It stands to reason that when you have spent as many years kneeling before the video game shrine as I have that my time well spent has seen me venture deep within a wealth of wild, truly weird and definitely wonderful pixelated playgrounds.
Strange, and occasionally scary, lands in which the bizarre would seep from every corner of the screen and leave me in little doubt that some game creating boffins, particularly those practicing the dark art in gaming’s infancy, were possibly a tad unhinged.
In more recent times sightings of this wilder breed of game seemed to have been in decline. Where once madcap ideas gave flesh to the bones of outlandish characters and coloured the gaming world as we knew it, now just the odd flicker of weirdness would occasionally tinge the corners of gaming’s new embrace for uber-realism. The old world that I’d grown up with appeared to be going the way of the Dodo.
Then I fired up Doki-Doki Universe.
As the childlike charm of the crudely sketched artwork, colour emblazoned characters and strong whiff of oddness spilled from the screen my intrigue was caught. I began to wax my surfboard ready to ride upon a wave of nostalgia.
Not that what sat before me was a game that trod old, well-worn routes. Not at all. If anything Doki-Doki Universe seemed to be something that, at its core at least, I hadn’t really seen before. A game with a warm-heart and a gentleness about it, but, thanks also to the whole air of the tale being permeated with the scent of creative minds running free, unshackled with no big budget targets and no boundaries, it also felt a little like a game from days gone by.
Doki-Doki Universe is a different breed of game.
Despite the simplistic visuals that bounce playfully on screen and seem to have sprung to life straight from the walls of a nursery, the game actually attempts to delve deep and tackle the big question of what it is to be human. Now that’s something I wasn’t expecting.
How the game sets the stage for this is to put you, the player, into the metal body of a robot, known as QT3, and send you zipping around the galaxy upon the back of a flying pig, or a similar flying creature, answering character assessing questions and helping out with tasks upon various planets. I’m not making this up, believe me, I did pinch my arm a couple of time during play to make sure I wasn’t dreaming the whole thing.
As the game opens we witness the sorry sight of QT3 being abandoned by his family with only a red balloon for company. The years roll by, our robot hero waits, but the family never return. Cue Alien Jeff who comes across QT3 while zipping along in his flying saucer and explains that its particular model of robot is being scrapped as it doesn’t have a grasp on humanity. Thus begins a robot’s travels through a cast of weird and, erm…weirder characters and a deluge of personality tests as it attempts to learn about the intricacies of what makes us human.
It was the beginning of an adventure I never really expected to be taking in this day and age of high definition violence where most gaming problems are solved with a bullet and a fist, but I have to say, it was also a welcome one.
How the game works in its quest for the answers to what makes us human is that each planet QT3 visits require a little robot assistance to solve their problems. This is done in the most part by summoning the right item for each individual situation from the vast array of collectables you’ll acquire on your travels through this colourful little universe. It sounds a little complicated but is in fact incredibly simple.
Each planet has a set number of presents to collect, often found by lifting the pantomime like scenery or talking to the planet’s inhabitants.
So how each level, or planet, plays is that QT3 lands, chats to a few locals to ascertain what is required, collects all the pressies and eventually summons the object that will solve the locals problems and deliver a little further insight into humanity.
Sometimes this is perfectly straightforward and sometimes it requires a little nudge of the old grey matter, but because the game is so incredibly mellow and gently paced the moments of sheer panic or frustration that live within so many other titles are entirely absent here.
Each character you come across will have individual personality traits. They have likes and dislikes and will respond to you in direct relation to how you approach them. For example some prefer to be greeted with a wave rather than a kiss. Getting this right will see them reveal information or offer up a present.
In between planets you’ll float around space upon the winged animal of your choice tackling short multiple choice personality quizzes. These are fun little time killers and make a nice side dish to the main meat of the game, they’re also worryingly accurate and seemed to be able to dissect my psyché with ease.
Graphically Doki-Doki Universe is a joy to watch. It’s as though a child has run amok armed with crayons and a vivid imagination, it sits perfectly within the game and never becomes tired.
The gameplay can become a little repetitive after a prolonged session but in short bursts there’s enough variety here to keep the entertainment levels up. The personality tests that frequent the game are vital in this and although they aren’t that important in the grand scheme of QT3’s tale, without them the playing experience as a whole would definitely suffer.
All in all what HumanNature Studios have delivered in Doki-Doki Universe is an intriguing and original gameplay experience mixed with the tried and tested fetch and carry missions that have prospered within numerous titles gone by. The game has a rich vein of humour that runs consistently from the opening scenes but also manages to deliver the sort of warmth and fuzziness usually associated with Disney animals and toasty winter fireplaces.
It isn’t a perfect piece of heart-warming action, but, it is original, funny and almost completely off its trolley, and for that I loudly applaud. Now, has anyone seen my flying pig?