From the outside Doki Doki Literature Club looks like your average dating sim/visual novel. Cute girls to bicker and fight for the protagonist’s affections: check. Cute and ditzy stereotype: check. Quiet and shy stereotype: check. Hard on the outside but soft and cute on the inside stereotype: check. All accounted for. However, the game makes it very clear from the outset, with its warning message, that Doki Doki has much to find and offer behind its sweet and cuddly facade.
For anybody that doesn’t enjoy or usually play visual novels and dating sims (raises hand), Doki Doki can be quite the hard sell. You are instantly greeted by bright and vibrant colours, anime art styles and the same bubbly music on a constant loop. There is a lot, and I mean a lot, of text to read through, no voice acting to share the workload, and each character has about two sprites each which are recycled and rotated heavily. In short, all of the things you would expect from a visual novel. The game takes the largest chunk of its playtime setting up the dating sim formula and adhering to tropes and stereotypes of the genre. Whilst this part probably takes a little too long to get through, it is vital to the experience that will be had by the end of the game.
The first section introduces you to the four girls of the school's literature club, of which you are coerced into joining, despite having no interest in the subject. The first girl is Sayori, a childhood friend and neighbour who you have grown apart from. Sayori is the girl who introduces you to the club and has a clumsy and cute personality. The second girl is Monica, the president of the literature club. She is a popular student who decided to tackle the challenges of starting her own club she is passionate about, rather than deal with the politics she experienced in an already established club. The third girl is Natsuki, she is the youngest of the group and therefore always feels like she has the most to prove. Her hard and defensive exterior masks her soft interior. The final member is Yuri who is shy, nervous and introverted. Her passion for literature however, allows her to express herself in ways she finds difficult in her daily life. The main concept of the game (except for reading) is that as part of the club you have to write your own poetry. This essentially boils down to picking choice words, with each of the possible options having an affinity with a particular girl. So in essence you are writing poetry for the girl of your choice. Welcome to the world of dating sims.
The task of writing poetry not only allows you to determine the lady you will choose, but also allows you to delve deeper into the psyche of the four girls. I genuinely cared about the characters and that is a testament to the standard of writing. Yes, there is a lot to read but when it is this well written, it makes the experience both engaging and fulfilling. There is a part in the game, later on, as the mood and story darken where swear words are used in the dialogue. Even though I was reading the text, and there was no voice acting, these occasions had such a huge impact on me. They were a clear reflection of the route this game was taking and the tone it was setting. I usually don’t appreciate swear words in a game as it can be an indicator of lazy writing or used in such abundance it becomes irritating, which is not the case here.
The game is a definite slow burner and takes its time to get to the meaty and gripping parts of the story. This allows it to lay its foundations, build its connections and set its expectations, all so it can subvert them and shock you later on. When things turn, and boy do they turn, Doki Doki is hard hitting. The warning message at the start of the game is there for a reason. It tackles very relevant issues in depression and anxiety, and is very vivid in its approach, it does not shy away at all. Being so front and centre with such themes, which are very relatable, is a very uncommon practice in video games. Although these are extreme examples and used basically to be the foundation of a horror game, I really appreciated the approach that was taken here.
This game is great, with minimal or no negatives.
Doki Doki Literature Club is a mind boggling and hard hitting horror game that takes tried and tested formulas of both visual novels and dating sims and turns them on their heads. The themes and story pack a punch, and stayed with me long after I had finished playing. It may require commitment from some to get through but the reward for those who stick it is more than worth it