It's easy to dismiss licensed games like Barbie Dreamhouse Party as cheap cash-ins on popular franchises because, in all honesty, that's usually what they are. Creating a video game based on a classic line of dolls may seem like a step in the right direction towards our increasingly digital future, but it comes with the caveat of trying to come up with the best way to incorporate these toys into a completely different medium. The results are often disastrous, as exemplified by the recent Wii U atrocity Hot Wheels: World's Best Driver, but there are always exceptions to the rules. While Dreamhouse Party is far from the best of its kind, it comes close to accomplishing what it sets out to do, and that's redefining a staple to appeal to a new generation.
For those out of the loop, Dreamhouse Party isn't only based off of the Barbie toy line, but more specifically it's a tie-in to Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse, an animated web series that is, at the time of writing, in its fifth season. In this new Barbie universe, the titular doll and her siblings and friends live in a fictionalized Malibu, California, spending much of their time getting into trouble in Barbie's mansion. One particularly boring afternoon, Barbie and her friends decide to kick back and play some video games. In a desperate attempt to sway the group into doing something more exciting, Raquelle, the rudest member of Barbie's friend circle, makes a move to shut the game down, inadvertently setting off the Dreamhouse's security system and putting the entire mansion under lockdown. Now it's up to Barbie and her friends to complete a series of minigames and free themselves from their exceptionally plushy prison. The plot only exists to loosely tie the minigames together, but the script is surprisingly funny, even out of its target age range. The humour is kept appropriate for all ages, but the characters will often make references to film and other media that are sure to fly right over the heads of younger gamers. It's all very whimsical and silly, but decidedly tongue-in-cheek.
When working your way through the exceptionally short campaign, you have the option of playing each of the nine stages in any order, each based off of a different room in the Dreamhouse. Once you've selected where you want to go, then you and three AI pals – or local players if you've got friends with you – must search the room, running up to random pieces of furniture and madly tapping to A button in the hopes of finding a hidden object. You can also find photographs scattered around the room that then go on Barbie's "Inspiration Wall," this game's version of an art gallery. Once all four objects have been found, you will then be prompted to start the actual minigame associated with the area. These pre-game scavenger hunts are little more than fodder used to extend the length of the campaign; the whole thing can disappointingly be completed in around two hours.
The true content lies in the nine minigames, all of which can be played at will once they've been unlocked in the campaign. These range from catching shoe boxes to washing pets to picking out the right accessories to match your outfit, but they're all very basic in nature. While older gamers might be turned off by the easiness of the games, younger players are sure to enjoy dressing up their favourite Barbie characters and watching them strut down the runway. None of the minigames are particularly inspiring or original, and a few of them recycle mechanics, but when played in multiplayer they provide enough variety to keep a room full of screaming kids at ease.
In conjunction with the straightforward goals, the controls have a sense of minimalism as well. Movement is controlled with the GamePad's left stick while additional inputs are left completely up to the A and B buttons. Some minigames require the use of the GamePad's touchscreen, but the majority of gameplay sticks to the basic setup. Additional players can join in by syncing up a Wii Remote, which uses the D-Pad and 1 and 2 button in place of the Wii U controller's buttons. The game controls well enough without any significant issues, but that's not really saying much as most of the minigames require little actual effort; they're easy to master, but the GamePad is otherwise underutilized. A few of the minigames incorporate the controller's touchscreen, but beyond that all it ever does is mimic what's being displayed on the television. This makes Dreamhouse Party ideal for off-television play, good news for all of the parents out there who want to keep their kids busy while using the TV for anything else. It's really just too bad that a collection of minigames wouldn't incorporate some of the Wii U's unique features into its gameplay.
Characters and environments in this game aren't particularly detailed, but that's almost excusable as it plays into the idea that all of the characters are living dolls existing in a plastic world. Movement is rigid, environments are bland, and character models look way too polished to be realistic, but it could be argued that these oddities are by design in keeping with the "living dolls" motif. Inexcusable, however, are the sudden drops in frame rate and occasionally lengthy load times. Making matters worse, the graphical slowdown isn't consistent or strictly reserved for the more taxing events, but it will sometimes occur when merely walking from one end of a room to the other. These flaws are hardly game breaking, but they point to an overall shoddiness that becomes apparent when scrutinized too closely.
Similar in design to the stiff character movement is the way that the playfields are displayed. Each room that you explore in this game is limited to one square area with what is essentially a fixed camera angle. This is, by all means, a very lazy way to put an environment together, but it once again plays into the idea that you are interacting with living dolls. The Barbie dream house play set that exists in the real world is essentially a series of boxes stacked on top of each other that are stylized to look like different rooms. Someone playing with the toy has access to each room from one side through an invisible fourth wall. In Dreamhouse Party, the same idea is put into play, giving players access to each room, much the same way that one would when playing with the actual toy. Elements such as this make Dreamhouse Party a game that is easily more inventive in design that what is obvious at a glance, but the fact of the matter is that these artistic decisions don't improve gameplay, and that's really the most important thing to consider.
If you can look past the blatant consumerism and potentially damaging image-crafting effect that the classic line of dolls has on children, Barbie Dreamhouse Party has a lot going for it when scrutinized with an eye for metaphor. Beyond that, the reality is that this is a crucially flawed game. This minigame collection was clearly created by developers who wanted to do the absolute best with what they had, and for this they should be applauded, but that doesn't save the game from being a lackluster experience. A limited number of minigames, inconsistent frame rate, and repetitive gameplay hold back this game's potential, despite its obvious appeal to the target audience of young children who love Barbie dolls. There are enough redeeming qualities here to save it from being a game to run kicking and screaming from, but there are so many better all-ages minigame collections available on Wii U, that anyone should set their sights elsewhere.