Sony consoles seem to have a knack for attracting far-out ideas and concepts. Other platforms have some odd games in their libraries, but no one bats an eye when the likes of Incredible Crisis, Mister Mosquito, Tail of the Sun or .detuned arrive on one of Sony's systems. That idea continues with Doki-Doki Universe, a title from one of the creators of ToeJam & Earl that is being released on all three of Sony's current platforms at the same time. It's certainly quirky, but the real question is whether it's as fun as some of its oddball predecessors.
In Doki-Doki Universe, you play the role of QT3, a robot that has been abandoned by his human caretakers on an asteroid 34 years ago. As he patiently waits with his sentient balloon for the family to return, he is discovered by Alien Jeff, an employee of a robotics company that wants to round up that particular model so it can be recycled into newer robot models. The QT3 has no concept of humanity, and that's what humans are looking for in their robotic companions nowadays. The QT3 doesn't want to be turned into scrap, so it must travel the planets to learn about what "humanity" means so he can prove that he deserve a second chance.
Like modern indie titles, the game is trying to cover some rather serious territory. While it can touch upon sensitive subjects from time to time, it paints everything with broad strokes of humor and refuses to hammer on important points longer than necessary. In that sense, the lessons are handled in an entertaining way, which is always a good thing for such a broad subject.
The game uses two different play styles to convey that search for humanity. The first is through actual human interaction. Hop on your steed of choice (a flying pig with a football helmet, winged poop, and oversized birds, to name a few), you travel from planet to planet to meet the inhabitants. All of the planets are themed, and whether you're meeting people in medieval kingdoms, modern cities, or virtual paradises, all inhabitants have problems. Most of the problems seem contained, but others involve more than a few characters. If you look deeper, you'll see that the game is inadvertently trying to teach you about humanity, both good and bad.
To learn about humanity, you must become the problem-solver for everyone. Some problems are solved by playing messenger and acting as an intermediary between two or more people as they settle issues. Other issues are solved by performing actions, such as tossing someone to a location, dancing, or just giving someone a hug. The ability to solve an issue mostly hinges on your ability to fulfill wishes and desires. Characters tell you what they're looking for, and the dialogue is peppered with animated pictograms. All you have to do is look in your inventory of potential items, conjure it for them, and see the results.
Obtaining these items can be done in several different ways. Completing tasks for people will almost always net you an item, and you can also look behind objects on each planet. Reaching an emotional state with each person also nets you a present, though the required state differs greatly for each person. If their dossier shows that he'll reward you if they love you, you must provide their favorite greeting type (bowing, blowing kisses, or waving) or conjure up something they'll like. A person's likes and dislikes can be discovered through simple experimentation, but more often than not, simply conversing with everyone eventually reveals everyone's quirks.
While fulfilling wishes and summoning objects, you'll notice the game's challenges, humor, and story progression. Character wishes range from the mundane to the fantastic, and you must find the object in your item cache and conjure it for them. Some descriptions are vague, but the range of correct answers is broad enough that you can come up with some funny uses for the objects. People's reactions to these objects and conversations make up the heart and humor of these stories, and most are good enough to elicit a chuckle. Though getting objects right will reward you with story progression, getting the wrong object simply gives you a character being impressed with your tricks but hinting that the object wasn't what they wanted.
That lack of failure, however, highlights some of the issues in this section of Doki-Doki Universe. For experienced gamers, the lack of challenge means they'll eventually go through the motions in each stage and move on. For the younger set, the lack of a true fail state means frustration won't creep up if they don't understand what's being asked of them. Item handling can be frustrating. Instead of being provided with a list of all of your items, you're given a random assortment of 20 items at any one time. From here, your only option is to randomize the assortment and let the game present 19 other items. If you have no idea what you're looking for, both methods aren't that bad, but if you know exactly which item you want and have a large library, this method can be tiring. What's more, the developers threw in a backfire mechanic that has you summoning something else entirely. The effect trigger is random, and when you couple it with a search for an item that took a while to find, the random mechanic that's meant to be funny becomes irritating instead.
The game's second play style mechanic involves personality tests. As you wander, you'll encounter asteroids with monks. Chatting with the monks activates quizzes that ask abstract questions in both text and picture form. Some may ask you to choose which vehicle you'd rather ride in, or which picture matches your vision of a baby. Others ask you to caption photos of a situation. Like all other personality quizzes, there are no right or wrong answers, and the end, you're given a personality analysis. One thing they include is a detailed summary of each answer that explains what your answers convey. After taking a certain number of quizzes, your therapist on your home planet gives you a chance to conduct even further analysis.
Even with these issues, the sheer number of planets and asteroids to visit means there's lots of gameplay to be had. Of course, that depends on whether you like the gameplay. What is bad overall is the presence of DLC planets and asteroids on the universe map at the game's launch. None of the DLC is required to finish the game or get all of the Trophies. Also irksome is how the game is pretty unstable. Throughout the review period, the game experienced several crashes, and while it tries to save often, the constant game shutdowns made the idea of repeating quests very unappealing.
The audio is good but quite minimal. The music is lighthearted, matching the tone of the game, and some pieces are instantly reminiscent of the score in ToeJam & Earl. The effects are nice but don't seem to be applied to everything. Tossing around objects sounds fine, but giving another character a high five is devoid of sound. As for voices, very few exist here. Despite all of the dialogue, you'll hear lots of mumbling, laughing, sighing, and an occasional word or two. It gives the game some personality and avoids the pitfalls of hiring the wrong voice actors.
Graphically, Doki-Doki Universe is about as simple as you can get. The game deals with very simple drawings and primary colors to pull off a look that is akin to children's drawings, complete with stick-like limbs and eyes of completely different sizes. The designs seem humorous despite their simplicity, and just about every character is pleasing on the eyes. At times, you'll see the characters display squiggly lines similar to Ed, Edd & Eddy or Home Movies, though the effect isn't as prevalent as it was in those cartoons. It makes the game stand out for being different, but aside from some background-scrolling techniques on each planet, there's nothing here to really wow you.
Doki-Doki Universe is one of the few games in the Sony library that is both Cross-Buy and Cross-Compatible with all three of its current platforms (PS3, PS4, PS Vita), making it excellent for those loyal to the family and those who own one of them and plan on getting another in the future. For those who care about Trophies, it counts the PS3 and Vita games on one unified list, like Hotline Miami does, but the PS4 gets the same list in a different listing, similar to how Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time handles it.
All three versions use cloud saving, so players can continue playing the same quest on three different machines, but the save data doesn't open up the appropriate Trophies, making it useless if you care about that. Furthermore, the cloud-saving feature is pretty bad when it comes to syncing up the right data. After a game crash, a data sync on the PS4 didn't show that I completed all of the tasks for a planet, forcing me to repeat them all again. After moving from the PS4 to the PS3, the cloud sync showed that the same planet still wasn't complete, even though the PS4 version shows that it was done. The feature is nice on paper, but until they iron out all of the issues, it isn't very reliable.
Though the game is the same on all systems, there are some major differences. Between the PS3 and PS4 versions, the differences are all technical. Both systems are prone to crashing when too many things are being done at once, but the PS3 version tends to crash more often than the PS4 version. The game runs at a much lower frame rate on the PS3 than the PS4; it's striking since the game doesn't look like it's doing anything very intensive. The PS Vita version ends up being the worst of the lot, as it takes the frame rate of the PS3 version and adds longer load times and touchpad gesture controls.
In the end, Doki-Doki Universe is a fun and unusual romp. It feels like a children's title that also appeals to older gamers thanks to the art style and strange method of conveying its morals to the audience. The game feels like it should only be played in short bursts, due to the monotony that sets in after long sessions of performing the same tasks over and over. The technical glitches on all platforms can be annoying, especially when you play on the presumably weaker hardware. While it isn't for everyone, Doki-Doki Universe is worth checking out if you want something different from the norm.
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