In the days after booting up Doki Doki Universe, I felt my dreams get slowly crushed under the weight of my increasing awareness that the game wasn’t what I thought it was.
Rarely am I so disappointed by a game that I had such high hopes for. When I previewed the game last year, I loved the cutesy, Hyperbole and a Half-like art style, and the warm little story about a robot who has to work out how to be more human. Not only that, but the team that made the game - HumaNature Studios - is headed by one of the men behind Toejam & Earl.
I’ve always been a fan of artsy indie titles that focus on feelings rather than mechanics, and that was exactly what Doki Doki Universe purported to be. Unfortunately, the mechanics that Doki Doki Universe did implement turned out to be among its fatal flaws.
In the beginning of the game, a robot dubbed QT3 is dropped off on a small planet with his friend, a balloon. His family leaves him there, and many years pass before an alien called Jeff comes to tell him that his line is about to be discontinued. If he can’t learn about and demonstrate his understanding of humanity, he’ll be destroyed.
In order to learn about humanity, QT3 has to travel around space on a steed of your choosing - he can ride a pig for example, or later on, an actual turd with a face. In his adventures, he visits planets with different themes - he might go to one to learn about prejudice, and another to investigate the trappings of human devotion. Some planets, however, don’t really seem to have a proper theme at all, and rather seem to be added in as padding.
When QT3 arrives on a planet, he has a set of tasks he has to complete to demonstrate that he’s learning. Usually, these tasks involve making NPCs on the planet happy by providing them with collectibles you can find on the map (you get to keep the collectible afterward, you just “summon” it into the world.) Some of the things will make the NPCs happy, and some will send them flying into a totally unreasonable rage.
Some characters will be holding onto more collectibles - with icons that look like presents - that you can procure by making them either very happy (“You’re my best friend, QT3! Have this!”) or very upset “Take this and go away! I didn’t want the stupid present anyway!”)
Sometimes you might also need to talk to other NPCs to straighten out relationships, but those are pretty much the only things that you do. And as there is a lot of extraneous content in Doki Doki Universe, you will do those things over, and over, and over. It’s also very easy, even by casual game standards.
While Doki Doki Universe tells a heartwarming little tale based on emotion, there’s little nuance in that emotion. Over the course of the game you’ll complete personality tests which are collectively supposed to tell you something about yourself. Many of these involve doing Doki Doki’s version of the Rorschach test, by choosing pictures that you can relate to without thinking too much about it.
This is clearly not a well-developed psychiatric analysis, and it’s not supposed to be. It winds up being more like a horoscope than a personality test, full of vague ideas that could apply to anyone such as “you have a quirky sense of humour”. I appreciated the breaks from the main game mechanics, and the funny descriptions that often accompanied your analysis, but unsurprisingly I didn't take any real meaning from it.
A bigger problem, however, is that the game seems to be fundamentally broken. I first downloaded it on my PS3, and merrily played it until it suddenly crashed and froze the whole console, forcing me to do a hard reset. After this first crash, I encountered crashing issues every 20 minutes or so, at least.
Fortunately for me - although not for most PS3 owners - I have a PS Vita. I was already bored and sick of the crashing by this point and would not have persisted if I didn’t have to write about it, but I downloaded Doki Doki Universe on my Vita nonetheless. While the crashes were less frequent than they were on the PS3, they still happened every hour or so. Clearly the issue wasn’t just with my PS3.
It seems like broken games are becoming more and more acceptable - look at the debacle around Battlefield 4 - but if that is the future of gaming, then I’m not having it. Doki Doki Universe is a game that had loads of promise, but it’s fundamentally broken to the extent that it’s virtually unplayable. It definitely has enjoyable elements, but it’s hard to enjoy them when you’re having to reset your console all the time.