Bargain Bits is a new series where we take a look at newly-released games which are either very cheap (around £4 or less) or the sweet price of free. I’m going to dodge ones that are obviously very bad or low-effort, and instead focus on games that people might legitimately want to play. Today we’re looking at Doll Explorer Prologue.
Doll Explorer is a puzzle game made by a single, self-taught Japanese developer under the moniker Pico Games. The free Prologue is out now on Steam. You may as well play it yourself at that price point and time investment, really, but I thought I’d give my thoughts after spending my lunch break playing through it. So if you want the brief version of this review: the art is adequately anime-cute, the translation is a little odd but fine considering the game’s development, and the puzzling gameplay is pretty satisfying. I’ll expand on what I think below, so read on.
At first glance, Doll Explorer looks like a deckbuilder of some kind, maybe of the dungeon crawling type. However, it’s really a pure puzzle game. There is a single, definite correct solution to every one of the Prologue’s eleven stages. It’s got a dungeon crawl-ish appearance, but from the Prologue it doesn’t use any mechanics associated with that genre. You get a little set of ‘cards’, a specific few more for every enemy defeated, and a set number of turns to reach the end of the level, defeating all foes and negotiating the environmental hazards. You play these cards in order to move and use a small range of attacks to manipulate enemies’ positioning and/or chuck them into dangerous terrain. In this way it’s a bit like a linear, puzzle-ier Into the Breach.
It’s a pretty basic demo, with a small number of stages and only two hazards: falling stalactites and pits, which you have to use to your advantage. It culminates with a boss level, which combines all of the mechanics found in this short demo stage in a satisfying way.
I’d be really interested to see where the developer take the mechanics after this demo, as it feels a bit like they’ve used them all up and would need to introduce new ones in any continuation. From the story beats at the end of the prologue, the particular dungeon is cleared, and the protagonists – a witch, Tia, and the titular Doll, an artificial human she creates – progress onwards to further adventures. With new environments may well come new gameplay mechanics and challenges. If I let my imagination run dangerously wild it could even extend to mechanics based around the shop, Recettear-style (doubtful, but nice to fantasise). The two of them form a deeper bond through the first chapter of the game, though it never addresses the, er, questionable ethics of using magic to build a fully-sentient dungeon-crawling magic android and using them to face lethal challenges for profit.
Puzzling these short levels out, after the introductory material is done, is satisfying in the same way as getting a chess puzzle correct. While deckbuilders of a similar puzzle-ish variety (like the recent also-free demo for Fights in Tight Spaces) offer their own particular joys, the closed nature of games like this give a fundamental, cerebral satisfaction from success, free from random chance. This Prologue wasn’t particularly hard, though I took a wee while to puzzle through the boss stage until I figured out an essential fact about the way the game resolves the end of turns. However, I can see how with a few extra mechanics and details, it might offer another layer of challenge for dedicated puzzle-heads.
(spoiler-ish: If you use the whip to pull a far away enemy towards you and there is an enemy on the intervening space, you die – however, if that enemy takes lethal damage before they are pulled into you, you take no damage)
I’m not totally without criticism here, especially for the user interface. With the game’s strict nature, if you make one error the stage attempt is basically over. However, I couldn’t find any pause menu by hitting any of the standard buttons, or find a way to restart without finding a way to die. I was playing on my laptop, which has a 3:2 aspect ratio on the screen, and while most things worked as they should, some bits were cut off at the edges, such as the turn counter. This is a bit of a specific case with an unusually square monitor, but worth considering. It didn’t impact my play too much, but would be nice to fix. The game launches in Japanese as well, and you need to find the (labeled) language menu. Speaking of language, the translation is a little awkward, but not without its charm. Given how often it is that I see games like this on Steam with no translation whatsoever, it’s nice to have one at all, and I won’t complain too much about it.
Of course, as always with demos, prologues, Kickstarters, Early Access, and everything in between, it’s all well and good talking about potential. Doll Explorer’s Prologue is propped up a bit by its cute anime art style, and is trading a little on that draw. However, I’m still interested in the potential offered by this game both as a brief, lunchbreak puzzler and beyond. Combining its charming aesthetic with the strong foundations laid in this game could make it into an appealing, smart package. It would also fit well on mobile devices, with a few user interface tweaks. I’d recommend giving the free Prologue a chance if you have the small amount of spare time, as from the sounds of it the developer is looking to continue development if there’s interest.
If you’ve read this far and are still hungry for more words, words, words, why not read our impressions of the Monster Hunter Rise beta, or Nevi’s review of Warhammer strategy game Sanctus Reach. Or, if you’re looking for books, take a look at my review of Star Wars Aftermath: Life Debt.