‘Doki Doki Literature Club Plus!’ Review: The Return of the Indie Horror Gem

There’s never been a better time to check out the cult indie hit that offers so much more than meets the eye.

To understand why the legion fanbase of the “Doki Doki Literature Club!” – a free-to-play visual novel released on PC in 2017 – are thrilled with the game’s new $15 Special Edition, it’s easier to start by discussing what made the original game resonate so strongly with its audience. “Doki Doki” is a subversive narrative experience, a clever commentary on gaming, anime, and the people who consume these things, and a contemplative look at serious mental health issues. It’s also a game best experienced by entering with as little information as possible; if you are a newcomer, in short, the game is phenomenal. Stop reading and go play.

For the uninitiated who have only glanced at the game’s cover art or various screenshots, this is all probably a bit confusing. The original “Doki Doki Literature Club” billed itself as a stereotypical cute anime dating simulator; you play as a faceless high school otaku who is coerced by his bubbly childhood friend into joining the school’s little literature club. Your character isn’t interested in literature, but he wants a girlfriend, and the Literature Club is populated by a quartet of lively, pretty women who take an inexplicable liking to the protagonist. The music is light and whimsical and the dialogue plays out in a pink polka dot text box. The members of the Literature Club are presented as a collection of anime tropes – Yuri is the shy but intellectual dandere, Natsuki is the brutal and confrontational tsundere, etc. .

It’s not really a spoiler to note that there’s something darker lurking beneath the surface. The “Doki Doki Plus Literature Club!” The trailer states that the game is a “psychological horror experience,” and both it and the actual game open with a warning that it’s not for children or the easily disturbed. It takes time for the reasoning behind this disclaimer to become apparent, but the slow burn of “Doki Doki” eventually gives way to a payoff that’s both terrifying and emotionally engrossing. It’s a sad, dark game with moments of grotesque violence and tragic dialogue, the latter of which may require players to complete the game multiple times to fully appreciate it. (It should be noted that “Plus” gives players the option of receiving content warnings before the game’s most grisly scenes, which may appeal to horror-averse players or those not into it. comfortable with the mental health issues the game addresses.)

The jarring tone shift in “Doki Doki” isn’t just horror for horror’s sake. As the game spirals out of control, the scares and ongoing narrative are used to deconstruct the stereotypical elements that made up much of its initial dating simulator veneer. The game raises pointed questions about the entertainment mediums it’s a part of, and offers surprisingly insightful thoughts on a number of wider topics. Some of them come in the form of cheeky asides: why does the game assume the player is male? Why do you, the player, presumably think this game is set in Japan when everything is Americanized and in English? Other points are more closely tied to the overall plot of the game and often serve as punch lines as players relate their importance to seemingly innocuous lines of dialogue in the more cheerful parts of the game.

The mix of a fan service anime aesthetic and clever writing likely helped “Doki Doki” catch on quickly, but part of the reason the game’s popularity has endured is likely down to his innovative use of horror. The scares in “Doki Doki” aren’t as frequent or visually extreme as some of its contemporaries in the genre, in games or otherwise, but it achieves much of its horror in a way only possible in a video game. – and in a way that horror video games rarely do.

Most big-budget games in the genre feature gruesome and graphically impressive scenes of action and tension that aim to merge into something like an interactive horror movie. Many of these titles are great on their own, but how many feel like they would only work as a video game, as opposed to a movie or TV show? Visceral interactivity doesn’t have to trump narrative power, and that’s not a problem here: there isn’t much “playability” in “Doki Doki” – almost all the game is about clicking on dialog boxes and the occasional simple word association mini-game in court. one of the members of the Literature Club – but it pokes fun at your sense of control and the things you take for granted in video games in a handful of creative and unsettling ways. These factors complement the more traditional horror elements of “Doki Doki” and make its commentary on the medium all the more effective.

So, “Doki Doki” was a great game when it was released in 2017 and would have been worth spending the money even if it wasn’t free. But what about “More?” The game’s $15 Special Edition is arguably the best way for newcomers to experience “Doki Doki” (and the only way for console players to do so, though the original game is still free on PC and will work on virtually any computer), but for returning fans, the value proposition is a bit nebulous.

Let’s start with the good: the visuals have been updated to 1080p HD and the difference is noticeable; it’s a much prettier game now. There’s also a large amount of unlockable art, such as concept sketches and wallpapers, as well as 26 music tracks if you wanted to keep the game to listen to its soundtrack for whatever reason. Not exactly groundbreaking stuff, but the additions help make ‘Plus’ feel like a more feature-packed package than the original and give dedicated players extra incentive to scour every corner of the game to unlock everything. .

The biggest draw of “Plus” is the addition of several new side stories that take place before the events of the main story and focus on the women of the game before the main game’s player character joins his club. literature. The side stories lack any player input or horror elements; they are, in a word, sweet. This departure from the disturbing themes of the main story – although serious issues are still addressed, the overall tone is much lighter – may divide the “Doki Doki” fan base, but there is a strong argument to be made. argue that they are the perfect complement to the rest of the game.

“Doki Doki” delivers a satisfying horror tale that doesn’t require an expansion, but the “Plus” stories give much-loved depth to characters who have become minor gaming icons in their own right over the past few years. The original game didn’t pass the Bechdel test – which makes sense in the overall scope of its narrative – but the additional content in “Plus” goes to great lengths to flesh out the women of the Literature Club and their relationships with one another. with the others. There’s no interactivity in any of these stories, but the writing is as strong as in the main game, and there’s enough to make the additions feel substantial, even if they’re not directly tied to the main game. “Doki-Doki”. story. It’s a bit of healthy fan service, but all things considered, is that such a bad thing?

Whether that’s a good enough selling point for fans of the original game is debatable. The original “Doki Doki” required players to play large portions of the game multiple times to unlock the “good” ending, which is true in the Special Edition. Replaying sections of the main story is also required to unlock all of the side stories in “Plus”, which can be tedious even with the ability to skip dialogue you’ve already seen. All of the “Plus” side stories are enjoyable, but if you’ve already completed the original game, it can be frustrating to play “Plus” multiple times to unlock all the new content, given that the base game is completely unchanged. .

“Plus” also features an understandable, yet disappointing change from the original game. There was one particularly brilliant moment in the 2017 game that required players to modify the game files on their PC directory to progress and those files also included a handful of easter eggs, both of which greatly added to the game’s metaphysical horror and showed the unique potential of PC gaming. As “Plus” must work on video game consoles, which do not allow such deep file manipulation, these files are instead placed in the game itself, which detracts a bit from the breaking experience of the fourth wall.

These are minor complaints, however, and should matter even less to those who haven’t played the original game yet. “Doki Doki Plus Literature Club!” is a brilliant horror game in its own right and the rare kind of title that celebrates the potential of video games as a unique artistic medium while offering a clever critique of its more regressive tropes and stereotypes about the people who consume them. . It’s really good. Avoid it at your own risk.

Rating: A-

“Doki Doki Plus Literature Club!” is available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Nintendo Switch and PC via Steam and the Epic Games Store. This review was based on a Steam code provided by the Salvato team.

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