Say what you want about Sony, but their ability to dig through the randomness of third-party content and produce the odd anomaly is almost unrivalled. And really, ‘anomaly’ is a great way to describe the latest uncovering, HumaNature Studios’ Doki-Doki Universe. Ambitiously releasing on PS Vita, PS3 and PS4 at the same time Doki-Doki Universe is a tale about humanity, about self-realisation, about magicing items out of a non-existent hat. It’s also about flying poo, but more about that later. Hold on to your (hopefully real) hats, this is about to get crazy. Again.
You play as the robot QT3 (or QT377665, to give him his full name). QT3 was abandoned many years ago by his human owners on a small rock in the middle of nowhere, with only a sentient balloon to keep him company. All’s not lost, however, as now Alien Jeff has found him! Yey! But wait – Alien Jeff works for the robot factory, and they want to recall and scrap QT3’s model as it is incapable of understanding humanity! Oh noes! And so begins QT3’s quest around the universe as he journeys to learn the nuances of humankind.
So then, we found our galactic jet-setter now travelling around various planets attempting to learn what makes humans tick. Half of the Doki-Doki universe (see what I did there?) is made up of these places, these 2D bastions of interdependent problems and neuroses that you’ll have to engage with and fix. Populations can consist of people, sentient plants, robots, talking sushi – Kirk would have had a field day sleeping his way through these inhabitants. This quirky randomness is one of the strongest features of Doki-Doki, and on his travels QT3 can learn about humanity from all of these beings.
There’s something else though. And it’s still not the flying poo – not yet anyway. QT3 has the ability to conjure up items from thin air. It has to do with the manipulation of sub-atomic particles or something, or potentially it’s magic, but it’s still a pretty helpful power to have. It is entirely necessary, as every quest or interaction you make in-game will almost inevitably require you to create an item for someone. When you start the game you’ll only have access to a limited number of items, but as you progress you’ll unlock more and your repertoire will increase. These can, in turn, be used to solve quests that previously proved themselves tricky, thus unlocking more items you can create and so on. It’s roughly similar to an extremely simple adventure game where you can carry a couple hundred items around with you – probably in your trousers.
The thing is, it’s just not that fun. Ok, there is a certain amount of enjoyment in the first couple of planets you visit – the dialogue and the scenarios are sweet enough, but the mechanics feel uninspired and monotonous. First you track someone down, then you speak to them then you hit the item creation option, then you have to double tap the item you want. Yawn. As there is no way for you to intelligently scroll through your unlocked items you’re reduced to either randomly refreshing the options presented to you, or grabbing one item and dragging it to a corner to hopefully then spawn a whole selection of items related to it. If that doesn’t sound annoying enough to go and do for hours and hours, for some reason HumaNature saw fit to include a random ‘Backfire’ chance. When this occurs it spawns an entirely different item from the one you’ve just picked. Which then means you have to go through the whole process and find the item you wanted in the first place. Yey.
Now, we may be reading too much into simplistic writing, but if you take a step back from the mechanics there are parts of the game’s story that will make you raise an eyebrow. The material concerns of virtually everyone you meet is never commented on by any of the characters, and is more likely to be a result of lazy writing than an underlying commentary on the state of humanity. Each of the planets follows a specific motif, and while ‘mediaeval’ land and ilk will be fairly inoffensive some of the other stereotyping feels phoned in from David Brent. On the African-themed planet, for instance, a man is jealous of his neighbour’s family, so he asks for a daughter. And then, because a child is too much like hard work, a wife to look after that daughter. Lazy African man – check! Objectification of women – check! Good work there, HumaNature!
Away from the planet half of the universe (and potentially associated with the flying poo) is the asteroid half of the universe. Here you’ll be able to land on a wide array of asteroids, each of which hosts a monk and a personality quiz. That’s right, a quiz! Yey! The questions are amusingly random, but the ‘action’ quickly begins to feel repetitive and ultimately pointless. After you’ve grinded your way through around a hundred of these questions (with each quiz presenting multiple questions) the personality profile you’ve built up will have a few points that ring true – but it’ll also contain statements that you know are entirely incorrect. In fact, it’s probably the first thing that’s called me a pacifist since I started a list entitled ‘War: Things it is Good for’. Which we probably shouldn’t go into now.
We also found our playthrough tainted with flying poo. No, sorry, I meant bugs. Bugs, bugs, bugs, bugs, bugs. We crashed out to the Vita’s OS, we crashed when trying to open the in-game mail, we froze when the game tried to find a wireless connection and we had the audacity to move. It felt messy throughout, and instead of checking our mail every time one popped up we instead waited until we’d finished all business on whatever planet we were on and saved – it really never is a good sign to be putting off using functionality on the off-chance it’ll send you into a crash situation.
The other interesting thing you’ll see as you fly around the universe (if you buy the normal version of the game at least) are asteroids and planets with great big padlocks on. Don’t worry about trying to find ways to unlock them in-game though – luckily for you, these additional personality quizzes or fun-filled item-creation holiday spots can be unlocked with real money. Regardless of the upfront purchase structure offered on the PSN Store, if it looks like Day One DLC and costs like Day One DLC then it probably is Day One DLC. At the very least, unpurchased destinations could have been removed from the overall map, but then again everyone else is trying to crowbar open your wallet, so why not do it here too?
This, in a crazy nutshell, is Doki-Doki Universe. Conceptually it should be applauded for, on paper at least, offering something that little bit different. In delivery it’s far too often flat with a side of boredom and backfire. Oh, and you can gain experience and level up and stuff, and part of that unlocks different avatars to dress QT3 in and different mounts you can use when flying between planets. One of those mounts is a flying poo. Sorry for that not being as exciting a reveal as we maybe sold it – a little like Doki-Doki Universe itself.