At various points throughout Doki-Doki Universe, you might find yourself flying through space on a wedge of Swiss cheese, blowing kisses at a hulking sumo wrestler, or resolving a dispute between a toilet and a magical tree. But beneath that absurdist veneer lies a story of surprising warmth and emotional resonance. This is a simple game that tackles heavy themes, using its whimsical humor to extol the virtues of empathy in an earnest and entertaining way.
That goofy charm is immediately apparent in the game's vibrant art style. Doki-Doki Universe is a middle school textbook sprung to life, all doodles of stick figures and dragons and anthropomorphized carrots. It's a playful 2D aesthetic where adorable animals and winged beasts made of poo exist side by side, disarming you with its whimsy before revealing its broader narrative ambitions.
That story revolves around QT3, an oblivious little robot with problems connecting to those around him. As if being socially awkward weren't bad enough, QT3 is facing the prospect of being discontinued by the company that created him. That is, unless he can learn enough about humanity--the game's shorthand for understanding others--to prove his worth as a household companion.
Thus begins your journey through the bizarre world of Doki-Doki Universe. You're free to travel between any of the game's 20+ planets, getting to know the oddball residents that populate these worlds as you help them out with favors large and small. The medieval fantasy planet of Gunite is home to a princess who longs for a spaceship to leave her pampered life behind, for instance, while the undersea world of Aquariumland houses a giant sea monster who's ostracized purely because of his looks (his name is Matthew and he secretly loves to dance). Other worlds are full of equally bizarre characters: talking sushi rolls who are terrified of being eaten, a penguin couple looking to put the spark back in their relationship, and a bunny suffering from crippling self-esteem issues. There's a huge breadth of personalities for you to interact with, each encounter brought to life by sharp dialogue and a strong undercurrent of eccentric humor.
Indeed, simply talking to people is a big part of Doki-Doki Universe. There's a real focus on breaking down barriers, using conversation to reveal the human qualities behind those screwball caricatures. You might greet these strangers with their favorite gesture (some people like a nice wave, while others are fond of blowing kisses) before chatting with them to find out what their likes and dislikes are. Some are forthcoming with that information, while others play it so close to the vest that you'll need to find out about them through the proverbial grapevine.
That knowledge is important, because in order to really win people over you need to ply them with gifts. The game's inventory system adds a light puzzle element by giving QT3 the ability to summon various objects out of thin air. This system is generally flexible, letting you choose from a broad selection of objects for a given task. Does King Pink on the planet of Gunite want food for a party he's throwing in his own honor? No need for a massive spread; he'll think a bottle of ketchup is the most exotic thing in the world. You know that kangaroo in need of a shelter for his pet humans? Sure you could give him a regal castle, but a burning building surrounded by firefighters will do the trick just as well. There's a lot of room to goof around when it comes to gift-giving, and seeing everyone's wide-eyed responses is almost always a delight. It can be tedious when the game calls for something specific and you have to go hunting through the clunky inventory system, but fortunately, those issues are quite rare.
There's a huge breadth of personalities for you to interact with, each encounter brought to life by sharp dialogue and a strong undercurrent of eccentric humor.
It's a clever, self-propagating system: the more you get to know characters, the more they'll open up to you and reward you with gifts, thereby expanding your options for winning over other characters on different planets throughout the universe. On top of that, you can always return to your home planet and use those objects to decorate the place however you wish. Viking ships and mariachi bands? Sure. Killer robots and adorable penguins? You're the designer here.
Merely pressing the X button to begin a conversation is about as much of a challenge as you'll find in all of this, which can make Doki-Doki Universe drag on as you sink more and more time into it. But there's a touching quality to those interactions that makes you want to continue exploring each strange new planet. Beneath those quirky exteriors are universal themes like bullying, lost loves, and the dangers of marginalization. You enter worlds in turmoil and leave behind smiling, appreciative faces using little more than communication and generosity. You get the sense that QT3 is learning about humanity because, in some small way, so are you.
That's good, because Doki-Doki Universe doesn't offer much overarching sense of progression outside of new unlockables like costumes and flying mounts. Its freeform structure means you're free to travel wherever you like and chat with anyone you take a fancy to, but it's hard to feel like you're working toward any tangible end state.
A better sense of progression can be found in the game's abundance of quiz asteroids. These are ostensibly designed to gauge QT3's progress in learning about humanity, but in practice they're there more for you to have a laugh at yourself over the course of a few dozen humorous quizzes. A typical example presents a ludicrous image of a bulldozer fighting a giant wine glass, asking you whose side you'd take in the fight. Choose the wine glass and the game explains how you've chosen idealism over security, selecting the clear underdog because you're the type to "fight for what you believe in even if it means you will probably lose." Do enough of these quizzes and you can return to your home planet to get a broader evaluation of your personality, which more often than not tends to be an eerily accurate encapsulation of your chosen play style.
And yet, even as a bearded stick figure named Doctor Therapist describes your inner-psyche in thorough detail, Doki-Doki Universe never feels heavy-handed. It guides you along with a light touch, wrapping its warmhearted message in layer after layer of absurdity and humor. This is a strange and wonderful game, one that's equally comfortable exploring the nuances of human interaction as it is sending you through space on a flying piece of poo. Such experiences are rare in games. Then again, there's nothing commonplace about Doki-Doki Universe.