A close friend of mine has for years defended Duke Nukem Forever, saying that people are wrong about the game and has on numerous occasions tried to tell me that the jokes aren’t outdated and unfunny, they’re ‘self-aware and clever’ and that the gameplay was ‘old-school’ instead of boring and broken. I pity my friend, he knows that DNF could have been a fun blast from the past and he wanted that potential to be realised, but deep down inside I’m certain he knows that it’s hot garbage. I’m mentioning this because while playing through horror title Dollhouse I suddenly felt as though I understood where my friend was coming from. Dollhouse has the potential for greatness, but when it comes to the execution it fails to hit the mark on almost every level.
There in the world is Carmen Sandiego
A short cutscene introduces you to the player character Marie (a world-famous detective that is clearly inspired by the wardrobe of Carmen Sandiego) that is on her way to a premiere of some sort with her young daughter when a tragic event occurs with unknown repercussions. The player then wakes up in a dilapidated video-cutting room to be told by a voice over the radio that they are suffering from – say it with me everyone – amnesia. You are tasked with delving into the fractured mind of Marie in order to recover her forgotten memories. If you are feeling like you are suffering from déjà vu then don’t stress, you aren’t the only one. An amnesia patient in a horror game? Crazy, I know. The set up might be run of the mill, but the film-noir motif that Dollhouse has does set it apart fairly well. Just like films such as Sin City and The Spirit, you will see everything in black and white (or differing shades of grey) aside from Marie herself and items of intertest that appear in full colour. This style matches the themes of the game and makes the overall package a touch more appealing.
Once the disembodied voice steps you through the general tutorial schtick of move with the left stick and look with the right, you step out of the cutting room into a dimly-lit hedge maze. The same disembodied voice directs you around the maze in order to familiarise you with gameplay and the game’s mechanics. This tutorial, much like the first, doesn’t try and blend the story and gameplay in together, rather it just ham-fistedly marks a point on the screen for you to go to, explains exactly what the item is, rinse and repeat. It might seem like a petty gripe, but when the game doesn’t do much to invest you to begin with, it’s a bad foundation to build upon. The core gameplay loop consists of you collecting film reels scattered around a procedurally-generated maze in order to take them to a machine, convert them, and then use them to open a door to The Lost Room that will allow you to progress. Immediately I found myself caring very little for what I was doing as it quickly became a walking collectathon.
Of course you aren’t just bumbling around the maze alone. Once you have completed both of the tutorials, mannequins will begin to appear all throughout the maze, looking dishevelled and worn. They pose no threat to you while you are looking at them, but once your back is turned they begin to move towards you, eventually striking you and causing damage. I’m not saying that turning around to see numerous mannequins frozen in place as they hunt you didn’t make me jump a little, but just like the amnesia trope, I think mannequins as enemies, especially used in this way, has been done enough that the scares are lessened by default. Also stalking you around the labyrinth is a much larger and more imposing mannequin with a projector fused to its back. Unlike the others, It (as it is referred to) can move and pursue you, all the while brandishing a knife. While trying to locate the film reels, you are given the ability to see through It’s eyes, illuminating where you can find a reel, but also letting It know which direction you are in. Though this mechanic isn’t exactly necessary to find the reels (in fact I barely used it and found it easier to just wander around), it really does ramp up the tension being able to gaze through your pursuer’s vision, particularly when you are able to see yourself when doing so, scary stuff.
This is an interesting feature that could have been cool, but it just wasn’t necessary enough
Collecting enough reels to enter The Lost Room brings you to the other main gameplay aspect of Dollhouse. Once you enter you will notice a riddle, scrawled on the wall above a gift-wrapped box that contains the key you need to leave the maze. The riddle and the puzzle that it alludes to are decently put together and usually require some thought and attention paid to your surroundings. These puzzles are far and away the best aspect of Dollhouse; they aren’t fantastic, but they are serviceable. Once the puzzle is solved you are thrown back into the maze to find the exit door/It’s changeroom. It is more aggressive while you hunt for the door and if caught by It a one-hit kill animation is played, so it is best to use chalk (an item that can be picked up and used on walls to keep track of where things are Alice in Wonderland style) as a way to mark out the door if you find it while looking for reels. Once you find It’s changeroom you need to piece together a script that apparently ‘changes the outcome of the story’ by selecting certain phrases to fill in blanks. This is explained to you, but it never makes a great deal of sense and after trying multiple different variations, I could not notice a single difference in how the game played out. And with that you make your way back to the cutting room in preparation to do it all again in a slightly different locale. Yep, there isn’t a great deal of variety on offer here I’m afraid. Locations range from a hotel, to a hospital, to a movie theatre, but they are all fundamentally the same, randomly generated maze. Each location is meant to represent a part of Marie’s consciousness, but if that is the case she has a very poor imagination and has played far too many average horror games.
In complete fairness the puzzles are…not bad
You aren’t defenceless against your enemies as you do have a torch in hand to fend off those awfully ‘original’ mannequins. With a tap of the right trigger, your torch flashes, dissipating regular mannequins and stunning It. Using the flash drains the entire charge of your torch, forcing you to wait for it to charge fully before flashing or even turning it on again. The wait for it to charge is a bit too long and with the enemies immobile when you are looking at them, there will be many occasions that you are just awkwardly standing there, looking at the mannequin, twiddling your thumbs and making small talk until you can kill it.
Now I haven’t exactly been kind to Dollhouse so far and when it comes to glitches and the game’s stability, things aren’t going to get any better. In any location past the beginning hedge maze, the framerate drops to single digits at random times, seemingly for no reason, which makes the game close to unplayable. More frustrating than that though is an issue with certain mannequins that have the ability to invert the player’s controls when they are flashed. This alone is no issue, but the problem arises due to this enemy being mechanically broken. Instead of inverting your controls when flashed, it seems to activate whenever you are anywhere near the enemy. While running away from It, only to have the framerate slow to a crawl and the controls unintentionally invert themselves caused me to turn off my PS4 and walk away in frustration. In order to avoid this issue, I chose to switch to Voyeur Mode that disables all threats. This made the game playable, but robs you of all scares and tension. You do get to experience the story without game-breaking interruptions, but the plot isn’t interesting enough to bother doing that either.
All you need to do is follow the thread, I promise it will make sense
Touching on it very quickly, Dollhouse does have multiplayer, but the matchmaking and servers were so bad that I was unable to join a single game for more than ten seconds. So the multiplayer offering may be so good that it saves the game, but I doubt that very much.
I desperately wanted Dollhouse to surprise me. The film-noir style is briefly eye-catching and the feature that allows you see through your enemy’s eyes is a winner of an idea on paper, but that is truly is where the upsides end. With a severe lack of variation and originality, it feels like a checklist of horror game clichés that it is trying to tick. With a huge range of quality horror titles around at the moment, I can’t in good faith recommend Dollhouse to anyone who is after a good, or even half-decent scare.
Reviewed PlayStation 4 Pro | Review code supplied by publisher