Back in July, a little budget-priced puzzle platformer by the name of Dokuro quietly made its way onto the Japanese PSN. Perhaps it was due to Japan’s aversion to download-only games, or perhaps they feared that the lower price meant it was a subpar title, but whatever the reason, Dokuro came and went with little fanfare. Though the Japanese version came equipped with a full English localization, making it very import-friendly for those willing to jump through Sony’s hoops to access the Japanese PSN on their PS Vitas, the newly-formed GungHo Online Entertainment America surprised many by announcing that it would be their first title for North America. Thanks to them, Dokuro can reach a whole new audience, and it’s definitely in the running to be one of the best puzzle titles of 2012.
If Ico were a 2D platformer
Dokuro‘s story is told through minimalist dialogue, with an emphasis on character movement and emotion reminiscent of a black-and-white film that is further emphasised by the game’s distinct, chalk-on-blackboard-like art style. The premise is simple: the little skeleton Dokuro is a minion of the Dark Lord, who has kidnapped a princess to make his bride. Dokuro is tasked with watching her, but he quickly finds himself head-over-bones in love and decides to defy his master and help the princess escape her castle prison full. Unfortunately, the princess can’t see Dokuro in his skeletal form, so she doesn’t even know who to thank for coming to her rescue.
The game consists of short, bite-sized 2D levels that Dokuro must guide the princess through safely to reach a checkpoint objective. Much like Ico‘s Yorda, the princess is virtually helpless, and will simply walk forward through the level until she reaches an obstacle, which more than often means walking to her own demise. As Dokuro, players must interact with a variety of environmental puzzles to clear the way for the princess using a variety of abilities and tools that are introduced over the game’s 150 levels.
150 levels may sound endless, but levels are generally very short, taking only a couple of minutes to complete, but increase in difficulty all the way up to half-hour headscratchers. The game even provides the option to skip difficult levels and return to them later for up to 10 levels at a time (meaning you can’t infinitely skip), which is probably the most ingenious feature I’ve ever seen in a puzzle game. It’s wonderful to be able to skip a frustrating level and come back to it later with a fresh mind while still making progress in the game, rather than being forced to solve every puzzle in the order they’re given to you. Hopefully other developers will catch on and implement this feature in their own titles, as it works especially well with the pick-up-and-play nature of handheld games.
Never fear, Dokuro is here!
Players control Dokuro with a combination of touch-based input and classic button controls that work surprisingly well together. At the beginning of the game, Dokuro can simply jump and interact with objects, but he later gains a variety of powers, including a blue potion that changes him into a prince for a limited period of time. As the prince, Dokuro is visible to the princes and can attack with his sword (the bone he uses as a skeleton stuns enemies, but doesn’t kill them) as well as carry her, which is instrumental in solving many of the game’s puzzles. Though some may be put off by the fact that this ability is executed by a double tap of either the front or rear touch panels, it can easily be reassigned to a button at any time in the options menu.
In addition to the ability to transform into a prince, Dokuro also receives a special piece of chalk that can be used in a number of different scenarios. Chalk comes in different colors that enable Dokuro to interact with the environment in a number of ways: white can be used to connect objects with rope, while red directs fire to lamps or kegs to light them, and blue manipulates the flow of water. The elemental abilities in particular, which are executed by drawing lines on the Vita’s front touch screen, are strongly reminiscent of how players use a sumi-e brush to interact with the enviroment in Okami (and are also a painful reminder of how glorious Okami HD could have been on the Vita).
Put that thinking cap on
Dokuro may look and feel rather simplistic for the first few levels, but they gradually increase in difficulty to the point that even the most hardened puzzle fans will likely find themselves stumped at least once. Just when players start to feel like they’ve got the hang of all the tricks the game can throw at them, it introduces the ability to defy gravity, shifting the perspective from right to left to top to bottom. It’s not uncommon for the game to throw a curveball at players, populating levels with objects that don’t need to be used to solve the puzzle of getting to the other side, which means you’ll always need to be on your toes. Even over 150 levels, Dokuro manges to keep things fresh through the game’s 15 different stages, each ending with a boss battle (that is also a puzzle) and short story sequence.
It’s hard to knock Dokuro for much of anything, but unfortunately some of the touch controls are rather finicky, and the music, though nice, gets repetitive after a while. The puzzles can be downright infuriating, especially if you’ve spent a good five minutes setting up the perfect route to get the princess through a level only to mess up the timing and have to start over from the beginning, but how frustrated the game will make you depends entirely on how much you like puzzles in the first place. Since each level is relatively short, you’ll never be thrown back very far.
All in all, Dokuro is a near-perfect puzzle platformer that is right at home on the PS Vita and simply oozes with charm. Though it isn’t without the occasional niggling flaw, it stands out as one of the best, most innovative puzzle games of 2012 for its thought-provoking levels and intuitive gameplay. Here’s hoping the game does well enough to garner a sequel, or at the very least inspire other developers to push their own puzzle games in new directions.
- Release Date: October 16, 2012
- Genre: Puzzle platformer
- Platform: PS Vita
- Developer: Game Arts
- Publisher: GungHo Online Entertainment America
- ESRB Rating: E10+
- MSRP: $19.99
Our Score: 4.5/5
Editor’s note: A download code of the game was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.