It's making unusual choices. I respect that. They're bad choices, but that's better than doing the same thing every year. It's interesting to discuss. Besides, it's still perfectly watchable PreCure. I enjoyed it. Nonetheless, it's making weak efforts to do "grim and gritty" in PreCure, which unfortunately turned into "dour and annoying". The ratings tanked. (When HappinessCharge PreCure did even worse the following year, Toei booted the producer, Hiroaki Shibata, out of its animation department.)
Personally I think it's trying to do Heartcatch in the Madoka Magica age, but getting it wrong. Heartcatch had triumphed with tragedy (in its PreCure way), but then Fukushima pushed Suite and Smile into being lighter and fluffier.
What Doki Doki missed, though, was that Heartcatch was also happy, charming and funny. Doki Doki, though, has:
(a) a cold, unfriendly girl (Cure Sword) with a tragic history.
(b) a "bucket of cold water" best friend (Cure Diamond) who's unromantic and cynical. She's the mundane one who'll point out real life considerations and say "no" when first asked to become a PreCure.
(c) early episodes that reinvent the show's tropes semi-realistically. The fights and damage are more grounded. When someone falls off a building in ep.2, that cable slide to rescue her looks painful. There are night-time urban scenes. Colour schemes can be drab. PreCure transformations are capable of getting caught on security cameras.
(d) villains who can be sinister. Admittedly they can also degenerate into comedy lackeys, but Master Bel in ep.31... holy shit. (Note that he's killed his victims there.)
The darkness goes in waves, admittedly. It's dark, then light, then dark, then light again. Cure Rosetta makes the show sillier and more entertaining. She's an heiress who talks like a princess, has a super-butler who can do anything and lives in a mansion with a space rocket under the front drive. She has her own spy satellite. She's richer than Batman.
Cure Ace, though, hurts the show. In fairness, the character concept is a brave twist. We think we know what's going to happen circa ep.23... but no. The show's been fooling us. (They'd been doing this every year since Fresh, actually, but not like this. Next year, they stopped.) Personally, I admire the franchise for doing this. It's keeping itself alive. Unfortunately, though, it's also a massively mishandled twist that drove off the audience. The surprise outcome is far worse than the apparently inevitable one we'd been expecting. Cure Ace is a drill sergeant Scrappy Doo. She's a surly brat who'll tell everyone why they're useless and incompetent. She destroys their confidence. Eventually she softens, but there's still no excuse for her behaviour in eps.23-25.
There's much to be said for a flawed hero who grows. Cure Ace gets the strongest character development. Natsuki liked her (and also likes the similarly problematic Suite). It makes a huge difference when she starts to smile, but there's still a slab of episodes where she's sour-faced.
Then there's Regina. She's outrageous, brilliant and by far the best thing about the show... until she gets shoved out of the picture, eventually returning in a role that uses her badly.
PRECURES (in order of personal preference)
1. Mana Aida, aka. Cure Heart (the Pink Leader) = she's great. Some fans think she's too perfect, but she's worked ridiculously hard to make herself what she is. None of her friends can keep up. What's more, her trademark PreCure optimism and kindness have more impact, because she doesn't quite fit. She's funny (e.g. when telling off a monster for selfishness in ep.1) and has good instincts (e.g. wanting to tell Rikka the truth in ep.2). I admire her determination. She's also super-cool in ep.49.
2. Alice Yotsuba, aka. Cure Rosetta = the other traditional PreCure. She's arguably a type rather than a character, but her cartoonish wealth, rivals and butler are good because they lighten the tone. (She's also a lovely person.) Particularly wacky Alice episodes include ep.33 and ep.41.
3. Makoto "MakoPi" Kenzaki (Cure Sword) = cold and tragic, but Mana thaws her. Also, her idol job is a good story springboard and she can be funny when trying to live like a human. Ultimately, underused.
4. Rikka Hishikawa (Cure Diamond) = the wet blanket, but that means she's the sensible one. She's fine.
5. Cure Ace = hate sink + wacky revelations. Becomes sympathetic, eventually.
The baby (Ai-chan) makes the show gentler too.
Ep.7 = it's not amazing, to be honest, but it's as hard-hitting as some PreCure finales. It has a serious villain and a proper fight where the outcome isn't preordained. We see the tragic backstory of Trump Kingdom and the girls get trapped in the world of its ruined remains.
Ep.9 = Jonathan dumping a baby on the girls with a cheerful "good luck" always makes me boggle. No one turns a hair. If someone gave you a surprise baby for the afternoon, I think you'd react more strongly than that. This isn't the only episode where he does that, but it's the funniest. Monster-making baby with psychic powers + school = trouble. This episode also has fairy basketball.
Ep.10 = MakoPi transfers into school and again proves to be absurdly bad at ordinary stuff. The Fan Club Jikochuu made me laugh. The episode also turns lesbian jealousy (from Rikka) into a plot point, but ultimately backtracks by hanging a hat on it.
Ep.12 = Mana's disciple. "I want to become a strong, manly man like you!" There's an interesting message. I approve.
Eps.13-22 = REGINA. Yes, the whole thing. Ep.16 is particularly mental ("I'll destroy the school and then you'll able to play all day!"). Ep.19 is funny and ep.21 is genuinely strong. This is Doki Doki's best run of episodes. (Cure Ace hasn't arrived yet.)
Ep.25 = Cure Sebastian. Alice has the best butler ever. A brilliantly mad episode in an otherwise dour run.
Ep.30 = startling, epic mythology. A dragon flying alongside your plane. The girls on a desert island. A tiny turtle woman who hasn't eaten with anyone else for 10,000 years. "I've already lived long enough." (The following episode got heavy too.)
Eps.48-49 = funny, cool and clever. The finale.
None of these are dreadful. This year had no stinkers. However...
Eps.35-37 = Moral For The Children. (These episodes end in the offending character learning their lesson. This gets tiresome, especially compared with the magnificence of Smile ep11.)
Circa ep.43 = strong episodes get wrecked by a brattish, tantrum-throwing arc villain.
1. Aguri Madoka's names are significant. Her surname (Madoka) feels like a shout-out to the infamous dark magical girl show that broke the genre in 2011 and had a movie in cinemas while Doki Doki was on the air. Meanwhile, "Aguri" sounds like the English word "ugly" in Japanese pronunciation. Well, apart from syllable length. (It's a slightly unusual real name, though.)
2. Alice's butler is called Sebastian because that's the name of anime butlers. They'll even get called Sebastian when it's not their name, because they're butlers or even look like one. See (deep breath)... Black Butler, Tekken, Penguin Musume Heart, Inukami!, Phi Brain Kami no Puzzle, Ixion Saga: Dimension Transfer, Heidi, Girl of the Alps, Chibi Maruko-chan, The Story of Perrine, Battle Arena Toshinden, To Heart, Princess Nine, Cyber Team in Akihabara, To the Castle, Lucky Star, Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, Junjou Romantica, Paradise Kiss and Mayoi Neko Overrun.
3. Theoretically, the show has a playing card motif. (Heart, Diamond, Rosetta and Sword? Tarot cards?) In practice, you'll barely notice it. A more important one is angels and devils. The baddies are devils with little bat wings who tempt their victims into wickedness and turn their hearts black. In contrast, the PreCures have angel wings.
4. The first end credits dancing occasionally looks like an exercise routine. As for the second one, I'm not keen on the "PreCure idol concert" thing.
5. The electric guitars are cool.
I don't hate it. I'd sooner rewatch Doki Doki than, say, Fresh. It's also better and more competent than HeartCatch the following year. It's flawed, but only because it made spiky, brave decisions. Besides, all this should be taken in context. PreCure-gritty isn't actually gritty. It's still magical girl fluff, despite being quite heavily plotted and having a cast who aren't afraid to be unlikeable. It's interesting to think about.