Doki-Doki Universe review: Love machine

Doki-Doki Universe is a game about empathy, and that's weird.

In many of the games I played this year, you often solve problems by shooting people in the face. That, I can handle. In Doki-Doki Universe, your antagonists aren't clearly defined, and your progress is measured by your ability to seek out societal problems and solve them indirectly through non-violent means.

Doki-Doki Universe's gameplay lands somewhere in between Animal Crossing and a Myers-Briggs personality test. It's like nothing else I've ever played, and it's pretty a totally weird sort of way.
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Doki-Doki Universe

Doki-Doki Universe stars a naive little robot named QT3 who has spent the last 32 years living alone on an asteroid after being abandoned by his family. Recruited by his sociopathic pal Alien Jeff, QT3 discovers that his model is due for a recall and scrapping, due to its inability to understand humanity. QT3 then sets out on a quest to learn more about the universe and humanity in general while searching for his family.

Each planet in Doki-Doki Universe is in the midst of some kind of moral quandary, requiring QT3 to step in and set things right. Throughout Doki-Doki Universe, you'll encounter all manner of weirdos, freaks, and aliens who want something from you. By helping the inhabitants of surrounding planets, QT3 will begin to piece together the essence of humanity by learning about things like devotion, abandonment, and bullying.

(Other planets are less helpful in his quest. There's a planet made of poop, for instance. The lesson learned there? "Some people like stinky things.")

QT3 fulfills requests by summoning a specific object among hundreds of available items in his inventory. Requests usually don't call for a specific item, however, and often require some creativity and lateral thinking on the player's part. If a planet's denizen calls for something red and cheerful, for instance, you can solve the puzzle by summoning a heart, a red (and preferably non-feral) animal of some sort, or a smiling child wearing a red hat.

Doki-Doki Universe's inventory system presents itself as a series of randomly-chosen item bubbles that pop up on-screen. You can either pick among the given choices, call for another random assortment of items, or highlight a specific item and request similar objects in the same category. You can't list all of your available items at once, which initially seems like a frustrating limitation, but the game's puzzles are open-ended enough to encourage creative solutions, making it easy enough to find a suitable item in the midst of your jumbled inventory.

Doki-Doki Universe's graphics are simple but stylized, and conversations are punctuated by frequent sight gags and visual non-sequiturs, giving the game a storybook feel. Despite its gloomy opening, the story is uplifting throughout, and the experience overall is refreshingly positive, giving the player frequent feedback on their in-game choices via lightweight psychological analyses.

In between planets, players can stop off at nearby asteroids and complete oddball personality tests. These quizzes present visual prompts that are open to interpretation, often asking a player to devise a scenario that best fits a given scene, or to choose a favorite among a set of characters. These choices are then evaluated, broken down, and presented as a psychological assessment, giving insight into what subconscious reasoning might have driven your thought process during the test.

As you complete personality tests, Doki-Doki Universe constructs a psychological profile that can be accessed on your home planet -- it even goes so far as to feature a psychologist character, complete with a couch that QT3 can rest on while you reflect on your disturbed psyche. The game's psychological readings aren't always accurate, but they're fun and detailed enough to be worthwhile, and help to give context to the game's world. According to Doki-Doki Universe, I enjoy dark humor and have a rebellious streak. Close enough, I suppose.

Doki-Doki Universe is one of the first PSN games to premiere as a Cross-Buy release across the PlayStation 4, PS3 and PS Vita. Of these, the PlayStation 4 edition is the one you'll want to play; its performance is solid throughout, and technical hiccups are rare. The PlayStation 3 version, on the other hand, is marred by frequent crashes. My PS3 locked up several times during gameplay, often while trying to give multiple gifts in succession. Hopefully, a post-release patch will correct this problem, as the PS3 port is otherwise a solid alternative to the PS4 version.

The PlayStation Vita version, meanwhile, is bogged down by a sluggish framerate and long load times. The game's interface is different on the Vita than it is on other platforms, complicating its control scheme so that it can simultaneously support button and touchscreen input. Neither control method works particularly well -- trying to select a specific background item among several grouped-together objects is especially troublesome on the Vita. It's unfortunate, as Doki-Doki Universe's low-key gameplay is especially well-suited for portable play.

Doki-Doki Universe offers little in the way of challenge. Needed inventory items are often found on the planets that require them, and you can frequently root out solutions to tricky requests by searching background objects and interrogating nearby inhabitants. The trickiest request I encountered required "colorful ice cream" -- I had several items in my inventory that fit the "ice cream" requirement, but I needed to travel to a nearby ice-themed planet to pick up some multicolored popsicles to solve the puzzle.

The lack of difficulty doesn't hurt the game in the least, though. Doki-Doki Universe takes an open-ended approach to the adventure game genre, and it's executed quite well. If you find yourself stumped, you can always travel to another planet and take on a new set of challenges, likely discovering the solution to your original problem along the way. Doki-Doki Universe is designed in such a way that it never becomes frustrating, and its encouragement of off-the-wall puzzle solutions make it feel like you're leaving your own unique imprint on the game's bizarre world.

Doki-Doki Universe isn't for everyone. It doesn't challenge your reflexes, and adventure game purists will likely turn up their noses at the simplistic and easily-solved puzzles. The game's laid-back vibe is irresistibly compelling, however, the dialogue is frequently hilarious, and its psychological assessment component makes it feel like you're learning more about yourself as QT3 learns more about humanity as a whole. Doki-Doki Universe is uplifting in a way that few games are; it will make you more optimistic about the world around you, and it'll make you feel like a better person for playing it.

This review is based on a PSN download of Doki-Doki Universe, provided by Sony.

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