With Doki-Doki Universe, ‘cute’ was one of the first words to pop into my head. The entire game, from the world and characters to the HUD and menus, looks as though it were handdrawn by a child. All of Doki-Doki Universe exudes this colorful charm. Thick, black outlines and flat colors comprise absolutely everything. The background music is often light and cheerful. Arms sometimes disappear when not in use. Inanimate objects hold normal conversations with characters who all have round, triangular, or stick-figure bodies, and communicate through speech or thought bubbles with voices that are garbled except for the odd “Yay!” or “Herro!”
At first, this design can feel overwhelming, but first-party studio HumaNature does a great job of quickly making it feel comfortable.
You play as QT377665 (QT3 for short), a robot who is very expressive for someone without a nose or mouth. QT3 has just spent thirty-two years on a tiny asteroid waiting for his human friend to come back for him, with only an adorable balloon for company. Suddenly, a three-eyed alien named Jeff bops along in his tiny spaceship to tell QT3 the bad news that the human girl probably isn’t coming back and QT3 should be reprogrammed. After three decades, the need for an update is understandable, but Jeff reveals that what QT3 lacks is "humanity." QT3 protests that he isn’t human to begin with, which is when Doki-Doki Universe delivers a surprisingly profound line and the game’s central theme: “Humanity isn’t about being human…. Humanity is about understanding others.” With that, Jeff whisks QT3 off to his home planet, where QT3 adventure to find humanity and his human friend begins.
First off, asteroids are everywhere on the game’s map. These are home to very short quizzes you can take that offer observations about the real you. These observations aren’t always accurate, but they’re definitely interesting and provide a very nice respite from the main game when needed. This main narrative thread involves short, side-scrolling planets. There are about 25 planets that QT3 can travel to, including his home and Planet Tutorial. Each is unique in its own way, and each has its own little story for QT3 to interact with. For instance, there is a planet named ‘Suteki’ (which is actually Japanese for ‘nice’) that is indeed decorated with cartoonish Asian culture. There, QT3 meets a woman who is worried because one of her three sushi children (Ebi, Wasabi, and Maki) seems to have run away, concerned that he (or she) might be eaten.
QT3 encounters these cute little stories again and again throughout his adventure. Over time, QT3’s personality and understanding of others really do seem to grow alongside meeting and helping strange new friends. The problem with these kinds of stories is that each one is too short to really garner much investment.
Though it has little effect on the game, QT3’s actions will make a character like him more or less. For instance, gamers can use controls (right analog stick on PS4 and PS3, rear touchpad on Vita) to gesture to characters. The right gesture will make a character like him more. Summoning an item that a character likes or dislikes will also alter QT3’s relationship with that character. The ‘summonable’ items can be misleading, though. One character requested that QT3 summon something magical. I had him summon a rainbow, which had been described as magical by someone else, and the character became upset, declaring that pretty things made him sick.
There is also a chance that whatever you summon to appease a character can “Backfire” and something completely different will be summoned instead. Sometimes this works out and the character is happy—or angry—but more often than not this serves no purpose except to waste time and try your patience, or, worse, set you back in your relationship with that character.
Meanwhile, QT3 is able to pick up and throw almost anything—even himself. Other characters respond to being flung about the planet with either fear and anger or total glee. HumaNature tries to put this to gameplay use. A totem pole on ‘Brrr’ asks QT3 to throw him so that he will land next to a specific character. Fling him as hard as you can, and he will soar far past the target. Lower the range just a little bit and he flops pathetically to the floor and skids a little way, cheering all the while about how much fun he’s having. Finally, I got him to land right on top of the character. That character did absolutely nothing except chase after a dog I had given her earlier in the game. This had me literally shaking my controller in frustration, which caused QT3 to Rumble the world around him, and a few characters to dislike me a little more (except one, who thought it was the most incredible thing EVER).
Doki-Doki Universe’s likeable characters and charming hand-drawn worlds can be entertaining in a pinch and provide a nice break from reality. The way QT3’s relationships affect his understanding is nicely done. Even so, the stories are cute, but uninspiring. Planets go by quickly, and each one’s to-do list is the same. Add poorly executed gameplay mechanics, and the result is that gamers may quickly become bored or frustrated and need a break. This is not the kind of game with a single continuous story that you sit for hours and really play, but it’s nice for something to do when you’re in the right mood for it. Cross-Buy and Cross-Save across PS4, PS3, and PS Vita is an added incentive.