His daughter, Laura, receives a call from the police and immediately drives to the hospital after hearing the news. Upon entering the hospital, she is shocked to see first hand her father’s actions but before she can progress further, she is unexpectedly transported to a medieval castle.
Richter then appears before Laura as an image, informing her that this is a realm formed by his subconscious & asks her to leave. It’s at this point that Laura makes the choice to navigate these unfamiliar surroundings in order to reach her father & understand the reasons behind his actions. The question is will Laura be able to reach him in time & what secrets lie ahead?
The story is surrounded by an air of mystery and suspense, as it throws our protagonist into a world beyond her understanding. Her primary goal is a simple one but over time, we start to realise that her father’s circumstances are different than initially anticipated. This filled me with curiosity to continue forward, in search for the truth. What threw me off guard was the inclusion of a particular theme, which made me question why this was given a teen rating. Whilst its origin can be traced back through horror history, it’s best I keep this a secret.
As the player, you must explore the environment for clues that can help you advance. It reminded me a lot of escape room style games; being put in situations with various items and working out what to do, in order to progress to the next stage. The game is played through the first-person using a rail-based movement system; using the directional pad to move forward or turn in a different direction. After each forward motion, you’ll reach an invisible junction where you choose your next action.
It gives the game both a real-time experience and interactions similar to point-and-click games; just swapping the mouse for the D-Pad and using cutscenes to show movement as you transition between junctions. This combination can make the game feel sluggish, but it can also bring an air of uncomfortability depending on the current situation.
The games features a number of puzzles; ranging from single solution brainteasers, correct use and placement of objects, even the rare instance of a quick-time event. Most of these were simple yet thought-provoking and required a lot of back-and-forth movement, which can affect the game’s pace especially if you get stuck. Luckily, you have a pocket mirror that can provide you with a visual clue to help you where to next focus your efforts, but this can only be used three times. Unfortunately, the puzzles offer no replay value as they do not vary in further playthroughs.
The only thing that does vary is the discovery of glowing bugs. These are linked to a flashback storyline involving an event from Laura's past, of which she does not recall. There are four to collect in various locations in the game, which can change when you launch a new game. The only issue I had with this was that the flashback event is heavily referenced near the game’s concluding moments, which made them feel less important to seek out.
But you’ve got all the time in the world, right? Nope. The game must be completed within 2 hours and does not feature pausing or saving. Sounds like a strange choice, but the experience is actually very short. My playthrough lasted roughly about 75 minutes and strangely, these options indirectly made me pay attention. If the clock strikes 5, it’s game over & you will receive a Time Over ending, forcing you to restart from the beginning. There are two additional endings you can obtain, which will depend on a particular decision you make; both giving the story a satisfying conclusion.
Moving on to presentation, the game is completely composed of CGI full motion video sequences, technically making D the first game to ever fully use CGI animation. In the 90s, we witnessed game developers trying to make the move from 2D to 3D & this led to a compromise between gameplay and presentation. For D, they opted to prioritise visual quality & whilst this did limit gameplay, I believe this was a good move from a presentation standpoint. The character models haven’t aged well, but environments and set pieces are still very good for their time and fitting with the game’s theme. To make a comparison, it’s no Toy Story, but it’s no Bubsy 3D either.
In terms of sound, credit must be mentioned to Eno’s soundtrack. Using a mixture of piano and orchestral instruments, his songs helped emphasise different emotions throughout the game; whether it was in the context of fear, danger, shock or success. The game’s intro is still one of my personal favourites, which slightly resembles the theme songs of Halloween & Psycho. Sound effects were also very good, especially hearing the operatic exhale when you successfully picked a correct item to use. It was certainly holier than thou.
There are actually two versions of this game that exist; an Original Cut & a Director’s Cut. However, the Director's Cut version was never released outside of Japan. It does not contain any additions or changes in terms of gameplay or story; only involving the revision of a select number of cutscenes and music. PlayStation, PC & Saturn owners will be happy to hear that their copies actually contain the extended Director's Cut intro of the game, although there’s been no official explanation as to why this is the case.
The only commendable part of the Director's Cut is more emphasis on Laura’s emotions in the revised scenes. It seems like a simple thing but in 1996, having 3D rendered characters express themselves through body language or facial expressions was a big deal. It’s not to say there weren’t any expressions in the original versions, but the Director's Cut version further shows her vulnerable side in a way that didn’t go unnoticed.
A perfect example is one scene where Laura is being chased. In the Director's Cut version, she is sprinting away and visually shows fear for her life, whereas the original, she’s made to look as if she’s going for a brisk run through town; feeling almost comedic in comparison. As history has shown us, natural expression can add to a character’s development and makes us more emotionally invested, which is why I feel its inclusion (especially in the mid-90s) should be commended; it’s just a shame these scenes never included in the original cut.
D is a game of equal positives and negatives. It’s boasts a high level of visual quality for its time, peppered with an tense-yet-intriguing plot and a great use of sound. Its story is a little simple & I felt there were missed opportunities to develop Laura and her parents. Unfortunately, this style of presentation can give players a perception that they are simply playing an interactive movie, which is a fair analogy. Coupled with a lack of variety and change of the puzzles in future playthroughs, it’s fair to say it offers little replay value.
However, D is an important game of its time. It set the bar from a presentation standpoint and showed that games were capable of producing cinematic experiences, over a decade before they became common place in the industry. All produced by an independent Japanese developer, driven by a man with a passion to make games he wanted to create; not driven by trends or external resources.
It’s perfect for horror fans to play in a dimly lit setting and the volume cranked up, but realistically it should only be played once or twice. As of writing this review, D is unfortunately not available to play on modern consoles however it is available on Steam for less than £5 (RRP). Word of warning; this is a port of the original MS-DOS version and I've heard the quality of the port isn't great. My recommendation would be to seek out an original copy, if and where you can.
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