"Never?" My long, spindly robot-on-a-quest-to-learn-about-humanity asks.
"Never never!" Sumonsan the sumo wrestler enthuses, all but recoiling from the notion of eating his sentient sushi friends.
Doki-Doki Universe is a quirky little PS Vita game filled with quirky little scenarios like this. A band of frightened, self-aware sushi desperate to escape the possibility of being devoured? A malicious, roly-poly Daruma statue with an eye for money and a perverted monk? Completely on par with everything else in this bizarre, endearing world.
It's hard to provide an exact definition for Doki-Doki Universe. In many ways, it's an adventure game. You're a robot named QT3. Your primary mission in the game is to demonstrate a capacity for humanity before your entire product line is summarily transformed into scrap metal. Your auxiliary purpose is to figure out where the little girl who left you behind 32 years has gone. As you pursue these objectives, you'll be made to rummage through foliage, solve other people's problems, explore alien planets and make use of the PlayStation Vita's functions in reasonably clever ways.
Whimsical and weird, Doki-Doki Universe begins your adventure with a quest to visit Planet Tutorial. To get there, you'll need to fly through space on a winged, football helmet-wearing pig. Actually, you'll need to ride the same porcine fellow in order to get anywhere in the game. Why? Because. That, if nothing else, sets the mood for everything that follows. Upon landing on the aforementioned world, you'll be quickly tutored on how to interact with the galaxy and its peculiar inhabitants. Much of it revolves around "summoning" an object that fits the situation -- like Scribblenauts, except without the typing. At times, you'll be called upon to use the rear touchpad to help QT3 to wave, bow, blow kisses and so forth. Other times, you'll be required to make weird dialogue choices and to utilize "Rumble" power by madly rapping on the back of the Vita before tilting your device to one side.
Oh, and once in a while, you'll also be subjected to personality tests. Weird ones. The kind that ask what a boot might have been discussing with a shoe and whether you'd be more terrified by a disgruntled man in a bunny suit or a happy carrot.
(Don't look at me. I didn't make the rules.)
More than anything, Doki-Doki Universe is hopeful. No one is really a bad guy here. Largely everyone is just misunderstood. And QT3 is easily one of the mostly sweetly ignorant characters I've encountered yet. When asked if he understands what love is, QT3 glibly replies that it is similar to constipation. For all of its silliness, though, Doki-Doki Universe has a genuine heart. Though occasionally ham-handed about the lessons it wants to impress, the game is earnest enough to mostly rise above its faults. On the planet where QT3 must learn what love is, we find a pair of star-crossed lovers. Ramses, now dead to the world, is desperate to assuage his paramour's grief and to convince her to begin eating and drinking yet again. Cleo, on the other hand, is simply going mad. Even though events eventually crescendo into wackiness later on, the underlining narrative remains. What is love but a desire to make one another happy, healthy and safe?
From a visual perspective, Doki-Doki Universe is absolutely delightful. Made up of colorful, squiggly line drawings, the game operates in two dimensions. Nothing is rigid, nothing is perfectly drawn. Everything about the world shares the same qualities as a children's sketchbook which, given the tone, works just fine. The music, on the other hand, is a little less enchanting. Though it originates from the same bubbly place as the graphics, the audio can occasionally get repetitive enough to demand you switch to your own music.
My biggest complaint with Doki-Doki Universe is probably that, really. Repetition. For all of its considerable charm, the game enjoys doing the same thing over and over again a little bit too much. It took me less than a few hours before I began seeing patterns everywhere. Here, you swipe at the rear touchpad frantically to demonstrate your aptitude at meditation. There, you summon a chicken. And all along the way from here to there? You repeatedly flick pieces of the scenery into the air to root out presents that you will invariably use in an upcoming quest. All of this would be a lot more forgiveable were it not for the fact that Doki-Doki Universe seems hell-bent on making you focus on a single animation at a time. Want to travel by flicking QT3 across the landscape? Not going to happen. (The camera also occasionally goes into sporadic seizures.)
There's a strong sense that Doki-Doki Universe was intended for a younger crowd but has absolutely no issue entertaining the adult demographic as well. The writing's minimalistic and occasionally simple but clever enough to elicit a grin on a frequent basis. Should you buy it? I don't know. How much do you like helping people, reading animated letters from the game's cast, calling up chickens for beribboned zombies, and working to help a loyal robot find his lost friend?
Innocent and whimsical, Doki-Doki Universe was made for your inner child. The adorable cast, the kid-like doodles, the heartfelt stories and its unabashed fondness of the off-kilter might make it a bit too twee for some but for those who want a change of pace from hard-hitting action games, Doki-Doki Universe works. Just be advised that it isn't the most technically perfect game in the PS Vita's stable.