If you have heard about Doki Doki Literature Club before this review, then you likely know that the game is not what it seems… then again, the game does not really try to hide that fact. Despite having the trappings of a visual novel dating sim, Doki Doki Literature Club’s Steam page has the “Psychological Horror” tag loud and prominent, and the game description and the opening screen of the game itself warn about potentially disturbing content. Honestly, I think that is for the best. Quite often people will try to recommend a game like this with phrases like “Don’t look up anything about it, just play it,” and it can lead to disappointment or may even make the player leave before whatever strange twist awaits them has the time to crop up. This simple way of alerting the player that there is something more to this game than a run-of-the-mill dating sim manages to instill the expectation of something unique and interesting without completely revealing its hand, and it is probably one of the smarter ways of generating interest without hinging on complete spoiler avoidance.
Doki Doki Literature Club does start off playing things absolutely straight despite the disclaimers. For anyone aware of the tropes found within the visual novel and dating sim genres, it starts off feeling like simply a decently well written game set in those genres. You’re a high school student who has been encouraged to join the school’s literature club, which already has four anime girls as members that your player character is immediately interested in potentially dating. While the girls are fairly well written and with enough personality that they aren’t just generic stereotypes, they do slot in into pretty simple roles that you’ll often find in video games of this ilk. There’s the childhood friend, the feisty girl who pretends to be not interested in you, the shy and reserved girl, and while I wouldn’t really peg the last girl Monika as anything too typical, describing her as the popular girl tells you enough about her despite it not being a character type usually found on a dating sim docket. While I cannot say I’d ever get legitimately invested in the idea of dating fictional women, the four girls have charming personalities that at least make them interesting to talk to, and they have fairly defined character traits so they don’t completely blend in with other girls from different games.
The game has a pretty slow start in order to help establish the world it takes place in, and it begins by playing everything off as pretty legitimate as well. This feels like the biggest roadblock to a player’s potential enjoyment as it will require a bit of patience for all the pieces to be in place or else everything lacks impact, and this does necessitate at least a token engagement with the concept of potentially romancing one of three of the club’s available members. Interactivity is at a low at first, mostly restricted to advancing the text when you’re ready, but the game introduces some segments where you select 20 words to go into a poem that we never actually see. Here you can appeal to the different girls to set your course towards dating the one you like the most, as by this point you have a fair idea of each girl’s interests and what words might appeal to them… but here’s where things get a bit strange.
I suppose I will put a bit of a spoiler warning here. Even though I will not reveal pivotal details or really delve too deep into what earns this game all the disclaimers, there are a few people who might want to jump in and see it from a fairly clean perspective. Surprisingly, despite having a few of the elements that earned it a horror tag spoiled to me by someone recommending I do not play the game, I will say that they actually did not affect my enjoyment of the game at all. I was prepared to be a little disappointed admittedly, but I ended up liking it a lot more than expected! Still, I will avoid spoiling as much as possible in order to preserve the better moments of the game.
While writing the poems, strange words crop up that feel a little out of place for the game’s bubbly atmosphere and might clash with what has been established about the girls so far. However, things begin to tip away from the idealistic world of an escapist dating game as the poems the girls write all appear to have a negative slant. We see the girls all have problems hidden beneath their seemingly simplistic exteriors, and it actually seems to deal with some potentially heavy real world issues. The game does not give them full attention, and it might be a bit ambitious to expect a free and rather short game to go the distance and explore serious topics like that, but it does add an extra layer to the game to make it more interesting, and things only get more interesting from there.
When things do hit the wall and make you understand the tags and warnings, they are executed fairly well, especially considering the constraints of the game design. Expert use of music and some fine visual tricks and art help make the moments have the intended impact as you gradually unravel the truth of the situation. Some things certainly could have been more subtle and a few moments are more goofy than anything, and even when the game is mixing things up it can get repetitive at points, but it feels strong as a whole package if you have the interest to meet it on its terms. Even as someone who has no issue with long text-heavy moments in games though, there were moments my mind wandered as my attention drifted away from some of its slower and simpler moments, which are not really helped by how restrictive the game can get with its Skip function. In many visual novels, especially ones with potentially branching stories like dating sims, an option exists to skip ahead to either the next point of change or just skip things entirely. Doki Doki Literature Club usually has the option greyed out, and while engaging the entirety of the story allows it to have more impact when things happen, it can lead to the patience issue I mentioned earlier. Visuals are usually stagnant sprites and plain backgrounds and it takes only a few sentences to fill the text box, making advancing during longer conversations slow at times. These issues are sort of endemic to the genre the game is set in though, and while Doki Doki Literature Club isn’t really lampooning tropes of the genre, the setting is important to the narrative and too much deviation could potentially diminish that.
THE VERDICT: While Doki Doki Literature Club doesn’t avoid the sins endemic to the dating sim and visual novel genres, its choice of trappings is very deliberate. To tell the story it needs to tell, including that twist that earned it so much attention and so many warnings, Doki Doki Literature Club had to dabble in the less interesting aspects of visual novels while doing just enough to keep it from getting boring during it. Had it been played straight, it would have just been a fine member of the genre and nothing more, but Doki Doki Literature Club throws things off-kilter and takes off on its own unique story, and if you have the patience to meet it on that level, then you will be given a ride that is worth more than the free admission.
And so, I give Doki Doki Literature Club for PC…
A GREAT rating. While someone who does not like the genres Doki Doki Literature Club is set in may enjoy the game, it seems like it would appeal more to those who can recognize the staples of those genres so that it can help set the proper stage for what this game does differently. The visual novel name is no misnomer as your interaction is usually limited to reading a story rather than playing a game, but it is a fine story that manages to leave an emotional impact, tell a unique tale, and linger in your memory for good or for ill depending on how you react to it. The premise might turn off quite a few people, but on some level, everything has to be taken at face value when you consider playing Doki Doki Literature Club. It is Psychological Horror, it is Anime, it is Horror, it is a Visual Novel, and while it manages to mix those things together into something excellent, you’re not likely to enjoy the whole if certain parts of it would put you off on their own.
For potential players, I will note there are end credits when you’ve done everything there is to do, but for everything else, learning the secret of this seemingly innocent book club is definitely part of the intrigue.