Despite public perception of me, I try very hard not to be an ass.
That isn’t to say I don’t enjoy being an ass when someone deserves the treatment, but I don’t go out of my way to be an ass or overly negative. It’s one of the reason why there are so few free EVNs reviewed here. It isn’t because I only review ‘high-quality’ EVNs, but rather I do my best to focus on projects I think can handle critique and use my reviews to get better and not drop the medium entirely. It isn’t a perfect approach (as I’ve been repeatedly told) but it is the truth of how things have happened here.
So, last year, when this project was launched with a note was attached with the creator kicking themselves a bit for the outcome, I decided to leave well enough alone. After all, if you release something you say you can’t be proud of, what on Earth can I add to change your mind or confirm your diagnosis? It seems to have gained a pretty good following on Lemmasoft, so it was added to the list of games I had to review. And while this project is far from the high pedestal the creator was looking to sit it on, I disagree that it isn’t something to be proud of. Let’s take a look at The Dolls’ Story and you’ll see what I mean.
In an unnamed fantasy nation, the military has a special unit comprised of soldiers and homunculi. These homunculi, known as Dolls, serve alongside soldiers in defending the nation and protecting the populace. You, the unnamed protagonist, has finally earned a spot in this select unit and will receive your Doll to begin proper training. But, of course, that is when everything changes.
What do you mean ‘what kind of changes’? IT CHANGES!
One of the biggest strengths of this game is that it is a very intimate story, and by that I mean the central focus is just on two characters: you and the Doll. It’s actually a pretty surprising emotional ride as without a larger threat looming or constant appearances from the supporting cast, the entire game would’ve flopped if you didn’t connect with the homunculus character. It isn’t perfect due to a few factors; chief among the fact that it is all familiar territory and doesn’t explore much out of anything you’ve seen in, say, Fullmetal Alchemist. Also there are these minor moments in between the major events of the game that just fall flat. There are a few however, like the early trip to the market, that add some substance to the relationship.
Outside of the relationship the supporting cast can waver between simply being stock and going straight into clichéd. ‘Your’ friend and fellow soldier Melinda and her homunculus Gilfred behave as you would expect them to and don’t change from that track through the course of the story. And while there isn’t a massive global threat, there are a group of villains that are, honestly, out of place. In a different story where the full world was fleshed out, they would fit right in. Here it just feels awkward and, really, is only there to be a punch to the throat for the main storyline between you and your homunculus.
Also, while we are given the choice between a male and a female homunculus, the brutal reality is that there is only one viable path: at least it was for me. If you try following the female homunculus’ story, it will cut out about halfway through: meaning the male homunculus is all you’ve got. While they both followed the same arc, they are two completely different characters and, bottom line; this is where the hard ass administrator side of any creative process comes into play. You can either give people a relatively short but relatively satisfying game or you can give people one-half of a game with the most interesting character cut off at the knees before her story really gets started.
One is the right decision and one is the wrong one: take a guess at which is which.
Regardless of if it’s just a ‘fun story you’re doing out of love’ (that’s not just for the Storybeam folks, but also for EVERYONE), at the end of the day you are still releasing an incomplete game and asking for everyone’s understanding. Uh, no. Reach down, grab your Daddybags (or Mommybag as the case may be) and cut what’s not finished. We won’t know the difference and will be happier not seeing a ‘This Story is Incomplete’ card right as it’s getting good. And when I say ‘cut’, I mean cut ANYTHING that even remotely suggest there was more than one path in the game. Trust me; it’s for your own good.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the biggest complaint I have. While the main story has flaws, the ending itself was well-handled in my opinion. It was bittersweet and tied up all the plot threads neatly as the credits rolled out. Then the credits stop and we get a ten minute after-credits epilogue that is, for a lack of better terms, a complete and total cop out. Not only does it take a crap on the original ending, it also pimp slaps the story at large for what amounts to the feeling you get after eating a large bar of chocolate. And why? Probably the same reason Korra got ALL of the Avatar powers back in the final minutes of Book 1: can’t send the kids home upset!
In fact, I may spoil it at another time. Just not right now.
At the end of the day, it’s a familiar tale mostly told well. The biggest lesson Storybeam can learn here is just to learn when to stop and accept when to cut certain ideas out. There is potential here to tell a decent story and hopefully the lesson will be taken to heart for Storybeam’s next release.
PRESENTATION & GAMEPLAY
The biggest accomplishment of The Dolls Story is without a doubt its Presentation. It is very well-designed with colorful backdrops and familiar, but clean character models. Although, it’s hard to avoid the obvious…er…’gifts’ Melinda and the Priestess bring to the forefront. Also Gilfred looks more obviously artificial than your homunculus but, que sera. This is punctuated with a motion comic set of CGs that give certain scenes a great sense of energy while adding much needed tension to the few action scenes we get with the game. So two big thumbs-up for the presentation here: it’s very well done.
The Gameplay is…mostly decent. Most of the game has you typing responses to the homunculus instead of using a dialogue option tree. The reason I believe it was done this way was to create a deeper illusion of the ‘personal bond’ between you and the homunculus. However, it’s really just to ensure that you don’t color outside of the lines. With a handful of exceptions, you are limited in exactly what you can say to the homunculus. Unless you use a certain set of words in that order, the homunculus will ask you to repeat yourself: or rather type in the set of keywords correctly.
This is a massive missed opportunity; especially with the incomplete female homunculus route. In the beginning, it is made clear by the homunculus’ creators that your treatment of it will determine how it grows and outlook. This is one of the few games that isn’t a romance title where multiple endings make perfect sense to allow for multiple treatments of the homunculus. And it doesn’t have to be crazy: just four or five different endings to reflect different choices. But, again, they want to make sure you color in the lines. It wasn’t a bad call; just one that didn’t work out as planned.
Other than that, there are no other bugs or internal issues to report.
The Dolls’ Story is roughly 45 minutes long depending on your playing speed. With only the male homunculus to go with and no options to lead to multiple endings, I think most will find one solid play though good enough. Although I still recommended it for people looking at different ways to present an EVN as well as those looking to help Storybeam grow.
Perfection is a difficult bar to set for oneself because the hones truth is that you’ll never reach it. But at the same time, discouraging others from reading your work because of your own issues with that bar is just as damaging to one’s growth as a writer/artist/etc as mindless hatred towards one particular genre. I really wish that I ignored what the creator said and gave this game a shot when it came out. It doesn’t seem to have slowed Storybeam down as their next title is on the way, but this one deserved a moment of recognition as well before being relegated to Red-Headed Stepchild status.
It isn’t perfect, but The Dolls’ Story is a fun little story with an exceptionally talented staff behind it. With a few different decisions it would’ve stood right next to many other aspiring commercial EVN groups. We’ll see more from this group in the future, but for now it deserves at least one playthrough. Just don’t expect the 4th of July.