Platform: PS Vita [PSN: £11.99]
Developer: Game Arts
Publisher: GungHo Online Entertainment
The PS Vita desperately needs more games like Dokuro.
It's not the biggest or flashiest game to hit Sony's handheld. There was no hype campaign, no big license to piggyback on, and little in the way of fanfare on the run-up to its US launch last year. Dokuro's humble origins were as simple as they come, but as this unassuming puzzle-platformer proves, keeping things simple can sometimes be the key to creating a sensational game. Throughout what can only be described as a staggeringly vast number of perfectly-paced levels, players guide a lovesick skeleton on a quest to save a helpless princess, constantly encountering new challenges that use some instantly accessible mechanics in unpredictable (and surprisingly punishing) ways. Basically it's just a great fit for the handheld: a wholesome, elegant and charming romp that'll keep you entertained through countless commutes or lazy sofa Sundays.
We have much to discuss, especially now that Dokuro has finally staggered through Sony's hilariously tardy EU certification process. But before we do, you should probably think long and hard about where you last used your Vita... and where you ended up stashing it for safekeeping. You'll be needing it soon enough.
Dokuro stars a diminutive skeletal minion in the employ of an evil demon overlord, who ends up infatuated with his boss' newest plaything: a helpless abducted princess. The undead Romeo decides to turn saviour, breaking his new love out of her cage and helping her make a run for it. Heartbreakingly, though, the princess can't actually see him (ghostly as he is), forcing him to work from the background to earn her affections - or even just get noticed.
In gameplay terms, this boils down to an interesting cross between Lemmings and ICO. The princess slowly trundles across the 2D levels from left to right, stopping when she reaches a pit or hazard and vulnerable to enemy attack. Using traditional platforming skills and double jumps, early stages will see you performing some simple tasks to aid her progression such as pushing blocks to create platforms, holding switches to lower spikes or clubbing away enemies, gradually easing you into the swing of things.
And then things get interesting.
Dokuro gradually drip-feeds players new gameplay elements over the course of the first few dozen levels - there are an astonishing 150 in total, by the way. Our skeletal pal soon gains the ability to transform into a handsome prince for a limited time, which lets him kill enemies with his stylish épée and pick up the princess to navigate through tight sequences. This ability is mapped to a double-tap of the touchscreen by default, though is much more responsive if rebound to the right trigger. Better yet, the princess can actually see his charming, which naturally plays a role in the storyline. Further on, two flavours of chalk allow players to connect objects together or create fuses by tracing on the touchscreen, and more besides.
Taken separately, most of these mechanics could have fuelled their own game (or iOS app at the very least), but Dokuro succeeds because its intricate levels continually find new ways to blend them together. Each individual action - whether it's jumping onto a button to momentarily stop a swinging pendulum, connecting platforms together or turning into the Prince to kill an enemy or two - may be instantly palateable and easy to accomplish on its own, but you're continually discovering exciting ways to use them to complete increasingly complex solutions. Some stages require you to rely on reflexes, others demand step-by-step logical planning, and yet others totally totally throw players for a loop by rewriting the rules and making you think laterally. How can I balance this see-saw? How can I get the princess to the top of the level rather than the right hand side? Often, level solutions are staring you in the face, but require you to work around the problem in a different way.
Dokuro manages to absolutely nail the sweet spot between being hard and well-balanced. Some of its levels are incredibly difficult, but since puzzles are constructed around simple concepts that are easy to understand individually, you're able to experiment rather than constantly running into unassailable brick walls. It's an absolute masterpiece of elegant design, and a game that almost always makes you replay a failed stage rather than ragequitting in abject defeat. What's more, each level's bite-sized length make Dokuro a great timewaster while out and about.
Speaking of elegant design, much must be made of Dokuro's art direction, which resembles a hand-drawn charcoal masterpiece brought to smudgy life. It's eyecatching without being flashy or distracting, allowing key foreground objects and platforms to stand out while providing a dreamlike, soft-focus world to explore. Similarly, the story is minimalistic yet satisfying, giving you just enough exposition to compel you forward without ever getting in the way of the puzzly action. Expect some surprisingly on-the-nose humour too.
Dokuro certainly isn't perfect. The final stage ramps the challenge curve up into the stratosphere, undoing much of the smooth progression before that point. Global leaderboards would have been a useful addition, since their absense greatly reduces replay value and scope for any real competition. Some of the touchscreen inputs can also be a little fiddly and imprecise from time to time, especially if you're using them against the clock.Perhaps Dokuro could have offered a little more in terms of innovation, after all, it borrows elements from several other puzzlers and platformers rather than coming up with too many of its own.
But ultimately, Dokuro was never designed to be a system-seller or even a killer app. It's just a lovely and appropriately-priced use of several hours, and a great reason to fire up your Vita again ahead of 2013's software lineup.
More like this, please.
- Beautifully elegant in design: complex puzzles and simple mechanics
- Eyecatching charcoal visuals, charming storyline and wry humour
- 150 tough levels makes for masses of content
- Touchscreen controls can occasionally annoy
- Occasional difficulty spikes
- Perhaps slightly derivative in parts
The Short Version: Dokuro is a satisfying and elegant puzzler that works brilliantly on the Vita, providing hours of compelling content in what can charitably be called a 'dry spell' for Sony's handheld. If you're up for a challenge, Dokuro will definitely keep you busy until the next wave of Vita titles hit UK shores, and possibly beyond.