Developer: Game Arts
Publisher: GungHo Online Entertainment America
Available on: PlayStation Vita
The indie platformer has proven to be one of the most reliable genres in gaming over the past few years, experiencing something of a commercial and critical renaissance in a market clogged up by sports games and first person shooters. Whether you are playing on a PC, handheld or console, you can delve into a veritable treasure trove of expertly-crafted titles, the likes of which I could only ever have dreamed about in my formative gaming years where the platformer was King.
The key to creating a game that will stand out from the crowd is often in the premise, or in certain cases, a damn good gimmick. Limbo had the monochrome visuals and over-arching sense of dread. Dust; An Elysian Tale married Metroidvania hack and slash exploring to beautifully drawn anime aesthetics. And who could forget the time-travelling, screen rotating joys of Braid and Fez, respectively? On paper, Dokuro sounds like another treat. Unique chalk-drawing-based graphical style, clever escort-mission puzzle-platforming, a neat character-swap mechanic, and a strangely loveable skeletal protagonist. The question is, in practise, have Game Arts been able to combine all of these winning elements into a satisfying, PS Vita whole?
Dokuro places you in control of an unconventionally cute little skeleton dude, whose job it is to escort the Princess out of a series of highly dangerous, hazard-filled levels (an impressive 150 in total). The Princess is, for want of a better description, a bit of an airhead. She moves perpetually, which means that she will walk into spike-filled chasms, run away in a particularly girlie fashion upon encountering an enemy, and generally get crushed and maimed a fair amount. For the Princess, reaching the pretty flower that marks the goal on each level is all that occupies that pretty little princess mind of hers. And that is very sad, as the little bag of bones trying to save her is actually, y’know, in lurve with her. That’s right – unlike Mario, who only seems to give a flying one when peach gets taken by Bowser, this little skullboy dreams of being a hunky prince who can sweep her off her feet, rather than a creepy-looking walking dog treat. Lucky for him then, that he has a number of tricks in his arsenal to assist his labour of love.
To begin with you find yourself pulling switches to lower platforms, pushing crates on top of spiked pits, and using a bony appendage to attack and pin back enemies. Later on you gain an extra special power up –a potion which allows you to transform into a Prince who wields a sword and is able to pick the Princess up in his arms and bound across the levels in a vision of romantic, dashing cool. Poingnantly, when in Prince Charming mode, the Princess actually notices Dokuro, enabling him to live out his fantasies albeit only for a limited period. Best of all are the chalks you are given over time, which make fine use of the Vita’s touch screen functionality. A white chalk allows you to draw a line between objects in order to connect them, such as creating a wrecking ball by linking a boulder to the ceiling in order to smash down a wall and allow access. A blue chalk allows you to fill up the screen with water, whilst the incendiary red chalk allows you to draw a fuse between flames and an intended target to raze it to the ground. These abilities are drip-fed over the course of the game, and along with the collectable hidden coins, ensure that there is plenty of variety to keep you interested and even encourage replays. There are also boss battles, which do not involve the Princess, giving you a break from the hand-holding side of things.
While it all looks very quaint and the special chalky abilities sound like fun, in practise there are problems. You can only employ them at pre-determined intervals, meaning that unlike other titles (some of the DS Kirby games spring to mind), you are unable to make use of them willy-nilly – everything is regimented and there is no freestyle sense of innovation and fun in the way you use them. Sometimes it can be tricky to actually draw a line exactly where you want it, too – which can lead to extreme annoyance in sections where quickly filling a pit with water or drawing a line with perfect timing is crucial, leading to Princess-related death and frustration when the screen won’t let you draw it with the desired accuracy. Thankfully these occurrences are few and far between. My other bugbear is the fact that quite a few of the levels rely on simple twitch platforming, with very little in the way of puzzling at all. And while the game is pleasant, without the appearance of a decent mind-bending puzzle or some chalk action it lacks the genuine world-class platforming of other games of recent years.
VERDICT: Dokuro is a lengthy, charming platformer that, when on top of its game, provides a fine puzzle challenge with some extremely well-designed levels and a wonderful chalky art style, deeply reminiscent of a childrens’ book or the works of Tim burton, that really captures the imagination. It is keenly priced – something that will irk Japanese gamers who had to shell out full price for their release of the game – and provides a decent challenge. While it doesn’t push itself into the upper echelons of what is available elsewhere on the PlayStation Store, it is certainly one of the best to have arrived for the PlayStation Vita, and on a system starved of attention, you could do worse than snaffle this up for some Princess-saving fun.