Two years ago, the indie puzzle-platformer Limbo mesmerized gamers with its stark black and white graphics, mind-bending puzzles, and unexpected amount of gore and child dismemberment. Everyone played the critically lauded, award winning game for its soundtrack, visuals and brilliant game design that was frustrating without ever feeling unfair as long as you were thinking hard enough. Apparently SOMEONE since then thought Limbo just wasn’t Japanese enough. And that guy made Dokuro.
A kidnapped princess's only chance of escape lies with an ally she can’t even see. As a little skeleton guy, it’s your job to guide the princess through the castle’s dangerous halls laden with traps and enemies.
Dokuro is a puzzle-platformer, so naturally you’ll do lots of jumping and thinking -- usually one more thanthe other. Each level consists of a room, and in these rooms you must create a clear path for the princess to walk to the other end. You’ll progress if she makes it across safely, but if she’s hurt or you die, you fail and must restart the level. Pretty basic stuff. The problem is the game doesn’t really move on from that basic stuff.
Different colors of chalk give players new abilities along the way. For instance, white chalk creates walls and rope, while red chalk ignites like a fuse and carries a flame from one place to another to light a canon or a torch. The skeleton guy also pushes and pulls objects to create bridges or move bombs, and has the ability to transform. He can morph from the weak, yet nimble, little skeleton boy into a handsome, strong prince with a sword. The skeleton double-jumps and pushes enemies without hurting them, but the prince kills enemies with his sword and carry the princess. He can’t jump with her though, only drop to lower platforms. However, fall too far and you’ll both hit the ground a little too hard.
The rooms are collected into stages, each representing an area deeper into the castle. Usually at the end of the stage will be a boss fight. The boss fights are the only time you don’t need to worry about the princess and she’ll be trapped in a cage and you’re free to focus entirely on the fight. Each boss plays pretty similarly and kind of loses the puzzle aspect of the game. Hit, retreat, hit retreat, dodge fire/enemy, hit, retreat. The puzzle-solving aspect is already pretty weak in the regular game to begin with.
Like I said, each room is fraught with peril and the princess is too goddamn stupid to take care of herself. So it’s up to you as the big strong man to make sure no harm comes to her as she aimlessly wanders forward, sometimes directly into fire or a giant hellbeast. I’m... I’m just not gonna get into the gender politics of the game. Let’s just say the plot isn’t very progressive. To protect her, you’ll fill gaps with crates, blow up walls, dispatch enemies, turn off harmful mechanisms like flamethrowers and die constantly.
Dokuro is structured just as a puzzle game should be. The player is presented with an array of abilities, which is added to all the time, and trained in each item or power. Once the player has become sufficiently adept at using enough new abilities, puzzles will start to incorporate more of what you’ve learned. But it never quite hits that state of puzzle game nirvana that a great puzzler will instill in its player. If a Professor Layton puzzle is exceptionally hard, it may take an extra while to figure it out. But when you do, you feel like a freakin’ genius. The longest puzzles in Dokuro were stages that I’d already figured out -- it was just the execution that was so easy to screw up that kept me there. A big chunk of the puzzles involve a series of actions like pulling switches or pushing boxes, and death is around every corner. Sometimes I’ll have a puzzle perfectly set up, only to be killed right at the end and have to repeat the same thing over and over. It rarely feels like I’m just missing one little piece or overlooking a clue that could unlock everything in my brain. Levels in Dokuro range from too-easy to too-hard with little ground in-between. If things veer get too frustrating, you can skip up to 10 levels, but that’s it. A hint system would have been nice, but for now it’s figure it out on your own or don’t.
In the end, Dokuro is what it is: a sometimes fun but usually kind of boring action/puzzle game. If jumping and pushing blocks is your thing, check it out. There are way better things coming out for the Vita, and Limbo kind of does everything this does but way better and sharper. There’s so much of Dokuro, but a lot of it feels like chaff that could have been cut out. I hate to keep comparing it to Limbo, but the similarities certainly are there. Limbo is such a tight, sharp experience with so little fat and Dokuro just ends up feeling like a slog for most of the time. Maybe pick it up if it’s on sale, but there are games that do the same things much better, are prettier, and for cheaper.