Visual novel adventure
IMAGINE the most basic visual novel, set in a high school where you play the main character and you are given several girls to potentially date.
But to get any of the girls to like you (as a player), you must write poems to the girls to impress them. However, the game doesn’t want you to get any of the girls. Meanwhile, you’re screaming at your computer screen.
That is what the Doki Doki Literature Club game is basically all about.
Marketed rather slyly as an off-the-mill visual novel by the freshly debuted developers at Team Salvato.
The team is helmed by lead developer and writer Dan Salvato, who was formerly rather famous among the Super Smash Bros. Melee community.
The game is available free on the Steam Store. But make no mistake, however, this game does come at a certain cost that isn’t money. The price you pay is your soul, that’s an exaggeration, but you’ll come to understand that as you play the game.
Here’s how the game starts. You play a main character that you name yourself, though I highly suggest you pick a name that isn’t yours as you may regret that later. You meet your childhood friend who suggests that you join the school’s literature club.
In the club, you meet four girls who are all members of the club, including the childhood friend. This sets up the most basic premise, that wouldn’t be strange to those familiar with Japanese anime or visual novels.
Doki Doki Literature Club is made up of two basic components. The first is a very familiar interface to those experienced with visual novels. You have a background image telling the player of the current location and time, character sprites and a textbox and cheerful music to go along with everything — for the most part. Click anywhere on the screen and you forward the narrative at your own reading pace.
The second component is a mini game where you must write a poem. To do so, you choose a word among several given words in a notebook.
Depending on which word you pick, a chibi version of the girls’ character sprites will jump in joy in response. Make the character whom you want jump in joy enough times and you’ll lock yourself on to that character’s route — sort of.
This is where the game breaks several traditions associated with visual novels. And talking about this any further will spoil the game for you. So, I’ll leave that for you to discover. However, allow me to review the game objectively for you.
First, let’s look at the music. Doki Doki Literature Club uses a variety of extremely simple soundtracks to accompany the experience with over 20 music tracks scattered across the game. The soundtrack for the first half of the game employs a lot of cutesy elements with instruments such as pianos, percussive synths, and wind instruments you’d probably be able to find in any high school music classroom. There’s a jovial aspect to it that’ll make you feel like you’re in a nursery at times. It relaxes the player and creates a sense that nothing could possible go wrong.
At this point, it’s worth noting that the Steam Store page for the game tags the game as psychological horror. That isn’t a mistake. Despite being simple tunes mostly in the key C Major, the music is ingeniously interwoven with the narrative.
Alternate versions of the tracks are used to great effect and it’s always worth it to note the changes made as they do add to what’s being told to the player, on top of the visuals. A strong instantly recognisable leitmotif makes an appearance throughout the game to tie every piece together.
There’s nothing groundbreaking in the terms of compositional prowess but it excels where it needs to.
Secondly, the visuals. Normally I’d tell you that there isn’t much to say regarding the visuals of a visual novel because it’s far from being as complicated as your standard modern multimillion dollar triple-A video game title.
However, there are several surprises to be had. Animated particle effects add subtlety in certain scenes and gives them an incredible dimension to what’s basically a still image (most of the time).
And other visual treats are used to add emotional intensity to the story being told.
Every trick in the book that Team Salvato had access to was very likely thrown at some of their more elaborate scenes and it pays off. Certain character-specific artworks will leave you wondering how this visual novel could afford to be released for free. My wallet isn’t complaining, however. The pastel pink and white colour palette of the user interface that adorns most of the game works surprisingly well over the more solid earth tones and blues that appear as the background and in character art.
Lastly, let’s talk about replay ability. As with most visual novels or any video game with differing story branches and endings depending on player choice, like Bioware’s Mass Effect trilogy, this is a game that requires you to go back to the start and play it.
I’d even go so far as saying this visual novel makes it crucial to replay it. The experience is not complete until you see the end credits. However, be sure to go in and play your first run blind. Try not to read up on walkthroughs too much until you hit a wall, which some players will hit. But it’s all part of the experience so don’t worry too much. It’s a short game, that will take you a good two hours to see everything it can offer. But I suspect you’ll be talking about this game for a while after playing it.
As a final thought, Doki Doki Literature Club does some interesting things with the traditionally known visual novel concept by playing on tropes that will seem familiar to certain audiences. It’s also a surprisingly good introduction for those unfamiliar with visual novels. I give it a 4.5/5. And remember, just Monika.