Platforms: PS4 | PS3 | PS Vita (Cross-Buy)
Developer: HumaNature Studios
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
QT3 has been waiting thirty-two years for the return of the human family who abandoned him, leaving the poor mechanoid stranded on a tiny asteroid with no-one but a sentient balloon for company. God only knows how long he would have stayed there had a talking alien oblong named Jeff not turned up and informed QT3 that his entire robot line is under threat of being scrapped.
This is how Doki-Doki Universe -- a new title from the creators of ToeJam and Earl -- begins: with you (as QT3) being told that unless you trot off on an intergalactic adventure and learn about what it means to be human, you and all of your robot chums will be recycled. It'd probably be fairly dark if everything wasn't so incredibly colourful, and the landscapes didn't look like they were drawn by a children's book illustrator.
Things get progressively weirder from then on.
There's not really a word to describe what sort of a genre Doki-Doki Universe inhabits. I suppose it shares a number of features with adventure games, and there are some light puzzle elements to be found here, but really as far as I can tell, it's a game about empathy and connections and relationships. Tasked with discovering what "humanity" means, you take QT3 from hand-drawn planet to hand-drawn planet, introducing yourself to the weird and wonderful array of characters to be found upon each rock.
You're given the freedom to go wherever you want, riding a flying pig throughout the stars, with the potential to hop along to whichever planet you choose. On Ert, a small toaster calls me names and demands that I appease him by magicking a poo or a toilet or another smelly thing out of thin air. On Gunite, a princess asks that I help her escape her pampered life by presenting her with a chance for adventure and conjuring up a spaceship. There are sushi rolls out in the universe desperately scared of being eaten, a giant sea monster named Matthew who loves to dance but is shunned because of his looks, a tiny bird who refuses to talk to her scarecrow best friend because he forgot her birthday. There are innumerable personalities crammed into this game for you to interact with, with each exchange delivering a little nugget about the human condition.
It would be easy for such an experience to slip into heavy-handed moralising, but Doki-Doki Universe never does. Instead, what we get is sharp dialogue and well-written vignettes of conversation, frequently marinated in large doses of eccentric humour. There are some truly touching moments as well that often arise as a result of QT3's adorably blissful ignorance. On Farroh, QT3 meets a couple of star-crossed lovers in Ramses and Cleo. The latter is heartbroken at the former's death, but the ghost of Ramses is still around desperately trying to get her to eat and drink and stay alive. So QT3 helps them out, and sure the events end up at the wacky end of the spectrum thanks to a spot of possession, some religious hokum, and the appearance of Death himself, but the journey is all a bit touching and terribly sweet without ever becoming overly saccharine. All to find out what "love" means.
As well as discovering the truth behind concepts such as pride and devotion and bullying and friendship, you'll also come across dozens of little asteroids, each occupied by a therapeutic monk who hits QT3 with a barrage of personality tests, remember those? These are more comic asides than anything else, filled with rib-ticklingly cute questions that ask for your take on a particular image, or have you choose between superheroes you'd most like to be, or ask what your favourite colour is. Hark back to a time early in this new millennium when the internet was stuffed with amusing tests that would determine just how much of an extrovert you were or which side of the brain you favoured, and that's what constitutes over a third of Doki-Doki Universe.
The rest of your time is spent talking to people, finding out their problems, invariably doing fetch quests or summoning useful items in Scribblenauts-esque fashion (though the selection here is limited to prescribed bubbles), and picking up bits of the the papercraft scenery to see if there are any hidden presents and collectibles. In terms of conventional mechanical difficulty and adventure/puzzle game staples, Doki-Doki Universe offers up about as much depth as a Dairylea sandwich. The freedom to go off and visit planets in any order is nice, but there's little sense of progression. You don't really feel like you're working towards anything, an dhtta's enhanced by the mechanical repetition. Fetch this, waggle the stick , pick up that. The sketchbook aesthetics are wonderful, but the music gets old rather quickly, ever-fuelling the sense that you've done all of this before ten times over.
So why am I still playing it?
Well, because it's different, I suppose. I'm still playing Doki-Doki Universe because I like the little narrative vignettes, because it appeals to the simple completionist in me (that I never really knew existed), because it makes me smile and laugh. It's a charming little game that I find myself dipping into for quick 10-15 minute blasts for a little chuckle, aided by the PS4's swift boot times and no-nonsense UI. It's wonderfully smooth on the next-gen platform, although I wish the same could be said of PS3 and Vita versions. Doki-Doki Universe is certainly a game that skews towards a younger audience, but being a big kid myself I'm finding it rather enchanting too, even if I wish QT3 walked at a faster pace, or that there was more variety to the nature of the gameplay, or that the game had a story which lent itself more to a larger sense of accomplishment or discovery.
It's delightfully silly, though, and really rather engaging. It's also one of Sony's Cross-Buy games, meaning that you pay for it once, and get it across PS3, Vita, and PS4 forever, and there are several flavours ranging from the free trial to the game's story mode for £5.99 and a full-fat experience for a tenner. I can't wholeheartedly recommend Doki-Doki Universe because there are numerous things that could and should have been developed further. But after playing a thoroughly average FPS title, not to mentiona hideously mediocre action-platformer, I rather needed something to come along and make me laugh. And this did just that.
- Vibrant sketchbook art style is delightful
- Wonderfully observed absurdist humour
- Lovely, heartfelt narrative vignettes
- Thoughtful moments never slip into heavy-handed moralising
- Awfully shallow gameplay
- Technical issues abound on PS3 and Vita
- Repetitive mechanics and music
The Short Version: A whimsical, living sketchbook of self-realisation and a quirky look at what it means to be human, Doki-Doki Universe guides players along its absurdist, surreal journey with a cast of weird and wonderful characters, warm storytelling, and offbeat humour. You won't find challenges to beat or puzzles to really solve here, and the game perhaps doesn't do enough to break up the repetition at its core, but Doki-Doki Universe is a strangely uplifting game, one that might just put a smile on your face even as you ponder the definition of love while hurtling through the stars on a flying poo.
Just thinking about it makes me chuckle.