Beautiful, but bare-bones
Princesses, Dark Lords, menacing castles, dashing Prince Charmings — you’ve seen it all before, right?
But what if I told you the dashing prince was actually a skeletal servant of the Dark Lord, who, after a moral conundrum, decided to save the princess himself, and turn into a Prince Charming in the process?
Enter Dokuro — a wholly interesting concept for the Vita with a few mechanical problems.
Dokuro (PlayStation Vita)
Developer: Game Arts
Publisher: GungHo Online Entertainment America
Released: October 16, 2012
Dokuro is a Vita-exclusive puzzle platformer that gives off the aura of an Edward Scissorhands-era Tim Burton film (you know, when Burton was good), which is simply mesmerizing to look at. From the bondage-heavy conniving demons that inhabit the Dark Lord’s castle, to the creepily cute Dokuro himself, I couldn’t help but fall in love with the game’s art style.
The premise is fairly minimalistic, yet gripping: a princess has been captured by an evil Dark Lord, and Dokuro, a simple skeleton servant, has a change of heart and decides to rescue said princess. There’s only one problem — the princess can’t actually see Dokuro in his normal form — he has to drink a potion that temporarily turns him into a prince for him to be visible.
Obvious social commentary aside, this has a really cool effect from a gameplay standpoint. As you lead the princess through each stage, Ico style, you’ll have to make the decision to switch between Dokuro’s nimble, yet invisible skeleton form, and his physical prince form, which is more combat capable, and can actually pick up the princess and move her out of harm’s way.
With the simple touch of a button (or the touch screen), Dokuro can morph into the dashing prince for a limited time, which limits his ability to double jump, but increases his combat prowess tenfold, and allows him to manipulate the princess either out of harm’s way, or quickly get her to the exit. You obtain the Prince Potion fairly early in the game, and it recharges constantly, so there’s no issue of being completely shortchanged should you decide to switch.
The princess herself moves automatically, usually with mixed results and some frustration. For starters, she can’t fall even one simple step on her own, and if she falls too far (which is a very small window, by the way), she takes damage. Heck, fairly consistently, she’ll walk on spikes if you’re not careful. If pretty much anything happens to her, she dies, and the level completely restarts.
I feel like I also have to warn you before you get too far into the review: if you’re looking for a challenge, look no further than Dokuro. Although it’s never impossible, I was stumped more than a few times throughout my playthrough, to the point where a number of the game’s 150 levels took me at least thirty minutes to figure out.
One perfect example is levels involving explosive barrels. In some stages, these can be lit by torches on the wall — but others, inferno enemies have to meander into them — leaving you at the mercy of the AI to complete a required puzzle in the level.
Everything needs to go right to complete some of the later levels in Dokuro, and it can get pretty frustrating when you set up a grandiose plan for ten minutes, only to be brought back to the very beginning of a level, back to square one (there are no mid-level checkpoints).
Boss fights, like the rest of the game, are also puzzles, and are easily the best part of the experience. An army of fiendish, terrifying ghouls and demons seek to end your quest, and, as is the case with most of the game, they’re just as fun to fight as they are to look at. I don’t want to spoil anything, but you’ll easily have your best “eureka!” moments during these, which is how the rest of the game should have felt like.
Level design issues aside, one of the coolest things about Dokuro from a gameplay perspective is that there’s no “level complete” stat screen — after reaching a flower at the end of every stage, you’ll see your clear time at the end for a second, and the next stage will begin instantly. Every ten levels, you’ll advance the story, and come across a new gameplay concept to integrate into your memory banks. There’s also optional collectable coins to grab in every level — some of which are fiendishly hidden.
Touch screen controls can get a little dicey, even if they’re barely used. You’ll need to touch the screen to use chalk, which is one of the major puzzle solving elements the game has to offer. Utilizing white, red, and blue chalk, you can connect objects, light fires, and create water respectively.
While it’s a cool concept at first, you’ll quickly become frustrated due to how finicky the actual connections can be. If you want to connect an object or create a fuse, you pretty much have to be spot-on perfect with your drawing — and even then, you could end up spending a while on some puzzles.
One level in particular featured a number of cannons that needed to be lit by a red chalk fuse — on a number of instances it took me at least four or five tries to get the object to interact with the chalk correctly. Thankfully, you can customize the hero switch ability to trigger with the simple press of the R button, leaving chalk the only other touch screen function.
Dokuro is also exclusively a digital game, with no physical release in sight. While a $20 pricepoint may seem ballsy, keep in mind that this was a full retail release in Japan — and for good reason — it’s long.
There are 15 worlds with 10 stages each, which equates to 150 levels. A lot of stages can take as little as thirty seconds, but as I stated previously, some puzzles are so vexing that you could spend the better part of an afternoon on them. You can skip up to 10 stages, but given the sheer amount of them found in the game in total, you may find yourself “saving” them for a rainy day and using them more sparingly.
Dokuro is a frustrating, and occasionally fantastic game. It’s a shame that there are a number of levels that felt phoned in and the touch controls are so off and on, as the art style and character designs do a great job of drawing you in.