Developer: Team Salvato
Publisher: Team Salvato
While I was excited at the chance to review Doki Doki Literature Club, I also approached it with some trepidation. How does one review such a game? Even keeping it as simple as “a dating sim with a twist” is problematic, as in many people’s opinions—the fact that there is a twist is part of the twist.
I came to the conclusion of presenting it as straight as possible without giving too many details for several reasons. As a Christian reviewer, I would like to hold myself to a high standard of honesty and not misrepresent what I’m reviewing. This approach is easier because the game itself does not shy away from warning its players about its more unsettling content. So, with the warning of spoilers in mind, the short version of this review would be: Doki Doki Literature Club is an inventive visual novel that uses a cute aesthetic to explore dark themes. If you need more than that, read on and decide for yourself if its something worth playing for you.
Violence: Graphic violence and death are depicted in this game. These scenes can occur without warning.
Language: Various expletives are used, such as f*** and b****, as well as the Lord’s name being taken in vain.
Spiritual Content: At one point a character may briefly contemplate the existence of God, and questions if He can be good if he allows suffering.
Sexual Content: Everyone remains completely clothed at all times. Certain scenes involve acts which can be interpreted as less than innocent, such as licking icing off of another girl’s finger.
Other Negative Themes: Doki Doki Literature Club explores themes involving mental health and self harm and uses disturbing images and text to create an unsettling atmosphere.
Upon starting Doki Doki Literature Club, you will experience two things. First, you hear a cheery jingle which will likely get you dancing in your seat if there is even a speck of joy in your heart. Then, you will be greeted by this simple message:
Much like Danganronpa, another visual novel I’ve recently reviewed, DDLC makes use of a distinct contrast between its visual design and subject matter. The difference being Danganronpa is still very upfront with its themes, while DDLC is comparatively a slow burn. Assuming you get past that warning and choose to start playing, you will begin what seems like a perfectly typical dating sim.
You take the role of a fairly generic high schooler of undetermined age. You find yourself forced into the Literature Club by your ditzy childhood friend, Sayori. Also in the club are the small, but feisty Natsuki, the reserved and elegant bookworm Yuri, and the star student and club president Monika. Our protagonist reacts to a club full of nothing but cute girls how anyone would expect a teenage boy to react. He agrees to join and thus the game is set into motion.
This limited cast seems like it might be the most generic thing you have ever seen. However, one can not simply disregard these characters as simple cardboard cutouts. They offer a surprising depth, some more so than others. They have backstory and secrets that aren’t immediately apparent, and when discovered, shed new light on their previous behaviors. Fortunately, when DDLC is playing its tropes straight, it does so in an entertaining fashion.
While the game features a few obvious points where you make a discrete choice, you primarily determine how you progress through writing poems. After each day in the Literature Club, you must choose several words from a variable list. With these words, your protagonist evidently writes a poem to share with the girls the next day.
It’s a unique method of choosing who to pair up with. Each girl has certain words that will appeal to her. Your job is to figure out from your interactions with them and the poems they write for you what you need to pick. It is not simply to be different either; it actually makes something of an amateur writing critic out of you. It forces you to ease out of the recurring themes and ideas. The characters themselves offer help in this regard. Between high school shenanigans, they will discuss the aspects of writing and are surprisingly in depth.
But of course, many people reading this review are less than interested in the oddities of a typical visual novel. You want to know the “twist”—the thing that made this free visual novel so interesting, it became a viral hit. I avoid spoilers in my reviews, but I would be remiss if I did not at least address that elephant in the room.
Yes, there is a twist. Something that happens at some point during your playthrough which changes the entire game. What was once a simple and cute dating sim becomes something dark, and at times frightening. This is a game with some deep subject matter to discuss—and for some reason—chose to use cute anime girls to do so. You can almost think of this as two games: pre-twist and post-twist. What you get from this is an intense experience that grabs onto you and refuses to let go once it starts.
The problem with this approach is that it creates a division that can be hard for some to endure. It essentially relies on you being able to connect with two very different game experiences. If you don’t connect with the happy dating sim aspect, you’ll have to endure it until you get to the point where it changes. If you do enjoy that aspect, having it interrupted might be a rude disruption to your experience.
Nevertheless, Doki Doki Literature Club is a game that makes a daring choice to be something different, but does not market itself as such. I suspect that many who have a stomach for the grimmer content it hides will find it surprisingly enjoyable. I would strongly recommend it to anyone looking for something to subvert their expectations. Better yet, get an unsuspecting friend to play it with you and enjoy their surprise as well.
The Bottom Line
Doki Doki Literature Club is a daring game that sets itself up to be something ordinary to intentionally subvert a player's expectations. Even knowing this, the narrative is solid and engaging enough that I'd recommend anyone that can endure a cute dating sim for a couple of hours to try this game out.