Review: Dokuro

Dokuro

Marketing hype will have you believe that portable adaptations of major console franchises like Uncharted, Assassin’s Creed, Resistance and Call of Duty are the PlayStation Vita’s best games, but for me it’s the more obscure, offbeat gems like Dokuro that make the Vita library so special.

Equal parts diminutive and heroic, the titular Dokuro is a skeletal minion of the Dark Lord’s army who turns from the path of darkness to rescue a princess his evil master has captured and intends to force into enslaved marriage. Our bone-a-fide hero’s daring rescue attempt has players guiding the lovely damsel in distress on a treacherous run to freedom through more than a dozen trap- and monster-laden floors of the Dark Lord’s castle. This task plays out in the style of a 2D puzzle platformer in which players are called upon to escort the princess past rooms filled with spikes that must be avoided, pits that must be crossed, crates that must be pushed, switches that must be flipped, and evil minions that must be defeated or out run.

The catch is that you only have direct control over Dokuro himself. As you move through a level, the princess flees for her life on auto pilot, only stopping her forward gait at barriers or ledges, or to run backwards in terror if an enemy gets close enough to spook her. The other twist is Dokuro’s shape shifting ability. In his tiny skeleton form, he can more nimbly navigate dangerous passageways and double-jump to higher areas, but at the press of the right shoulder button (or a double tap on the touch screen, which isn’t nearly as responsive) he can transform into a valiant undead knight for a short period of time. In this form, he is able to fight back against his former comrades with a sword instead of the wimpy bone club his smaller self uses, and he can also lift the princess into his boney arms and quickly carry her away from danger.

Puzzles and hazards start out with basic spiked-pit and box-and-switch conundrums, but as the hero and his precious gal pal venture through the Dark Lord’s fortress the riddles get more complicated, the pitfalls more dangerous. Eventually Dokuro will have to blow up weak walls with exploding barrels, leap across moving platforms and swinging pendulums, use gravity-shifting switches to turn the ceiling into the floor, and create pathways across pools of water. Deadlier traps, such as ceiling crushers, conveyor belts, shooting streams of fire, arrow shooters and buzz saws, further test the player’s platforming skills, in addition to the mental battle that is already being waged against the puzzles. Oh, and there are boss battles too, for just the right amount of classic pattern recognition combat.

To overcome these advanced obstacles, Dokuro gradually unlocks special chalk abilities which allow him to interact with the environment in different ways. Standard white chalk is used to repair certain contraptions, for example to draw a rope reattaching a stone ball to its original position swinging from the ceiling. Red chalk creates a trail of fire from one point to another, perhaps to light a series of unlit candelabras or to ignite the fuse of an explosive barrel. Blue chalk, finally, is used for manipulating water, to raise the level of the blue liquidy stuff in a certain area to float a box up to where the princess can hop aboard like it’s a raft.

A mere swipe on the touch screen commands these magical lines of chalk to do your bidding, and the rest of the game’s mechanics are similarly tight and easy to control. The inability to pan the camera or get a full view of the puzzle area, a command not uncommon in games of this sort, is definitely a bummer though. Failure and trial-and-error aggravation strikes at times simply due to the fact that you have no way of seeing what’s ahead. However, the developers do offer a handy helper option in the form of a skip function which allows the player to jump ahead to the next level. But only 10 skips can be used over the course of the adventure so they’re best saved for particularly vexing puzzles (although stock can be replenished by completing a previously skipped puzzle).

Despite its seemingly small stature, Dokuro is a surprisingly large game. Obviously play time will vary based on each player’s ability to visualize puzzle solutions and time jump-button presses, but most players can expect at least 10-15 gameplay hours the first time through. Coins hidden in each puzzle, speed running to improve checkpoint completion times, and the hunt for the coveted Platinum trophy will easily boost play time beyond the 20 hour barrier from there.

Longevity is great and all, but I do think the game could have been a bit tighter paced, because towards the end, after all puzzle mechanics have been introduced and the archaic boss rush final stretch kicks in, the game does feel a bit padded. I also wish the game were designed to better accommodate the extensive replay it offers. When you return to previous levels to improve completion times or find missing gold coins, the game automatically continues on to the next area without an option to simply go back to the level selection menu. Instead you have to quit to the title screen before returning to choose the next area to replay. It’s one unnecessary extra step that only serves to slow you down.

Small quirks like this and the others I’ve mentioned are but minor blemishes on what is altogether a delightful and addictive side-scrolling puzzler. Dokuro’s varied challenges of mental acuity and reflex platforming are lovingly woven together by an endearing story that unfolds like a Tim Burton movie turned into a chalk-drawn animated fairytale. This combination of fun, thoughtful gameplay and storytelling charm is nothing short of pure puzzle-gaming magic.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Addictive mix of smart puzzle solving and platforming
+ Evolving variety of mechanics, puzzles and hazards
+ Chalk-drawn graphics lay on the charm
+ Lengthy adventure with high replay value

Cons:
– Game feels somewhat padded towards the end
– Inability to pan camera or view entire puzzle space
– Level selection interface isn’t fully optimized for quick replay

Game Info:
Platform: PlayStation Vita via PSN
Publisher: GungHo Online Entertainment America
Developer: Game Arts
Release Date: 10/16/2012
Genre: Puzzle Platformer
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!