Dollhouse perfectly encapsulates why creative ideas aren’t enough to carry a game. The studio won an award in 2013 for “Best Concept” at the Level Up Expo. Dollhouse has finally released six years later, but based on the end-product, it feels like development never progressed past 2013. It is one of the generation's most vapid gaming experiences.
To be fair to its developers, Dollhouse initially intrigued me because of its film-noir inspired aesthetic with melodramatic narration. I wasn’t expecting a horror or narrative masterpiece, but even these reserved expectations couldn’t prepare me for the mental exhaustion and emotional toll it would induce.
Dollhouse’s premise and unique mechanics are undermined by poor execution buried underneath an insanity-inducing gameplay loop. As a 5-6 hour adventure, a strong story could have been enough to carry the experience for committed players, but even that is hamstrung by the game’s structure.
Dollhouse’s story is divided across eight chapters, each of which features a randomly generated maze. Mazes contain all sorts of collectibles including keys, photographs, film stock, stars, chalk, and the list goes on. Film stocks are the only collectible worth keeping tabs on as they’re required for story progression. Everything else is ancillary. Collecting photographs and analyzing environmental objects/enemies grants experience, but you’ll likely die and lose all that progress several times, rendering the race to consume everything pointless.
Early chapters require five film stocks, with that number gradually increasing as the chapters go by. It’s not enough to collect film stocks to progress. Film stocks contain memories and memories must be extracted at memory bank stations before the puzzle room can be accessed. Once entering the puzzle room, players are given a riddle, then asked to solve a puzzle. Some puzzles are solvable within that room whereas others span the entire maze.
The Master Key, which grants access to the dressing room, is awarded after solving that maze’s puzzle. After obtaining the Master Key from the puzzle room and finding the dressing room, players are tasked with fixing a film script. It’s not as exciting as it sounds, though. The game lays out a page of a script with a few missing lines. Your job entails inserting the lines from the line bank in the right spot. It’s a no-frills affair. After fixing the script, there’s one final course of action: a mad-dash to the protagonist’s editing room, where you’ll be asked to edit a series of film clips based on the film stocks acquired that chapter.
Even editing is as bare bones as the script fixing sessions. Players place clips on a timeline and select between a few edits like fade to black, cut, etc... Each chapter places different demands on the editing process, but it's as simple as following the rules. One chapter might ask you to place a fade to black after a cut, for example. Adhering to these rules grants the protagonist a higher rating from film critics, which grants experience points.
It's unfortunate that the leveling system, perma-death, and damage scaling clash so constantly. Players drop their inventory and experience points where they died. Retrieving the body sounds simple enough, but the game's randomly generated maze-like structure complicates the process. In fact, it makes the entire gameplay loop excruciating.
Good luck remembering where you died with so many repeated assets and nearly identical hallways/rooms. You'll likely get killed by the maze's pursuer before you figure out where you even are, permanently losing everything. Micromanaging the stamina system makes evading the pursuer simple enough, but the game loves to blindside its players.
Sometimes the protagonist can take multiple hits from this pursuer. Other times, though, she can turn a corner and die from a single strike the player could not have seen coming.
Examining Dollhouse's individual elements highlights how misleading its marketing can be. An ever-present villain that can't be killed while you're trying to solve puzzles is a panic-inducing concept many games have successfully included. A story-driven game whose narrative path changes depending on the difficulty and amount of items collected is another decent idea. It adds replay value. Fixing scripts and editing movies also sounds neat on paper.
Dollhouse does nothing interesting with any of its individual parts. The good ideas are either poorly executed or turned into the most boring busywork imaginable because of the randomly generated mazes.
Found seven film stocks? Damn, looks like you need an eighth. Have fun running in circles. Found all the film stocks now? Ha! You thought you were done. Now try finding multiple memory bank stations to extract the memories. Did you die before you could extract those memories? Sucks, doesn't it? Oh, you've finally extracted all these memories. Forgot you need to search this boring maze for the door to place them in, huh?
The amount of busy work goes on and on. In one chapter, the puzzle involved standing in specific locations across four specific rooms so that a camera could snap a shot. With only three or four room types across the entire maze, finding the exact rooms drove me to insanity.
Dollhouse features a chalk system, letting you place symbols on walls. These symbols, which are visible across the entire maze, help with navigation. Though, as with everything else, there are major caveats. To begin with, as expected, dying erases the chalk symbols. The three symbol limit is the bigger offender.
Let's slow down and name every place you need to keep track of to progress:
- The protagonist's editing room
- One memory bank station minimum (later chapters require two or three different stations)
- The puzzle room
- The dressing room
That's anywhere from four to six vital locations, with only three symbols allowed at once despite chalk inventory maxing out at five pieces. This wouldn't be so bad on its own if it weren't for the poorly generated mazes. Some chapters were less frustrating than others, but not a single maze aside from the final one offered a clear enough distinction and landmarks to make navigation anything less than a nightmare.
The story could have been a minor saving grace, though even that fumbles. It's poorly paced, hinging upon the collection of video tapes. Even after collecting all the video tapes during my playthrough, the story doesn't coalesce into a satisfying narrative. Its highly disjointed nature, combined with the infrequency of its narration, makes the story a poor reward for suffering through Dollhouse's monotony. There are a few strong lines with decent performances, but they're not enough to salvage the mishandled story.
Speaking of performances, Dollhouse's performance on PS4 Pro takes me back to the PlayStation/Nintendo 64 era. PS4 Pro offers two graphics modes: cinematic and action. Cinematic just cranks up the depth of field along with resolution, making the game significantly blurrier and more difficult to navigate. Starting with chapter 2, cinematic mode ran at what felt like single digit numbers. Action mode fairs better, though only by a small margin.
It still feels like it's running in the low 20's and even the teens much of the time. The final chapter, even on action mode, runs just as poorly as cinematic mode did starting during its second chapter. This is even after a day one patch that noted it "improved performance" by up to "25%". It's still borderline unplayable at times even in action mode.
Dollhouse is an exercise in tedium. The core gameplay loop, which is already stretched too far with the addition of memory extraction and perma-death, is exacerbated by the randomly generated nature of its mazes. The promised "engaging" story barely finds its footing, either. Dollhouse is the single most excruciating current generation game I've ever played. I wouldn't even wish this game on the people I hate. Human beings deserve better than Dollhouse's incongruous design.