Review – Dollhouse
Horror games. If there’s a genre in gaming in which you need to be a top-notch developer before even daring to make a title, survival horror probably lies at the top spot. You need to know how to make players feel uneasy, yet engaged. Scared, yet entertained. You need to create a glitch-free environment that immerses the player into your created world. You also need to craft a decent story in order to make players interested in what the hell is going on. Even though I have played my fair share of crap over the past few years, I’m always intrigued when smaller studios come up with new ideas to spice things up in the horror spectrum. This time around, I’m tackling Dollhouse, developed by Creazn Studio and published by Soedesco.
Dollhouse starts off with an interesting premise. You control an amnesiac woman exploring the inside of her mind which is laid out as twisted labyrinths. Your objective is to collect film cannisters, representing the memories you’re trying to claim back, as well as any other evidence you can in order to further recover your brain, such as writings on walls, photographs, audiologs, and so on. Do that, solve a puzzle in the middle of the level, acquire said level’s master key, and proceed to the next area.
In a way, Dollhouse‘s gameplay features a somewhat arcadey vibe. The fact that the maps are randomly generated, add up to the overall roguelike-ish vibe. But this is a horror game, however, and there are monsters chasing after you at all times, namely mannequins which act like Doctor Who‘s weeping angels (they only move when you’re not looking at them) and… It. No, I’m not talking about Pennywise offering you a paper boat, I’m literally talking about what the game calls the invincible monster that constantly hunts you down throughout all levels.
There are some extra gameplay elements scattered sprinkled throughout Dollhouse to make things a bit more unique. There are roguelike-ish buffs you can equip your character with. You can use a flash to defeat the mannequins, as if you were playing a simplified version of Fatal Frame, meaning that you can actually defend yourself in a way, thankfully enough. Finally, the game introduces a few end-level minigames in the shape of movie editing. You can use the film reels collected throughout the level and arrange them in order to create a short film featuring your memories. Depending on the size of the film, and the order you arrange the scenes, you will acquire different buffs for the next level, as well as change some plot-related points, ensuring that you’ll (almost) always have a completely different outcome with each new run.
Sounds good, right? Well, I won’t deny, Dollhouse is certainly different from most lower-budget horror games out there, and its 1950’s art deco aesthetic is pleasing, but it’s got issues. Tons of issues.
Simply put, this game is unoptimized. It’s ridiculously buggy. It needed a good extra month or so of tinkering before being released. The graphics, while not bad, are horrendously dark, even for horror game standards, making the sole act of looking for items on the ground a bigger hassle than it should have ever been. The worst offender, by far, is the framerate. Dollhouse manages to keep a somewhat steady 20-ish frames per second, but there are many instances in which the game’s framerate will take a nose dive to the realm of single digits for absolutely no reason. You’re casually walking down a seemingly empty and non-demanding corridor, and this horror walking simulator becomes a sepia-filled slideshow from out of nowhere.
There are lots of issues with the gameplay as well. The controls are unresponsive, being too stiff when it doesn’t need to be and too over the place when it needs to be precise. The level of difficulty can often be considered unfair, as there are many instances in which the invincible monster may appear right in front of your spawn point, prompting for you to lose all of your previously acquired experience, as the game follows the Dark Souls philosophy of letting you try to pick up your belongings after dying only once. Finally, the game can often be a bit repetitive. All you can do in the game has been previously described: run around a confusing maze, collect items, solve puzzles, and reach the end.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t redeeming factors in here. Weirdly enough, I did enjoy the game more than I could have ever imagined. The mid-level puzzles are complex and inventive. The fact that you’re not entirely helpless against enemies is a blessing. The sound design is also better than expected, even though the game is too quiet at some points. While this means that there are some moments ruined by a complete lack of tension, this also means that the game doesn’t feature cheap jump scares. Whenever a previously stationary doll moves its head towards you, you freak out without the need of a loud bang. The voice acting was a lot better than expected as well.
Dollhouse had nearly nothing going in its favor. Its controls are often unpredictable, its framerate is all over the place, it’s often unfair, and it’s very dark. Somehow though, I ended up liking it a bit due to its somewhat engaging gameplay and some occasionally interesting, albeit nonsensical, puzzle solutions. I definitely don’t think it’s worth grabbing at full price, as this game gets very repetitive after a while, but I’ve seen a lot of much worse horror games out there.
The graphics aren’t terrible, with the art deco environments being a highlight, but the overall game is too dark to see, and the framerate can go from nearly steady to a single-digit mess from out of nowhere.
Walk around a randomly generated maze looking for items and avoiding monsters. It gets boring after a while, but there are some inventive puzzles thrown into the mix to spice things up every now and then. There’s the previously mentioned issue with the framerate as well.
The game is often too quiet, even when monsters are chasing you. While I appreciate the lack of annoying jump scares, this also reduces any tension the game could provide. I do appreciate the quality of the voice acting, though.
Fun Factor: 7.0
Dollhouse is buggy and it gets repetitive after a while, but it does feature some neat concepts and some really inventive puzzles.
Final Verdict: 6.0
Dollhouse is available now on PS4 and PC.
Reviewed on PS4.
A copy of Dollhouse was provided by the publisher.