Adventure Gamers Awards
Fresh from his brief appearance in HourGames’ freeware title Death: Episode 1 - The Scythe of Unlimited Power, the Demonhunter now has a commercial game of his own. In The Demonic Dollhouse, you’ll take the role of this slayer of hell’s denizens as he investigates a fiendish house infestation. Unfortunately, demons won’t be the only thing you’ll be fighting, as control issues and unclear objectives repeatedly hamper this short but punishing quest.
The game begins with the Demonhunter brooding alone in a forest. Business has been slow lately, and without demon hunting there is nothing in his life. Fortunately, at that moment his phone rings. Though abruptly cut short in obvious distress, the caller manages to give him an address: Darkstreet 81. It’s there that the player takes control and the adventure begins. This is also where the story pretty much ends. We don’t learn anything about the Demonhunter himself, the luckless inhabitants of the house, or the demons that now infest it, and there is no explanation of how the house came to be full of demons in the first place. All we are left with is a plot that boils down to “Here be demons. Slay them!” This might be enough for a Demonhunter who has dedicated his life to this pursuit, but it lacks any substance for outsiders. It’s not even clear how the Demonhunter achieved his legendary status. His sole personal possession is a sword which proves spectacularly useless the majority of the time. I don't know how he’s even managed to survive if he relies on being lucky enough to find the necessary equipment at the site of each hunt.
Despite the grisly subject matter, the graphics are the same cartoon style used in the developer’s earlier offering. Character models, including various demons and the somewhat unearthly-looking Demonhunter, are well designed with sharp outlines and solid animation. The backgrounds are nicely detailed with good use of shading, and in the outside scenes there is an effective use of blurring in the foreground to provide a proper depth of field. There are also some good background animations, such as the madly whirring clock in a room inhabited by a time-manipulating demon, or the twitching claws of a fiend that isn’t trying too hard to hide. The entire game takes place in and around the one small house, and its rooms all have a warped look, presumably the result of demonic influence since this game is supposedly set in the mortal realm. That said, the house has no kitchen or bathroom, so maybe it is on another plane where such things are unnecessary. Whilst exteriors take up the full screen, the rooms within the house only fill the centre half of the screen, creating a claustrophobic feel that fits the subject matter well.
Control uses a very basic point-and-click method, with a menu bar that automatically drops down when you point the cursor at the top of the screen. This contains a scrolling inventory with only three objects visible at a time. Left-clicking interacts with hotspots and right-clicking examines them, though a number of hotspot responses are at best uninspired, a problem not helped when both left and right-clicking elicits the same response. Hotspot selection can be tricky, too, as objects do not always map well onto the warped graphics of the intended target. Most of the time this is just an annoyance, but it can become fatal in the many sections of the game where time is of the essence. On more than one occasion I died, not because I didn’t know what to do, but by being unable to achieve it quickly enough while I fumbled with interface issues. This is made worse by the three-item inventory, which requires awkward scrolling at moments you can least afford it. Quick item swapping is also an issue in this context, as you have to deselect your current item before you can pick a new one.
The Demonic Dollhouse only has six locations in total, and puzzles are limited to a handful of inventory tasks in each room to deal with the creature occupying it. In a couple of cases, you will need to defeat one demon in order to obtain the means to defeat another. The means of vanquishing a demon are not always intuitive. Having temporarily banished a TV demon, the sensible thing would seem to be to smash the TV or manipulate the remote in some way. Attempting to do so results in “I could do that, but it wouldn’t be right”, a sentence you will see a lot in this game. The actual solution requires an action that would be physically impossible to achieve for real, especially in the time available. This is an issue with other puzzles as well, exacerbated a lack of any clear clues to the actions required. Part of the problem is the limited (or missing) hotspot descriptions, which rarely help and may occasionally misdirect.
Of greater importance is that time is often at a premium, as the final sequence is a series of rapid timed puzzles that offer you little chance to experiment. Given the hazardous situation, timed sequences feel appropriate and should fit well, but here they all too often become frustrating. Dying repeatedly with mere seconds to search for a solution and not enough feedback is bad enough, but dying due to the controls even when you’ve found one is so much worse. Along with the more conventional save option, the game features an auto-save that normally means the many deaths you’ll experience only set you back a step or two. However, the first part of the endgame sequence requires you to have taken an earlier action for which there is no logical need at the time. If you have taken this action, dying merely sends you back one room. If you haven’t, the house inexplicably returns to the state it was in when you arrived.
Sound in The Demonic Dollhouse is limited to a handful of effects and two pieces of music. The first is a piano piece that, whilst good in its own right and suitably eerie, is a bit gentle for such a dangerous scenario. The second is a more pleasingly frenzied piece that kicks in during the final sequence and fits well with the rapid actions required at that point. Like the developer’s earlier title, this game is unvoiced, which is a shame because the dialogue here is not extensive and some halfway decent voiceovers would have greatly added to the atmosphere.
After quite liking HourGames’ initial freeware offering, I was somewhat disappointed with their first foray into commercial games. Priced at only $1.99 at the developer’s website, this game only barely qualifies as such, but it’s still more than many will be willing to pay for something that isn’t guaranteed to deliver. The lack of any real story makes the game feel incredibly shallow, and with timed puzzles so prominent, the interface problems become a major issue rather than the minor gripe they would be in a more traditional adventure. The lack of direction just adds to the frustration, especially when knowledge of vanquishing techniques should be readily available to the player character. At under an hour, barring repeated deaths that prolong it artificially, it also comes up short on play time. All in all, The Demonic Dollhouse struggles to justify its budget price tag, and even fans of the developer may be better off waiting for their freeware series to continue instead.