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Doki Doki Universe Review: Becoming Human
It’s not often that I’m reminded of a PBS children’s show while playing a video game, but time and time again I found myself returning to the days of my early childhood while playing Doki Doki Universe. Whether it’s the hand-drawn aesthetics, a minimalist and upbeat soundtrack, the quirky and simple nature of the dialogue, or its sweet message of kindness and humanity, there’s something inherently friendly and charming about the game that is likely to give you a case of the warm fuzzies. However, all the charm in the world can’t save Doki Doki Universe from being a largely repetitive and dull product whose ambitious collection of ideas never really come together in any sort of meaningful or cohesive way.
At the center of Doki Doki Universe is QT377665 (QT3 for short), an outdated robot doomed to become scrap metal should he fail to learn what makes humanity tick. In order to save himself, QT3 is sent on a mission by his friend Alien Jeff to travel the universe and help other people in order to learn more about the human condition, because, as Jeff puts it, “humanity is about understanding others.”
Each of the planets in the solar system of Doki Doki Universe are populated by people who display one of the core emotions or ills of humanity. One planet is all about finding and understanding love, while another is meant to illustrate pride and its effect on people who hold it. At any point in the game, QT3 has access to all of these planets and the people on each of them, who will all ask QT3 to aid them with a specific desire or will they might have.
Like Scribblenauts, Doki’s quests are largely simplistic. The people you meet will express a desire for a certain object, place, or person, and it’s up to you to take to your pool of collected summonables (sticker-like objects earned at different points throughout the game) to find a suitable item to give to the character, much like the typing system in Scribblenauts. Unlike Scribblenauts, however, there’s not much satisfaction in using your creativity to find the right object for the right person. All that’s required is to talk to an NPC ,find out what they want, then sort through your collection of summonables to find what you think might work for their desired need. There’s little rhyme or reason to the selection, and you’ll find yourself using a rough system of trial and error to find a specific item for a character at many points throughout the game.
And that’s really all there is to the main thrust of the game’s quests. It’s a tiresome and largely dull loop of wash, rinse, repeat whose monotony is only broken by discovering and interacting with the different themes and people of each of the individual planets.
But even the characters on these different planets aren’t all that interesting, especially since they’re nothing more than shallow caricatures whose motivations and reasoning are only skin deep. For a game all about the essence and meaning of humanity, there’s a surprising lack of life in any of the game’s side characters, leaving you with cute archetypes whose fates and desires you really won’t care all that much for.
In conjunction with a dull gameplay loop, several other systems are thrown into Doki Doki Universe without much by way of meaningful execution. You’ll be able to send and receive emails from game characters updating you on their lives, work on maintaining good relationships with the characters you meet and interact with, take random personality tests in space, and search for summonables to collect by using a clumsy and awkward pick up and throw mechanic. There are slivers of good ideas and design in each of these systems, but they fail to fully connect, leaving them feeling directionless and ancillary to the core game itself.
Make no mistake; there’s a lot to like about Doki Doki Universe. It’s charming and amusing at its best moments, but ultimately suffers from being a ambitious game whose core ideas never gel into anything significant, instead playing out into a dull and half-realized product that isn’t likely to keep you engaged.