I've never really been a huge fan of the new breed of stealth horror games that have become popular. Give me the option to just shoot back, I'd take clunky combat over just dying any day. Regardless, I do still play quite a few of them and give them the chance they probably deserve. Such is the case with Dollhouse, which caught my eye thanks to film noir looks and an odd promise of multiplayer horror. I decided to give it a chance. Is this a house worth playing with? Or, is Resident Evil's mansion the only house I should concern myself with?
When you first start Dollhouse, you'll be asked a seemingly strange question. What genre of film are you shooting? You get to choose between mystery, biography, documentary, and family. The game says the narrative changes depending on your choice of genre. I decided to play the first chapter with each genre to check. There are some minor differences mostly related to the loading screen text. Picking mystery makes the loading screen sound more like Marie, the main character, narrating the events. The documentary features a director having issues with actresses while filming. I went with documentary because it was the most interesting of the bunch, but the idea is pretty neat.
Box Office Explosion
Taking place in Hollywood in the year 1959, you play as a detective named Marie. While attending a premiere for a movie about her life, there's an explosion and Marie is knocked out. She wakes up in a twisted world and has to figure out how she got there. The only assistance she gets comes from a mysterious nurse named Rose, and she seems to have an agenda all of her own of course. Worse, a terrifying monster known as It (no relation to the Stephen King book/movie) stalks the world. Marie needs to learn about her past while dodging and exposing It. The story is perfectly okay, without really having the twists or dramatic scenes that could have helped it. I kind of figured what was going on pretty early in, and the outcome never really surprised me.
Initially, Dollhouse doesn't seem too different from games like Slender or Outlast. You'll move around maze-like environments collecting items and avoiding a monster that will kill you if you ever run into it. Each of the seven chapters breaks into the same three parts. First, you need to collect and decode memories so you can access a specific room. Then, you need to solve a puzzle to earn a key to a scripting room. Finally, you must get back to where you started with an assembled script in hand. Thankfully, you'll have several tools and abilities that you can get to assist you with that.
The most important is your eye, which you can use to focus on It. By doing so you'll see the world through It's eyes instead, and this will highlight and mark the location of several important items that you're looking for. The mechanic kind of reminded me of the Siren series, except this is actually useful. Since you're trapped in a maze, being able to make waypoints telling you where you need to go is a blessing. However, this isn't an ability that has no consequences. Every time you focus on It then the monster will have a good idea on where you are and hunt you even more vigorously. Failure means losing all your items, experience, and abilities, so try to avoid that.
It Comes For You
As the game continues, things get more complicated. It begins to gain new abilities, like having a small chance to be behind every door you open. In addition, new enemies also wander the maze. These simple foes take the form of mannequins, only moving when you're not looking. They certainly keep you on the move, as they'll quickly backstab you if given the chance. If you let that happen, your eye will break, meaning you can't use focus until you can find a repair kit.
The mannequins are a great addition, both to shake up the formula and also because they're pretty scary. What can I say, turning around to suddenly find three people in vaguely stabbing motions there is a shock. At least you'll get a camera, and taking pictures of mannequins will kill them, so long as you can keep finding film.
Survive It and the army of mannequins and you'll be able to make your own movie scene. Or, at the very least, you can cut a few clips together. They're all black and white clips taken from stock footage of the era. Most show women singing, dancing, parading around, and occasionally being naked for some reason. You'll have a sack of clips you can choose from, and each clip gives you a small permanent passive buff. If you follow a director's rather simple orders to play specific clips and use specific transitions, you can also gain a bonus buff. It fits the theme of the game well, but there's really no challenge to it and your "movies" feel more like totally unconnected clips of nothing rather than the movies the game claims them to be.
All of this makes for Dollhouse being surprisingly deep, but also doesn't save it from being repetitive. It took me about 8 hours to finish the game, but it could have easily ended at 5 and not have overstayed its welcome. Every single one of the levels is the exact same thing, with the only real difference being the puzzle you have to solve halfway through. If I didn't have to wander the mazes to find items, I could probably complete the levels in my sleep.
It Also Makes You Think
As for the puzzles, they're usually pretty hit or miss. One of them required me to set times on a clock by using movie showings and character names to figure out which clock needed which time. That was a creative puzzle that made good use of the environment. However, another "puzzle" was to just go back to wandering the maze and find points in it to interact with. This just felt like a waste of time. There's a device that points out exactly where you can go at the cost of some XP. I just never felt like losing that XP was a good tradeoff. By the end, I could only say that about half of the puzzles were winners.
The more I played of the single player, the more I got the feeling that it was doubling as an extended tutorial for the multiplayer. Quite a few of the abilities or item descriptions flat out mention other players, despite the lack of any. The problem is that no one is actually playing the multiplayer. The idea behind it is that eight players wander a maze, having to perform objectives. Each player needs to hunt a certain player while another person hunts them. You can play as different characters, each of whom has special active and passive abilities to use that often act against other players. All of that sounds great but lacks actual players. Dollhouse peaked at 40 players on launch day, and several attempts to find other players came up with nothing, so ultimately I couldn't actually play the multiplayer.
Dollhouse Review | Final Thoughts
I honestly liked Dollhouse quite a bit, despite the fact that no one is playing it. While its roots lie in the typical "stealth horror in a maze" gameplay we've seen before, it at least feels like it's trying to do something unique with it. The sometimes overcomplicated gameplay mechanics go a long way towards making Dollhouse stand out. It's just a shame the story and puzzles can't quite keep up, and that I'll likely never know how it plays with other people.
TechRaptor reviewed Dollhouse on PC via Steam using a copy provided by the developers. The game is also available on PlayStation 4.
- Clever Ideas
- Great Setting
- Occasinally Scary
- Some Good Puzzles
- Forgettable Story
- Dead Multiplayer
- Some Bad Puzzles