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Enter an Art Deco Nightmare in ‘Dollhouse’

Like its antagonistic mannequins, Dollhouse is not what it first seems. Gameplay initially felt like a tutorial for what multiplayer mode, but quickly became a unique spin on the “collect things while a monster chases you” subgenre of horror. With a retro setting and gorgeous art design, Dollhouse is a standout entry in recent survival horror.

Players take on the role of Marie, a detective trying to collect her memories and figure out the circumstances regarding the death of her daughter. Each chapter plays like a nightmare of sorts, set in locations that feel familiar–a garden, a theater, and a hotel, to name a few–yet have an uncomfortable, maze feel nonetheless. No player’s game is the same either, since each level is procedurally generated to ensure you truly think on your feet.

Players must navigate these environments while searching for supplies and memories in the form of film reels, which must be “extracted” in machines across the level to unlock doors needed to progress. There is a specific flow and rhythm to most chapters, with added puzzle rooms and safe rooms as well. This all must be done while avoiding deadly mannequins, traps, and a figure not unlike Tyrant in Resident Evil 2–it stalks you and seems to respond to noise, or will otherwise circle around to find you if one hides for an extended period of time.

In two recurring mini-games, players must complete a “script” based off of fragments they collect and, at the end of each chapter, edit together a series of memories they found with bonuses for following director’s notes. They can choose which third of the clip to use, and what transitions, if any, to apply.

The Stalker in Dollhouse

Fortunately, several gameplay mechanics exist to help you keep track of progress. Marie’s inventory consists of chalk, charges, stock, and keys, all of which can be found in various locations for each level. Chalk is used to mark areas on the map for any reason you wish; they can be erased from a distance and are always marked no matter how far the player strays.

Charges act as a flashbulb that takes care of the evil mannequins, as well as eliminating physical blocks that can appear in your path at any time and stunning the foe who stalks you. Dollhouse has a level up and skill system too, offering perks that can help save your hide in close situations. Stock is a consumable that’s used with each skill, while keys serve to unlock areas that may contain goodies, danger, or both.

In order to level up, players can find memories, recordings, analyze enemies, traps, and objects, and find little star medallions around the environment. Players can also use a focus skill to see the world through the eyes of their stalker and help find memories, but this can help the stalker hone in on their location. As with most survival horror games, one must strike out a balance between exploration and pursuing the main goal, weighing the costs and benefits of spending extra time searching for valuable items. Often, deaths occurred through an underestimation of the stalker’s AI and lack of planning, but death means one must find their chalk outline and they will regain everything they lost. Minimal frustrations were otherwise the only problem, occurring infrequently when items would clip through static environmental pieces and thus make them harder to spot and obtain.

Mannequins in DollhouseAnother piece is the story, which SOEDESCO and Creazn Studio quite accurately stress the dismal nature of. Like the noir films that inspired Dollhouse, its story is dark and intriguing, with twists and revelations that you do not see coming. As you progress and unlock more of Marie’s past, you too want to unravel the truth because it’s offered in such small pieces. With the power to assemble parts of it, the player takes on a more active role than simply watching one of the many inspirations.

The game’s style helps set its tone, too, as everything feels as though there’s an air of smoke hanging over it. The art deco direction is both fitting and stunning, helping the visuals stand out from other games in recent memory and offering a retro charm that does not take away from the terror of running from formerly-inanimate objects.

There are heavy feelings of BioShock, especially regarding the audio icon when a character speaks, but it feels like an homage to said game and that artistic style rather than a ripoff of a certain mechanic design. Though everything is stylized, the memories use slightly-distorted, real black and white film footage, an interesting choice that lends another eerie air to the whole experience.

Dollhouse’s music serves to complement the noir era too, with brooding trumpets and a darker jazz piece hooking you in straight from the main menu. However, during gameplay silence is used to an effective degree. When in danger, however, music begins to swell with frenetic strings and percussion. Ambient tracks play too, but the music more often kicks in to add tension to a desperate escape from vicious mannequins. The sound design is also excellent, as both player and stalker footsteps echo down dark, narrow hallways and film reels roll through ancient projectors.

Though not without its frustrations, Dollhouse is a stylized take on a very particular genre of horror games. At first, it seemed like a noir Slender with its insistence that players find a certain number of objects to progress, but SOEDESCO and Creazn Studio were able to craft a brilliant, heart-pumping nightmare full of mystery and a chill that’s perfect for any dark, rainy night. It does offer a multiplayer mode, but no one was online during multiple attempts to play.

After launch, this review will be updated to include the multiplayer component. The game is not for everyone, but for fans of challenging horror games, noir mysteries, or both, Dollhouse is a fun way to start the summer and offers considerable replay value for players to find every collectible and memory to unlock all the game has to offer.

Colton is a computer science student at SUNY Fredonia who hails from Buffalo, NY and would much rather be writing articles, scripts, and poems than code. Find him stressing in your nearest coffee shop. A few of his favorite games are Half Life/Half Life 2, Resident Evil 4 and Super Mario 64.

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