March 9, 2011

Review: Stray Souls: Dollhouse Story: Collector's Edition

game format: casual hidden object adventure

puzzles: inventory | logic

playtime: 6 hours | difficulty: easy | size: 216 MB

publisher: Big Fish Games | developer: Alawar Games | links: official site | buy this game

Stray Souls: Dollhouse Story
game brief: Welcome to a town where something that should not exist runs free; where a desperate wife will risk her beating heart to find her husband; and where a terrible secret lies buried behind an orphanage. Search for clues, solve puzzles, and unlock new areas as you visit spine-chilling locations, play stimulating mini-games and locate Hidden Objects. (Official site)

review: Read my review @ Adventure Gamers®.

This review is a part of the 'Casual Collection: February 2011 New Releases' article.

Danielle Hunt, a young newlywed, is trapped in a honeymoon from hell. Her husband Sam went mysteriously missing the moment he opened the door to receive a strange box left on their porch. Now its content – a bizarre thread doll with mismatched buttons for eyes – is talking to her. As if that isn't bad enough, Danielle must drive in the pouring rain to Sam's old neighbourhood to save him from a fate possibly worse than death, but she loses control and crashes the car, coming to in a vicious alternate reality. Alawar's Stray Souls: Dollhouse Story follows Danielle as she attempts to uncover the dreadful secrets long-hidden within the abandoned community, which has now morphed into a dark, distorted version of itself, groaning and rotting under the shackles of the all-permeating evil. Exploring the town, which includes a toy store, amusement park, an orphanage, and of course a cemetery (the last being the least grotesque location in this macabre tale of kids, dolls and clowns) is no easy task, however, as the evil presence has locked every door, cupboard and drawer to thwart her progress. Even Sam's home is guarded by two mutilated mannequins brandishing a saw above the lock on the door.

Stray Souls excels with its art and attention to detail – each scene, whether idyllic or warped by malevolence, is skillfully illustrated and effectively communicates destruction and doom both underlying and overt. These screens are animated with inclement weather, glowing lights and eyes, awful moving toys, and a seriously disconcerting guillotine. The dingy, abused buildings and tunnels are oppressive and disturbing, and often it's a great relief to exit to relatively cleaner open spaces. Places that are cleansed of evil return to their original state, and provide a nice before-and-after visual comparison, especially when areas still cursed are visible on the same screen. Unfortunately, essential elements for a truly spooky atmosphere – sound effects and music – are woefully sparse: there are only a few short piano-led pieces that loop interminably, there's no voice acting, and sound effects are merely adequate.

Gameplay is both linear and quite easy. Each individual location has a hidden object screen tucked into it, which yields one or two useful items. Objects are cleverly concealed rather than buried in clutter, and several items are included as children's sketches, graffiti and appropriate labels. Only three or four of the twenty-odd screens are repeated. The inventory puzzles are basic, as the solutions are usually practical and believable, and Danielle generally has a maximum of three or four items. The few standalone puzzles are all locks on various doors and gates. Most are traditional types like ring rotators and sliders, but there is one genuinely creative puzzle, an elaborate piece involving a chain-reaction of various smaller puzzles falling into place. None of the puzzles are difficult, though a couple are poorly-clued, making them seem harder than they really are. There are two difficulty modes, the only differences being hint recharge time and highlighting of interactive items and objects. The hint feature displays one item in hidden object screens, and the currently-most-useful hotspot in regular environments. A journal records Danielle's key discoveries and important plot points, and contains a map of the town, which notes any areas where there's work to be done. While this eliminates clueless backtracking, it doesn't allow for quick travel between locations.

The story retains a sense of suspense at all times despite some gobbledygook about wizards and demons, and keeps the player engaged until the end. Upon arriving in town, Danielle receives a dollhouse and a doll – a replica of young Sam – which reveals that Sam has paranormal powers. Guided by her thread doll companion, Danielle must discover the remaining seven dolls, each representing a key member of the story, to piece together the mystery of the town, her husband's role in its destruction, and most importantly, his current fate. There are a few other characters in the game, including a clown, a girl and Police Chief Torres, but interactions are limited and expository, and Danielle herself is insufferably bland. She trudges mechanically through the bizarre events unfolding around her, never intrigued, never excited. The game ends with a conclusive epilogue, and the Collector's Edition bonus chapter is a prequel set decades earlier, in which Chief Torres investigates the unexplained murders and disappearances of the rapidly-dwindling population. Unlike Danielle, Torres is acerbic and vocal, which adds a bit of spice the main game lacks. Regrettably, this segment wallows in pointless hidden object searches of screens you've seen already, feeling like little more than a tacked-on extra. While disturbing in parts, the game is never scary, but if you like dark, surreal mysteries, Stray Souls: Dollhouse Story delivers with an unusual premise, a unique core object (the dollhouse), and a complex plot that twists and turns rapidly, leaving no one above suspicion right up until the dramatic finale.

This is an original review written by me and owned by Adventure Gamers®. Please do not distribute / adapt the text and images in any way without written consent from Jack Allin, Editor-In-Chief, AG.