A dark house and creepy dolls won’t hold a candle to the horror that is playing Damn Dolls.
Horror is a delicate thing. While there are many ways to probe the human mind into unease, blatant attempts can be shoddy or laughable at best. One thing is for certain though, when done wrong, a theme of horror can quickly become incredibly boring. There are few games that show how this can happen better than Damn Dolls.
Damn Dolls from the mind of Rodrigo Riquetto starts off with a solid enough premise. You are Suzi, looking for her friend Ana in a house with a bad reputation lost in the woods. After moving through a screen of text that explains the plot and the terrifying nature of the house within, you are thrust into Suzi’s shoes with little to no direction. It’s you, a dimly-lit room, a few doors and a hallway blocked by a doll. While the abrupt introduction creates a tangible feeling of unease, especially with the spooky soundtrack and various menacing sound effects to keep you on your toes, it’s also where Damn Dolls begins to fall apart.
You are given zero direction or hint as to where you are supposed to go or even what you’re supposed to be doing. Exploring the immediate vicinity leads to a linear but cryptic breadcrumb trail that never bothers to offer any form of clarity. Within the first 15 minutes of play, you’ll find a key to a door, a flashlight to illuminate your path, and open a room with an intractable candle that leads to death. You’ll also encounter a creepy girl doll, who signifies hidden hints on the wall that reveal themselves when holding the R button. These small hints around the rooms never bother to tell you that you can push one of the bookcases, however, but it’s what must be done if you are to proceed.
This is all shown in an early PS2 3D polygonal style, with textures that get clearer only as you move closer to them so they can pop into visibility. It combines with the dark and muddy tones of the abandoned house to create a lackluster presentation that never gets any better. Enemy dolls and other visuals that are meant to inspire horror or unease lose all impact beyond first sight, especially since deaths are dealt in jump-scare fashion while the game is paced in a trial-and-error style. This means what little storytelling there is goes out the window since they are told using these vague hints, which end up being afterthoughts due to the pacing.
You’ll find yourself falling into cheap traps meant to bring you back to your respawn checkpoint over and over again, looking for the next clue or path to push forward. Survival against the titular evil dolls comes down to finding voodoo dolls to burn with a lighter, not stopping them as they come at you. When combined with a gun that can’t kill enemies, it all becomes very tiresome and boring to play. The feeling of pushing forward through a stretch of needlessly vague clues begins to be frustrating rather than fulfilling and cheapens horror elements fighting to be evoked. Very few times does Damn Dolls feel tense and it never feels genuinely terrifying.
The lack of polish stretches beyond simply the presentation and shoddy mechanics. Controls feel stiff and aiming feels slow on the twin sticks of the Switch. There’s also no way to customize controls or increase aiming sensitivity, meaning you’re stuck with the sluggishness. Unfortunately, this lack of polish also extends into the soundtrack. While the game has startling and creepy voice clips and fun bumps in the night that may have you jumpy at first, it all quickly gets old when you have to replay areas and hear the same sounds cycling over and over as you try to find the right path to go down or the right voodoo doll to burn.
Damn Dolls on the Nintendo Switch is a mess. While the game is playable, it lacks any sort of defining feature other than being frustratingly cryptic. The game entices you with an open-ended idea at first, only to reveal itself in vague and even confusing ways in small, claustrophobic areas that get boring by the second major puzzle. Since deaths come in the form of cheap jump scares, you’ll find yourself immune to them by around the same time as well. This makes Damn Dolls a game that only inspires fear when you know you’re about to play it.
-Creepy premise and introduction.
-Each death is a jumpscare
-Vague clues lead to trial and error puzzle solving
-No sense of direction
Review code provided by PR. Damn Dolls is out now!