I love a good puzzle-platformer, so much so that if I were tasked with designing my ideal game, it would probably involve a fair amount of jumping and puzzling. I do, however, have a significant beef with the direction the genre has taken in recent times. The problem is that somewhere along the line, the platforming aspect has become an afterthought. In games like Braid, Closure, and even to some extent Limbo, platforming has been relegated to a crutch whose only real purpose is to keep the focus, the puzzles, from becoming a complete abstraction. Admittedly the jumping is sometimes an integral part of a puzzle, but rarely, if ever, in these games is there platforming-for-platforming’s sake, and they suffer as a result. Dokuro, on the other hand, is an example of a genuine puzzle-platformer. Not only does it feature a good number of exquisitely designed puzzles (on a par with the likes of Braid), but these are mixed in with traversal elements that are as good as those of any traditional platformer.
Some of the enemies are genuinely creepy.
What makes this balance even more impressive is the complexity layered on top of these core mechanics. The player controls Dokuro (literally ‘skull’ in Japanese), a skeleton who can transform into a prince. Choosing the correct form at any given point is crucial to success, as each has its own abilities and weaknesses. Dokuro’s goal is to help the princess escape from the ‘Dark Lord’s’ castle. (Exactly what is going on here is only really fleshed out in the game’s closing cutscene. Suffice it to say you’re not going to miss a great deal if you never see it.) The catch is that the princess is apparently the product of hundreds of years of royal inbreeding. Her only function is to walk left to right across the screen, and to die. A lot. The player’s role is to prepare a path for the princess to escape. Beyond the standard tropes of pushing and pulling blocks and bombs, Dokuro has at his disposal three different colours of chalk which are applied via the touchscreen. I won’t spoil anything, but each of them has a very different effect on the environment. Oh…and gravity manipulation crops up too.
What we are left with is effectively a puzzle-platformer-cum-escort-quest with both ranged and mêlée combat, walking on the ceiling and a rudimentary drawing mechanic. This should be a mess, but it isn’t. It’s brilliant. Some of this lies with the core mechanics; the puzzles are clever, and the platforming controls are tight. Beyond this though, the developers have shown restraint in managing all these different elements. Unlike most escort quests, protecting the princess never reduced me to a gibbering wreck because, despite her lack of smarts, she knows enough to stop walking when the next step will kill her. You also learn pretty quickly that the developers have been very careful with respect to how many of your tools will be required to complete a level. I can’t recall, for example, a section which I needed to use all three types of chalk to pass. (This is not without its drawbacks – once or twice I found myself stuck, only to remember the blue chalk, which I hadn’t used in about thirty levels.)
The Dark Lord – not as friendly as he looks.
It’s also a really nice looking game, if not especially ambitious. The chalk theme is reflected in the art, which has a grainy look much like that of chalkboard drawings. The animation is very simple, and combines with the art style to give the whole thing the feel of an old Eastern-European cartoon (a little like ‘Worker and Parasite’, for those long-time Simpsons fans). The bosses are probably the artistic highlight. One or two of them are impressively grotesque and really quite nightmarish. If I have a complaint about the presentation, it’s that the backgrounds are pretty drab and repetitive, but they are consistent with the art style as a whole. The music is appropriate but forgettable – twee, with a dash of fairytale kitsch.
I’m going to pre-empt the perennial question of whether this wouldn’t be more successful on the PS3. Absolutely not. First, gone would be the tactile aspect of the drawing mechanic, which would be a big loss to the feel of the game. Beyond this though, Dokuro really feels like a game that has been built with handhelds in mind. Most of the games 150-odd levels are very short. Once you have worked out what to do, a majority of them can be completed within a minute or two. For the last few weeks I have kept Dokuro open almost constantly open on my Vita, picking it up for a few minutes at a time to knock off a level or two. The game also offers a fair amount of replayability, at least for trophy hunters (platinum) and crazy people. Each level in the game has a coin to collect, some of which are very difficult, and there are also a number of trophies related to finishing the game within a certain time. Were I playing it on the PS3 there’s no chance I would go back to this game. On the Vita I can see myself returning to it for some time, trying to shave a few seconds off a level here and a level there.
Things start to get a bit complicated after a while.
For me, Dokuro is in many respects the perfect handheld game. As a puzzle-platformer it is absolutely top tier, and its design makes it ideally suited to being played in small chunks. This aside, I’m not about to suggest that it’s a must for everyone. Firstly, it can be frustrating – infuriatingly so. If trial and error are a bummer, this game may not be for you. I will also admit that Dokuro is a little longer than it needs to be. There was one egregious instance of repetition late in the game that was just unnecessary and drove me to distraction. However if, like me, you have a masochistic streak, Dokuro has a lot to recommend it. Some of the puzzles are absolutely diabolical, and solving them gave me more of a sense of satisfaction than I’ve derived from a game in some while (I hasten to add that just how diabolical you find the puzzles will depend on just how much smarter you are than me. I’m not that bright.) In fact, I would go so far as to say that much of the time it’s more satisfying than it is fun. The game currently retails for around ￥2,000 in Japan, which I would guess will put it in the $15-$20 range once it hits the US (which seems likely – the cart comes complete with support for half-a-dozen languages). For Vita owners who are attracted to the idea of a puzzle-platformer in the truest sense, and who aren’t averse to a bit of a challenge, Dokuro is a gem.