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Dokuro review: The Mr. Skullhead Show

Heidi Kemps

Let's talk about puzzle games. When you hear the term, your mind usually goes to falling-block stuff like Tetris and Puyo Puyo, right? But it's broad terminology: it can also apply to games in which you are presented with a series of problems that need solving – say, escaping a room, moving objects into certain positions, solving riddles ... you know what I mean, right?

Well, I have an issue with these games: I'm almost universally terrible at them. I can't really tell you why, either. I like most of the ones I play, mind you. But as soon as I start feeling that twinge of frustration from a solution that eludes me, I hop on the internet and turn on Youtube. If I don't, I'm just going to fluster myself trying to figure it out. By the time the game reaches its climax, I have a controller under one hand and my laptop under the other, checking to make sure I'm doing everything right.

This is one of the reasons why GungHo and GameArts's Dokuro sticks out so much. For perhaps the first time since the original Portal, I'm not immediately running to the online solution bin the moment things start to get tricky. I'm savoring the feeling of gradually figuring things out for myself, discovering how mechanics work together and deducing how they can be used to accomplish the task at hand, and I'm loving it.

Gallery: Dokuro | 9 Photos

But that's merely a single facet of what makes Dokuro so magical. The game follows the titular skull-like creature (trivia time: "Dokuro" is Japanese for "Skull"), a bottom-rung servant to the Dark Lord, a nefarious villain who has captured a beautiful princess to make his bride. Dokuro sees the princess weeping in her tower and is smitten with her, deciding that he will free her from the castle by any means necessary. Unfortunately, he's such a lowly peon that the lass doesn't even know he exists – until he finds a magical concoction that can temporarily transform him into a dashing, corporeal Prince Charming.

The ongoing story of Dokuro's interactions with the princess are told by charming little storybook interludes between levels. It's a simple tale, but there's something inherently sweet about the way it embraces its fairy tale tropes and imagery. In fact, Dokuro's whole visual style looks like something out of a favorite childhood storybook, with characters and backgrounds drawn with a natural, chalk-like appearance. After a while, I really started to notice how each detail contributed to the distinct feel of the game – the "cut-out" design of certain obstacles, the way the princess is always brightly colored to contrast against the backgrounds.

The gameplay itself is structured like a 2D platformer. Controlling Dokuro, you must make sure the princess reaches the end of the stage. Like many fairy tale princesses, she is very dainty and is afraid of large impassable objects, pitfalls both large and small, and nasty little creatures. Dokuro navigates the stages using his double-jump skill, moving obstacles and pulling levers with precise timing to make a path for the princess. Dokuro's a complete weakling though, and he can only stun enemies briefly with a strike (and he doesn't even get noticed by the woman he's trying to save).

All of that changes, however, once he gets his bony hands on a powerful potion. Quaffing the delicious drink temporarily transforms Dokuro into a sword-swinging hero who can both damage enemies and hoist the princess to safety in his handsome, manly arms. Dokuro's mobility in this form is rather limited though – he can't double jump, and can barely jump at all with an armful of princess.

The potion isn't the only item Dokuro gets his phalanges on, either. Colored chalk acquired throughout the game creates special effects when drawn across the screen. Think of the sort of things you could do with the Celestial Brush in Okami: attach objects to others, move certain things from one place to another, etc. All of these features play together to create puzzles that are pretty breezy at first but quickly become quite complex

I was getting embarrassingly stumped once I reached the fourth set of ten levels. Every set of stages introduces some new object with new mechanics, which becomes more and more integrated into the structure of stages going forward. At the end of several of these sets are massive boss fights that seem like drawn-out struggles ... until you figure out the unique trick for taking them down quickly. If it all gets to be too much, you do get ten "skips" that can be used to pass by trickier stages. Having the option is nice, but their limited use turns them into those uber-rare JRPG mega-healing items, in that you'll resist using them because they are rare and precious and dammit, I'm not that desperate yet.

As endearing as Dokuro is, however, it isn't entirely dreamy. There are some iffy collision problems at times – Dokuro or the princess can be killed by lightly brushing against an instant-death object, or they might get smooshed by a falling object that nicks the very edge of their character sprite. Stages don't have checkpoints, either, so if Dokuro or the Princess lose all their life, you'll have to restart the entire stage. This gets very, very trying on some of the more elaborate puzzle- and timing-driven levels.

I'll admit that I haven't quite finished Dokuro yet – as I said above, I'm kind of awful at these sorts of games – but I also haven't completely given up and resorted to YouTube. To just watch through the rest of the game and mimic it seems wrong. Is that what Dashing Hero Dokuro would do? Probably not. There's something about the heart of the game that keeps me pressing forward. Despite the bony exterior, Dokuro feels like it has a real soul, like it was made by people who truly loved and believed in it. It's inspired, well-made, and thoroughly enchanting.

This review is based on a PSN download of Dokuro, provided by GungHo Online Entertainment.

Heidi Kemps is an intrepid freelancer living in the lap of luxury in Daly City surrounded by games, Japanese comics, and far too many figures. She contributes to G4, GamesRadar, GamePro, @Gamer, GameSpot, and a wealth of international publications, some of which do not start with the letter G. She enjoys long walks in Akihabara as well as meaningful discussions about Virtua Fighter. You can follow her ongoing freelance adventures at @zerochan.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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