Mind blowing twists and cinematic exploits? No. Awkwardness and gushy emotions? You bet your shiny metal ass.
Let’s start with the basics: you’re QT3, a robot abandoned by his family 30 years ago. One day, while waiting patiently on a tiny asteroid in the vast emptiness of space, a sausage shaped alien approaches you. Bad news: your model has been discontinued for lack of human-like qualities. Good news: Jeff, the aforementioned alien, wants to help you find some.
Now, my knowledge of science fiction begins and ends with the Terminator franchise. When I think of robots, I picture burning cities, screaming humans loading bullets faster than they’re fired, red eyes glowing behind walls of darkness, and funny snippets of Futurama. What I don’t picture is something lovable and charming with social anxiety. And certainly not a quest for “humanity.”
It’s good, then, that Doki-Doki Universe doesn’t concern itself with meeting expectations. It’s essentially the Michael Cera of adventure games: it’s awkward and quirky and weird, but it’s also cute and silly and sweet enough to smack smiles back like an army of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish. Yes, it’s a mess to navigate, but it’s also short enough to keep its brand of dramedy fresh.
But is it any good? I mean, good good. Like gameplay good. The answer is, unsurprisingly, no.
At its core, there’s a point n’ click-ish design that lends itself wonderfully to its simple story, which at its greatest moments feels like a freeform jazz odyssey of adorable heartstrings puppeteered by childlike imagination. Sadly, like most games that paint too much on too small a canvas, Doki-Doki suffers under the weight of its aspirations, and the end result is a repetitive, bland and uninspired mismatch of concepts.Do you like performing menial and monotonous tasks? No? Well that sucks, because Doki-Doki is full of them. Actually, its entire foundation is built on them like some boring architectural block of game design concrete. Better yet, a conveyor belt in a game design polystyrene factory delivering lumps of boring styrofoam quests. Or a game design vending machine that sells snacks made entirely of boredom.
The point is, it doesn’t take long before things become a race against digital ambien, and fun almost always loses the battle to clicking through a sloppily crafted inventory for 20 minutes. Which, believe it or not, is the highlight of completing some of the many, many stupid tasks in Doki-Doki. Mostly, you’ll summon specific items for specific quest-givers based on their ridiculously specific specifications. And although some of the Summonables are nifty, and it’s fun to watch as they pop to life, they don’t hold interest for long.
Sure, that’s not necessarily what Doki-Doki is about. It’s more about dishing the player a buffet of strange planets full of strange creatures with strange characteristics who make strange requests and offer strange advice. And it really does a great job of hammering the strange nail into the strange coffin. But even its lovely crayola strangeness can’t color over its ho-hums. And it’s unfortunate, because there’s a shiny strange diamond sparkling through its crusty strange rough.On one hand, Doki-Doki plays like a classic adventure game, overflowing with comical characters, side quests brimming with potential, and the type of wonder you’d expect from Hudson Soft on SNES. On the other hand, QT3 is virtually indestructible, and there’s really no way to fail any given objective. In turn, the rewards for successfully not falling asleep during one of the games more tedious tasks feel less like achievements and more like stumbling onto someone else’s trophy and keeping it for yourself.
On the third hand, or first foot? — Doki-Doki is the cool kind of educational. I’m not talking about math or book learnin’, I’m talking about spirituality and humanity. Deep, engrossing subjects that fit perfectly into Doki-Doki’s color-by-number scheme.
For instance, every planet has a unique theme that’s representative of something QT3 needs to learn about humanity. Lessons in subjects like jealousy, greed, love and following your dreams make up a lot of the design ideas behind planetary aesthetics, and the characters and quests to match. But eventually, shuffling through a clunky inventory for Summonables becomes a lot like reading the same book from different angles of the couch: pointless.
With the ultimate goal being achieving a better understanding of humanity for QT3, some of the developer’s choices are confounding to say the least. Why the hell does the game focus so strongly on the life of a pizza delivery boy? What purpose does pizza serve in the grand scheme of life? And why isn’t there variety in the quests? Seriously, why isn’t there variety in the quests? WHY ISN’T THERE VARIETY IN THE DAMN QUESTS? It’s improbable that every creature on every planet can have all its problem solved by a single item. But, then, video games. And capitalism, of course.It’s a shame, too, because Doki-Doki is beautiful, with an art-style that looks like it was conceived on the back of a fast food napkin by a young Kandinsky. While no amount of colorful lines can fix humdrum mechanics, exploring the wacky — and periodically racially insensitive — planets proves interesting if nothing else, even with snail-paced loading times. That’s probably why HumaNature made every single planet open from the get-go. In a game with so many stupid limitations, it’s a freedom that can’t be overstated.
Asteroids, another chapter of strange in Doki-Doki’s storybook, are also explorable, but in a different sense. Unlike planets, populated by creatures and all the crap they want you to do for them, asteroids play host to amusing personality tests. They’re fun, unpredictable and creepily accurate. At best, they’re the heart of what makes Doki-Doki worth playing, and at worst they’re a worthwhile distraction.
Doki-Doki Universe isn’t a great game. Sometimes, it even struggles to be a good one. But it’s charming, whatever that’s worth, and will no doubt inspire some smiles. There’s an overabundance of imagination seeping from every seam of every planet and character, and it does a fantastic job of inciting a sense of adventure. Unfortunately, it fails to keep the highs of its opening minutes, and through repetitive side quests and a surprising lack of cohesion, it falls apart like Jenga in an earthquake.
I really wanted to love Doki-Doki, and maybe I did for a while, but I’m glad that it’s over. It was different — a good kind of different even — but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bore me every step of the way.