When you examine the human race you come to the realization that when focused and steadfast we have the ability to do unfathomable amounts of good, but by the same token we also tend to either forget or ignore this fact and slip into patterns of behaviour that can be far less than graceful. It is this delicate duality, or persistent imperfection, that defines the human spirit; our potential for good is met equally by our tendencies to do bad. It’s ironic then that Doki-Doki Universe, a game that is modeled around humanity, should be equally as flawed in spite of its aspirations. It is a game that can be remarkably refreshing due to its progressive and tolerant nature, but many will be turned off by its lackluster presentation-especially on PlayStation Vita. It has been said that to err is human, Doki-Doki Universe stands as evidence that the same applies to games about humanity.
In Doki-Doki Universe you play as robot model number QT377665, or just QT-3 for short. After being left all by your lonesome by your supposedly loving family, you’re contacted by an odd creature named Alien Jeff; an agent of the Robot Factory who has been sent to claim you for reprogramming. He informs you that as an old-model robot you lack humanity, and suggests that this is the reason that your loved ones abandoned you. If you want to avoid becoming scrap metal you have to explore the galaxy in search of the many sides of the human element, Alien Jeff promises that then, after you have completed your quest and undergone a satisfactory mental evaluation; you can win back your freedom and perhaps even be reunited with your beloved family.
All of this plays as setup for much of your experience as you travel across the galaxy investigating the vast assortment of planets and learning from their citizens. Each star varies in theme, both in aesthetic and in message. You will come across a buffet of celestial playgrounds that will have you solving the problems of their citizens, and learning about yourself in the process. Each location has a distinct and unique feel, whether you’re prancing across the exotic New Hawaii or a planet made up entirely of poop. What remains constant however is the fact that your special “conjuring” abilities are needed to balance the many pressing issues across the galaxy. How you go about solving these social-puzzles Doki-Doki Universe is quite true to the classic adventure games of old, by conjuring up items (or summonables) you can fill the assorted needs of the world’s NPC’s; and often set off a chain of unexpected events.
The puzzles themselves are quite honestly nothing to write home about. Unlike some adventure games, the solutions are never ambiguous, and if you are diligent in investigating each planet prior to tackling your list of tasks you will find that nearly every item needed has been conveniently afforded to you. Moreover when a certain item in your library is needed, the game picks up on the context and often places it among the very first that you can select. Reading this you can figure out that there is little challenge to be found in the Doki-Doki Universe, but it is not the errands that are important; it’s the essence of the overarching lesson. Assignments are just a means to an end, and in the end in this case happens to be discovering a slice of humanity wherever you roam. Themes of jealousy, pride, loneliness and love are all humbly presented in Doki-Doki Universe as it walks you through humanity 101, and while it’s safe to say that most adults have earned their credentials-it’s never late for a refresher course.
While Doki-Doki Universe is for the most part an adventure game, there are a few interesting additions that separate it from the pack. The first and most interesting inclusion that I’ll touch upon are sequences of clever psychological tests that will help Dr. Therapist make his assessment. During the series of investigations you’ll be asked to respond quickly to certain situations in multiple choice, with the game ever watching and evaluating you as your complete them. These tests have little to do with main plot of the game and instead serve as the game’s interpretation of you as a person. I personally found the interpretations to be pretty spot-on, and though the tests can border on the silly, they are remarkably similar to the methods of assessment you’d find provided by a child psychiatrist.
Furthermore there are other, more social additions included in Doki-Doki Universe – such as a messaging system, as well as the ability not only decorate your own home planet; but to visit those of your friends. If you’ve played Nintendo’s recent entries in the Animal Crossing franchise you’ll quickly grasp the social element here. You’re consistently encouraged to communicate, decorate and initiate contact with not only NPC’s but other players as well. Candidly, I struggle to say that Doki-Doki ever lives up to that comparison as whole, but it does excel in its ability to simulate emotional connections. During your lengthy adventure you’ll come across, and interject yourself into the lives of numerous characters; and when you receive mail that reflects back on your shared experiences, it can pull on your very last heartstrings. It’s one thing to receive nondescript mail from an NPC, but it’s entirely different when a fleshed out character sends you a heartfelt letter that explains how much they’ve missed you since you re-united them with a love one.
Adding to the charm is the fact that Doki-Doki Universe is impossibly cute. Visually, every single bit of the game looks to come from the imagination, and fingers, of a child. Nothing is perfectly drawn, animated or recorded – and that’s part of the charm. This youthful spirited is only compounded by the humour that developer HumaNature has infused it with. However despite all of its charismatic qualities it all but comes undone by the simple fact that of the three versions available in the PlayStation ecosystem, the PlayStation Vita version by far performs the worst. I tested the game on the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita, and while I expected there to be some difference – I did not anticipate it being quite this obvious. Not only does the Vita edition have slower load times, but it is also plagued by persistent lag which can drag the game down to a hault. Just to be clear though, slowdown issues do occur in populated areas on the PlayStation 3, it’s just that they occur so regularly on Vita that it can become a chore to accomplish remedial tasks.
Further highlighted by the cumbersome gameplay of Doki-Doki Universe are its sometimes awkward controls. While not an overly-complicated game, Doki-Doki does require a variety of actions based upon the numerous inputs of the Vita, something that can be hit – but is more than not, miss. Everything from selecting which character you’d like to speak with, to choosing an item for a solution can be clumsy – and is made exponentially so by the game’s enduring lag. To the developers credit they have given Vita-specific options of nearly every input in the game, unfortunately however – they are equally as unreliable. I found myself routinely switching between traditional controls, and the Vita’s two touch inputs; never becoming truly comfortable with either.
Make no mistake though; HumaNature should be congratulated for their unorthodox vision when it comes to Doki-Doki Universe. The game tackles issues that are not only important to children, but to us as human beings – and for that both the developer and the game should be applauded. However, the Doki-Doki Universe revolves around humanity, and in the case of the PlayStation Vita version life imitates art. While it is riddled with potential, it is met equally with flaws – and while to forgive is divine; I’m not quite sure many out there will be enlightened enough to do so.