One of the strongest features of the Vita is that a lot of Japanese games developed for the system seem to be making their way over here in a somewhat timely fashion. Sure, you’re probably never going to see the rubtastic action of Monster Monpiece anytime soon but the relatively quirky joys of Orgarhythm, EDF 2017 Portable and even Lets Fish: Hooked On have all made it over to the EU PSN ready for your sweaty little hands. It’s therefore no surprise to see the 2D platforming action of Dokuro make it to these shores, especially when you consider that those crazy otaku had identified it as one of the more import friendly titles around. There is one slight difference that may pleasantly surprise some of you though – over in Japan Dokuro received a full retail release, while over here it’s a discounted digital offering only therefore coming in massively cheaper than if you’d bitten early and had it flown over. Great news for us, tear-inducing for the hardcore few.
The gameplay sees you take the part of the titular Dokuro, a small skeletal minion of the Dark Lord. Busy minioning away his unlife Dokuro witnesses the Dark Lord kidnapping a local princess with the intention being to marry her. Moved by this scene Dokuro decides to save the princess and escape from the Dark Lord’s castle, thus setting up his great escape. Somewhat tragicomically however the princess cannot see Dokuro in his natural form, leaving our unlikely hero forlorn and unappreciated. Luck is on his side however as not long after the start of the story Dokuro manages to purloin a magical potion which can temporarily turn him into an undead/halfdead hero, a buffed version of himself that the princess can see. Oh joy! Over and above the simplistic escape plot the story is fairly light with what little exposition there is presented in cutscenes that appear after major events, and yet there is still a certain sweetness to the tale and you will feel drawn to the plight of this plucky skeleton.
The game itself is comprised of classic 2D platforming, with the main twist really being that over the course of the majority of the one hundred and forty-seven levels you have to escort the princess through the dangers relatively unharmed. Most levels are divided into groups of ten, with each set representing part of the Dark Lord’s castle. These overlying themes are fairly light, but the grouped levels are certainly distinct from one another. Classic platforming action appears throughout, with levers to pull and boxes to move and spikes to avoid. In his normal form Dokuro can double jump and interact fully with the background, but his weak attacks can only pushback enemies slightly, although this is often enough to help them on their way to a deadly fall onto spikes. The princess, on the other hand, is stereotypically weak, able to only take the lightest of punishment before she squeals her demise and has you start the level again. Drink your magic potion however and you are turned into your hero form, losing your double jump but able to slay foes with a few swings of your sword. You can also pick the princess up and walk her across levels, which certainly helps if you’re trying to speed up proceedings or have her survive a small fall.
As well as trying to set a fast time while playing through a level the majority of them contain a gold coin for you to collect as well. These coins are usually not hard to find, although some require you to change the order in which you complete tasks or how you approach the puzzle in order to be able to nab them. A couple require some twitch platforming, but these seem to be very much the exception. Most of the time however you will be quite able to complete the level and nab the gold coin in a timely fashion in the same run, removing some of the replayability aspect. Unfortunately there are no leaderboards for the game and thus no real incentive (apart from a couple of time related trophies which give you quite generous targets) to return to many of the levels to try to beat your time score. There is a certain satisfaction in bringing up an area which previously stumped you and spanking it with an amazing sub-minute time, but you are unlikely nowadays to be driven to do that without some form of online bragging rights.
Of course, this being the Vita some form of touchscreen functionality has to be squeezed into the offering. In Dokuro this takes the form of three chalk crayons that you acquire over the early stages. The white, red and blue chalks each function in the same broad way, in that you select the one you want and then use your finger to draw across the screen with the chalk. Each has its own individual use – the white chalk can act as a rope joining objects together and you can draw a fuse between fire and a target with the red chalk. The blue chalk is perhaps the most innovative of all, allowing you to fill up an area with water, thus floating any boxes you may have moved there. The problem is that each one of these powers can only be used at prescribed places – there is no way, for example, to use the white chalk to randomly join other objects together to assist you. Even worse, the drawing is incredibly unforgiving and you will quite commonly find yourself creating the same blue line over and over again in futile attempts to fill a hole up with water. At their best these chalks add extra dimensions to Dokuro, increasing the complexity of the puzzles. At their worst they are a simple hindrance to your progression, delaying you because of the clunky controls rather than mind-twisting difficulty.
At least the chalks are pretty though, and it’s very clear that the artistic direction of the whole game is of the highest quality; while the levels and their contents are nothing special to look at in of themselves, the stylisation applied throughout is superb. Dokuro has been designed with a chalk cartoon feel and the qualities of this are pervasive, from the sketching of the characters themselves to the emotive puffs of chalk seen whenever you dispatch an enemy. As you play through you are drawn into the world of the Dark Lord, and throughout it feels more like a children’s tale than anything else. There is a wonderful juxtaposition between the chalky animation look of some of your enemies and the real menace they exude, especially when you are a sliver of health from death. Somewhat eerily the levels takes on a muted palette sheen when you are playing in your hero form, returning to a brooding dull black/grey once you return to your skeleton self. With these simple colours and the odd puff of chalk the world of Dokuro is brought to life on the Vita in a breathtaking fashion, the simple art hiding so much potential underneath.
Ultimately these aesthetics alone can’t save Dokuro from some of the pits it manages to fall into. Far too often this potential is never realised as you progress through level after level of simplistic puzzle and platforming action. Instead of using the tools provided Dokuro resets to providing far too many filler exercises between its nuggets of meat, with far too many levels giving the player no challenge at all. This is especially true in the beginning of the game, and it’s not really until you start approaching the later levels that the challenge starts to pick up a little. There are a few shining examples where the puzzle may leave you completely stuck, and in the later levels where you quest alone without your princess there are some crackingly tight platforming levels but they really come too little too late to lift Dokuro into the must-haves.