I don’t exactly enjoy the odd and repetitive antics of Doki-Doki Universe, but thanks to the personality quizzes scattered throughout this emphatically social game, I at least understand why. (So take the following review with a grain of salt.) According to Dr. Therapist, I’m extremely Goal Oriented, and Doki-Doki Universe lacks an end game. Ostensibly, the affable robot QT3 (short for QT377665) is out to learn about humanity from the various creatures in this universe, lest Alien Jeff order him off to the scrapheap. But there’s never any real pressure to do so; players can explore the 20 planets and the aforementioned personality quiz asteroids in any order and at their own pace.
Doki-Doki Universe, then, is basically Scribblenauts’s super-casual little brother, straight down to the hand-drawn art style. It’s also close cousins with LittleBigPlanet, especially in the way it emphasizes decorating your own home planet and fiddling around with various avatars. The problem is that Doki-Doki Universe often gets so lost in its own bizarre imagination that it sometimes forgets to open itself up to the player, and as such there isn’t much of an actual game here. Although both Doki-Doki Universe and Scribblenauts revolve around fulfilling everybody’s desires, Doki-Doki Universe’s solutions are all single objects. Moreover, they’re not typed in; rather, they’re Summonable stickers that must first be found and then selected from an increasingly unwieldy list of 300-plus items. The entire game, if you can call it that, is one giant fetch quest.
The game treats its themes with such absurdity and reductive PSA qualities that there might as well be a planet named Glee.
On the positive side, despite being two-dimensional planes, each planet is packed full of visual polish, whether that’s the Jetson-like future of Cosmos, the trash mounds of Yuckus, or the super-cute fluff on Bunnipi. Even areas inspired by human history, like an Earthbound-y Ert or tribal (and potentially offensive) Afri, are a pleasure to walk around. On the other hand, you’d better enjoy the scenery, as every planet is navigated in the same fashion: pick up objects in the background to check for collectable Decorations and Summonables; talk to each character, and multiple times, to find out their likes and dislikes; and provide them with the object they’ve asked for. As if that wasn’t tedious enough, the game only shows you 20 random objects at a time and has a habit of sometimes backfiring, conjuring up something else entirely. (For what it’s worth, if you have an object that will satisfy a person, it’ll almost always show up in that initial list. I’m not sure if that’s a time-saving benefit or a difficulty-breaking curse.)
All this talking is not without its charm. Who wouldn’t empathize with the baby snowman who doesn’t want to disappoint his father by confessing that he gets cold? Who hasn’t felt the combination of jealousy and loneliness that leads a man to curse his neighbor? Then again, Doki-Doki Universe treats these themes with such absurdity and reductive PSA qualities that there might as well be a planet named Glee. It’s nice to point out that bullies are often themselves suffering from self-esteem issues, but unfair to claim that this can be solved with a hug. Some of the moral lessons are a bit questionable as well: A Wishing Tree transforms a man into a toilet because the man’s fiancée didn’t invite the tree’s friend to the wedding, and upon learning that the invitation was merely lost in the mail, the tree carelessly transforms the man into a variety of forms before leaving him in the body of a troll. (That would make for a dark episode of Sesame Street, with the lesson of the day being “settling.”)
To be fair, Doki-Doki Universe, which was designed by one of the creators of ToeJam & Earl, is extremely comfortable chilling out in its particular slice of weirdness. It’s just that the two halves of the game—completing personality quizzes and solving people’s problems—are at odds with one another. The quizzes are more than the nonsense they appear to be, and the game proudly explains the psychology that explains why assuming a bulldozer will beat a wine glass in a fight makes you, say, a realist. The more abstract the question (“What should the pea ask for from the all-powerful golf ball?”), the easier it is to avoid giving the answer we think people want to hear from us. The game, on the other hand, never rises above its own nonsense, and continues to boil relationships down to a commercial transaction: “I’ll be your friend forever if you can give me a plate of spaghetti.”
People are more than a series of likes and dislikes, just as a game must be more than a series of multiple-choice tests and object recognition. It’s a shame that Doki-Doki Universe, which is so clever in its ability to assess the player’s personality, is ultimately unable to give the player what they most want: an actual game.