Doki-Doki Universe feels like a PlayStation game that came out 15 years ago, and that is--for the most part--a good thing. The offbeat adventures of a robot who rides a brace-faced smiling tooth (or, if you prefer, a happy turd) around the galaxy, all in a bid to bolster its own humanity, reminds me of PaRappa the Rapper and Vib-Ribbon. And it's that quirky sense of style and commitment to nonviolent, friendly play that makes Doki-Doki Universe distinguished among its peers--worth playing for the novelty alone.
Doki-Doki Universe stars QT3, a cute, conical robot with tiny legs, gangly arms, and the ability to summon forth a variety of objects (by harnessing the power of dust bunnies, naturally). These objects can then be used to fulfill the requests of the characters he meets, and it's in their acquisition and application that the game is driven forward.
This is almost as cool as it sounds. Though we're not talking the deep lexicon of Scribblenauts here, you'll be able to use an array of bubbles displaying a sample of the items QT3's unlocked, ready to be popped into existence. He can expand his collection by finding more items hidden in presents around the universe and by cuddling up to--or occasionally threatening--other characters.
Each of these items has multiple qualities: the same baby enthusiastically soiling its diaper could satisfy one character's request for something disgusting and another's request for a cute kid. Speaking with each planet's characters reveals goals, leading from one event to another (if they don't have a goal to provide, they may tip you off to who likes and dislikes what). It all ultimately culminates in a lesson in humanity from Alien Jeff, QT3's corporate handler.
QT3 can head to almost any one of Doki-Doki Universe's 20 planets at any time--which is good, because some characters will request an item that can't be found on their homeworld. Traveling back and forth, solving old puzzles as you discover new ones, is a classic element of adventure games, but a few problems innate to the process keep QT3 from unlocking his inner Guybrush Threepwood.
For starters, some of the seemingly open-ended requests actually have a pretty firm answer in mind: one resident of urban planet Citay wished he had something to remind him of the ocean. Having already completed Aquariumland and assembled a raft of naval goods, I thought, "Hey, no problem." But after the fifth item I tried was either not "beautiful" or "graceful" enough to pass muster (if you ask me, the beauty of a squid and a whale waltzing is undeniable) I just gave up. He was eventually satisfied by some boring old dolphins, several planets worth of unlocked items later.
Further spoiling the fun of a weird universe are obnoxiously long load times. On a scale of "blink" to "make a sandwich," they fall just a sliced tomato short of a BLT. I should have been excited to ride my noble tooth-steed back to a planet when I had a bright idea to complete a straggling goal; instead, I was just dreading the return flight.
To be fair, Doki-Doki Universe is a slow-paced game in other respects. That works to its advantage when you just want to make friends through well-chosen gifts (try not to grin when a happy little flower starts chasing after the anthropomorphized poop you just summoned) or perfectly executed high-fives and hugs. But it gets a bit aggravating when you have a particular goal in mind and QT3 can only manage a stroll. Perhaps that's intentional; it's not meant to be played in a hurry.
Unfortunately, the joy of aimless wandering was lessened when I realized I needed to complete every single goal on every single non-DLC planet to reach the end of the storyline. Most planets have a couple of one-off requests aside from the main thread, and you'll need to clean up all of 'em to unlock the final world. It's completely counter-intuitive--QT3's trying to demonstrate his humanity, not run for Space Pope. And the game's conclusion even leaves you free to explore the universe, which means you're left with the same 20 planets to revisit unless you shell out for a DLC planet pack.
These quirks make Doki-Doki Universe harder to love than it should be--and its undeniable charm will make you want to love it. Years from now, will it be cherished as another flawed-but-lovable classic from PlayStation's past? Possibly. But until time's passage can smooth out its wrinkles, Doki-Doki Universe remains a flawed, if clever, experience.
This game was reviewed on PS Vita.