The Internet has been awash with people talking about Team Salvato's visual novel Doki Doki Literature Club ever since its release in September of last year, with a number of YouTubers and streamers doing Let's Play videos about the game. Given all this attention, and the accolades the game has received, we couldn't help but take a look at the free-to-play game for ourselves, having heard so much about it from all kinds of places.
The truth is that if you've seen or heard pretty much anything about it on the Internet, you've already heard too much, and that puts us in a very hard spot when it comes to the review. We won't say exactly why Doki Doki Literature Club has caught the attention of so many people, but the only thing we will say is that, despite its facade as a dating simulator where you woo different girls in this afterschool club, the first thing you see in the game is: "This game is not suitable for children or those who are easily disturbed." That's all we'll say.
The premise is that you start off as an individual who you can name, and you have yet to join a club at your school. Your childhood friend Sayori then convinces you to join her afterschool literature club, where you meet Yuri, Monika, and Natsuki. You go in with a closed mind, not wanting to join since you have no interest in literature, but after being surrounded by "beautiful girls" obviously your mind changes, and you become a member, showing up after school every day to get involved.
Each day you're tasked with writing a poem using keywords, which you then share with all the girls, each of which has their own tastes. Yuri, for instance, is intelligent and likes horror, so picking long and dark words will please her more, while picking cute words will appeal to the younger Natsuki, since that's what she writes about (although she'll never admit it). You then present the poems in the club and the game plays out like a visual novel, going different ways depending on which girl you side with in arguments and tailor your poems towards.
At about three to four hours in length though, this doesn't go on forever, and at around the halfway point, perhaps further, the warning message we mentioned earlier starts to become more and more relevant. We appreciate the vagueness is frustrating in this regard, but it really is something you need to see and experience to appreciate, as we know of many individuals who have heard spoilers and have noticed that the game loses its impact if you go in knowing what to expect.
We will explain in loose terms what it is that Team Salvato does so well though, which is subverting the player's expectations. You go through the game knowing this warning is in place for a reason, but even as the plot unfolds the events hit you hard. True, there is foreshadowing and forewarning about what might happen, but it doesn't prepare you for exactly how they happen, and the game plays with narrative enough that you never expect it to be told in the way it's told either.
As a part of this the game is also incredibly unexpected too. After things start changing they stay changed for good, and there's a constant question as to what's next since it's potentially one of the hardest games to predict. Traditional storytelling is thrown out the window at one point and it never comes back, meaning that for fans of visual novels, or even narrative games in general, this might just be a unique title you need to experience once.
With a game so focused on dialogue and clicking through texts, the characters are incredibly important, and although there isn't anything stunningly original about them at times, Team Salvato plays with expectations here as well. To make it clear, this is a western developer examining anime traits from the outside to reproduce, satirise, and twist them (creator Dan Salvato has said he has mixed feelings towards it), meaning that at times it feels very traditional, while flipping things up the next moment.
Either way, these characters are above all else deeply interesting in their motivations and display some of the most engaging behaviours we've seen in visual novels. It's never clear what exactly is going on with them, and on top of that, each has their own layer of mystery that you have to explore more deeply if you want to uncover their motivations. Multiple endings are available too, so you'll need to replay certain areas to see what all the girls have to offer.
All in all it's been a very wishy-washy review, but that's because it's a really fine line trying to explain why Doki Doki Literature Club is so interesting. It's not necessarily the best story, but it does things we've not seen done before, and in this day and age that is definitely something to be praised. It's a hard sell getting people to play what looks to be a traditional anime dating simulator, but those who do give it the time of day won't regret it... or will they?