The PlayStation Vita’s OLED screen is really something to behold, but sadly, there have been few games to gawk at since the handheld’s release. Sure, technically sound titles like Uncharted: Golden Abyss and Unit 13 do well as little brothers to their PlayStation 3 counterparts, but the creativity that’s so often found on the PlayStation Network hasn’t yet shined on the Vita.
Dokuro, a 2D side-scrolling puzzler inspired by a Japanese children’s book, does its best to meld a handful of unique concepts into a stylish, affordable package. It’s a visually stunning piece of software that forces players to use both dexterity and quick thinking to complete puzzles, and in many ways, captures the art-house feel of the Network’s best creations. Yet, not all the riddles come together to form a cohesive package. New mechanics help keep things fresh early on, but the deluge of stages that vary in quality don’t stay interesting long enough to encourage players to reach the end of Dokuro’s castle. Your eyes will stay glued to the delightful environments that rarely repeat, but there’s just not enough fun to keep players moving forward.
Dokuro isn’t a friendly plumber or adorable, talking animal like most platforming mascots. The character you control in this handheld adventure is nothing but a puny skeleton who garners little respect from his peers. The other members of the Dark Lord’s army are bigger, stronger and more fearsome, but when Dokuro lays eyes on his boss’s most recent prisoner, his courage begins to shine. This captive is a princess that the Dark Lord intends to marry, yet it’s our bony hero who’s really in love. Dokuro, while no one is looking, manages to free the princess from captivity, and it’s up to him to make sure she makes it out of the Dark Lord’s massive castle in one piece.
However, this isn’t just as simple as jumping form platform to platform. Dokuro requires quick reflexes in many situations, but the crux of the gameplay hinges on solving environmental puzzles. Boxes will be pushed and levers pulled, but the slew of levels do well to present you with new, interesting things to do on a mostly regular basis. Chalk, which is accessed by swiping the touchscreen, can both rebuild broken rope and act as a wick for explosive barrels. You’ll have to time explosions to take down walls blocking the exit, and enemies must be taken care of by the weighty bone in Dokuro’s hand and a simple combo system. Expertly timing jumps is crucial if you hope to conquer a wide gap, and gravity may even be defied as you travel deep into the castle. All of these actions are committed so that the princess may reach the bright flower at the end of each stage.
You’ll be asked to rustle into your entire bag of tricks on many of the later puzzles, and with the safety of the princess always in mind, it’d be an understatement to say that there’s a lot going on in this game. Dokuro can even transform into his former human body to perform more proficient actions during combat, and the beauty and color of the world truly pop once some skin is slapped on his bones.
Unfortunately, multiple segments of the game just aren’t fun. You’ll learn new abilities and methods that’ll help you solve puzzles as you go, and with 10 stages consisting of 15 areas each inside the game, there’s plenty of time to grow an impressive arsenal of techniques. There’s well over a dozen hours of gameplay, but I found myself growing tired of the grind when faced with the more complex, mechanical sequences. Some locations are quick and rewarding to complete, delivering that satisfying “ah-ha” moment you want in a puzzle game. Other spots grow frustrating as more elements are introduced, and while I found myself a bit stumped on a puzzle from time to time, too many levels were less about solving a riddle and more about completing a string of tedious actions. I’d enter a room, observe the pieces I was given, discover the answer and dread actually completing the full list of actions required to get the constantly advancing princess from start to finish.
Additionally, the unvarying threat of death from both the environment and enemies crawling around only stunted my excitement to a greater degree. Dokuro, or the princess who seems to enjoy running into the mouth of danger, can meet a quick end by various means, and though levels rarely take longer than five minutes, it’s frustrating to restart a stage that you’ve already solved. There’s quality to be found through the 150 areas, but you’ll have to trudge through some stinkers to find the gold.
Even if you’re not always having fun playing Dokuro, its chalky art direction and fluid animations are something special. This isn’t a technical marvel, but instead an artistic vision fully realized on the PlayStation Vita. The castle appears monochromatic while you’re walking around as a bag of bones, but transforming into human form lets loose a sea of hues that transform everything on screen. A solid soundtrack also helps to make this a treat for the senses, and possibly even one of the prettiest handheld games out there.
Even so, the beautiful packaging isn’t enough to make Game Arts’ Dokuro an enjoyable experience throughout its entire 15 or 20 hours of gameplay. There’s plenty to do and see as you attempt to free the princess from the grasp of the Dark Lord, but it just doesn’t all come together to create an engaging experience. Content-starved Vita owners should give Dokuro a look, and fans of a good puzzler may find something they like within the different levels. At $20, you’re getting plenty of bang for your buck, but I just grew tired of the lovable skeleton’s quest well before the finale.
Dokuro was developed by Game Arts, and published by GungHo. A PlayStation Vita copy was provided by the publisher for the purposes of review.