Dating sims tend to fly under the radar, but the gaming press has locked onto Boyfriend Dungeon. There have been raised eyebrows around its triggering moments; its themes of emotional manipulation and stalking. Developers Kitfox Games have reacted by updating their content warning message, and the lightly frothing anger has abated.
Sauron’s eye has fallen on Boyfriend Dungeon because it happens to be the most attention-grabbing dating sim in recent memory. Dating sims have largely been happy as a niche genre, but Boyfriend Dungeon has taken the twin path of being a day-one Game Pass game, bringing it to a huge audience, and also by being a mash-up with the game genre du jour, a dungeon crawler. So, while the dating sim fanbase are used to hitting on dragons and pigeons, and exploring incredibly dark themes in Doki Doki Literature Club Plus!, the mainstream gaming world definitely hasn’t.
Let’s address the triggering sequences in Boyfriend Dungeon first. There are a couple of instances of stalking here, and both are persistent enough that no player-action will get rid of them. In one of these cases, it’s unavoidable – they are the main quest-line boss, regardless of who you date – and it gets violent, so there’s a strong case for a content warning, and a stronger case for some soul-searching about whether you’re comfortable with it. It’s not deeply oppressive or dark – the main character shuts it down strongly, and the manipulating character reforms – but it’s still there, and worth raising at the top of the article.
It throws light on an interesting topic: Boyfriend Dungeon’s mismatched tone, something that it can’t quite reconcile. This is a Game Pass game, an arcade-y brawler at that, with a summery vibe and some humour. Yet there is a dark underbelly to Boyfriend Dungeon, and we can’t help shake the feeling that the tone is at odds with everything else. If you want an escapist fantasy, which a lot of dating sims can be, then be wary that virtually every story within Boyfriend Dungeon has a tense conflict and social commentary. A businessman called Isaac has a seriously dysfunctional family who want to destroy him. A popstar called Seven is harangued by fans and just wants his own life. It’s not a particularly happy-clappy game, so make sure you’re in the mood.
You have complete freedom to choose your character (choices of pronoun and non-binary options are welcome, alongside completely unisex clothing), and then you’re sent to Verona Beach for the summer. You’re staying with a cousin, Jesse, who seems to have entered a clandestine pact with your mother: to set you up with any willing person in the area. So, you’re blind-dating, meeting people by chance, and generally wooing multiple people at a time. You’re meant to be new to love, but you’re an absolute Casanova.
These first moments are more sink-or-swim than we’re used to with dating sims, as it’s entirely possible to lose their interest from the first date. Or you can push them away yourself, of course. It’s refreshing and authentic, actually, that you’re not railroaded into unwanted relationships. You can also maintain a few as friends.
Who you can date is fantastically queer, diverse and embracing. Several bases are covered (the game has seven dating possibilities, so it won’t cover all of them), but there are people who self-indentify as women, men, non-binary and even cats. There are younger people and older, and various body types and ethnicities. It’s called Boyfriend Dungeon for a reason – the skew is towards men – but it’s refreshing to see that the title isn’t limiting, and there’s likely someone for everyone.
You’re probably wondering where the dungeon-crawling comes in. Boyfriend Dungeon has a wonderful, nonchalant attitude to this part of the game. Each of the dates can turn into swords, and nobody bats an eyelid at it. It’s barely even questioned. Then you’re taking them into dungeon-malls, as these are the festering pits of human insecurities – which is not too far from the truth. So people jump into them, hand-in-hand as sword and swords-person, and clear them out as a kind of gig economy.
It’s ground that Going Under also covered, with modern institutions being swapped out with dungeons, but Boyfriend Dungeon is played less for laughs and more as a kind of social criticism. You’re diving into the dungeons with your partner, and they’re reasonably expansive floors with an escalator (ha!) down to the next level. If you get far enough into the mall then you save your progress, and can return to that floor in a future raid.
You’re likely going to complete four or five floors at a time, and a couple of bosses sit in each mall. The enemies and the bosses reflect the dungeon’s themes (both are spoilers, so we’ll keep the themes schtum) and are weird riffs on everyday-ish things, like phones, gramophones, lips and confetti cannons. To beat them, you’re given a couple of attacks, a dodging roll, and the ability to use some common consumables like a latte which lets you heal, and a magazine with powerful offensive abilities, which can be configured back home at your flat through a simple crafting system.
Combat in Boyfriend Dungeon is pretty flat, unfortunately. Your character has a sliding, slightly out-of-control momentum, like you’re playing an ice sculpture of yourself, and the attacks lack substance. It feels like you’re hitting air, and enemies are bouncing off the resulting gusts of wind. You can level up each sword, which is in lockstep with your dating progress with the character, but the abilities you gain are never transformative, and it’s your generic XP level that really has an impact on your DPS. There’s never been a worse time to release a tepid rogue-like dungeon crawler than now, with Hades arriving on Game Pass in the same month, and Boyfriend Dungeon looks two-inches tall next to it.
To compensate, Boyfriend Dungeon is easy, so the lack of power and maneuvering never hits your ability to complete it. It’s also short, with only six unlocks per character/sword, and a couple of dungeons to work through. We’d guess that it’s three hours long if you’re only looking to complete one sword’s story, and around six if you want full completion. For a dungeon crawler, it’s surprisingly slight, but the arrival on Game Pass makes the longevity problem smaller.
As a Hades-a-like, Boyfriend Dungeon disappoints, but as a dating sim it does a marginally better job. The writing is better than par, and some characters emerge well-rounded, and there aren’t too many cliches on show. It’s all a bit serious and could have done with some lighter moments, but you have plenty of options, lots of dialogue choices, and some satisfying endings. We particularly enjoyed the ability to ‘gift’ items to a character, which turns into something of a sub-game, as you guess which character would like a video game gift or a bouquet of roses. Would a cat like vodka? It’s one of life’s all-time questions.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in Boyfriend Dungeon is that the smooshing of dating sim with dungeon-crawler actually feels natural, and never an odd marriage. People turning into swords? Yeah, that somehow fits. Dating can feel like a game, and relationships like XP bars, so the world of Boyfriend Dungeon doesn’t end up as odd as it first presents itself.
But while the two genres in Boyfriend Dungeon dovetail nicely, they don’t stand up to scrutiny themselves. The hack-and-slashing is a callow shade of games like Hades, and the dating sim stuff is fine, but lacking in any emotional reaction: we failed to laugh, love or loathe. It may not be the sleazy sim that many have imagined, but it also fails to trigger a reaction other than a shrug emoji.
You can buy Boyfriend Dungeon for £16.74 from the Xbox Store, or play it on Game Pass on Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S
- Inclusive player and NPC character design
- It’s quirky world feels natural
- Dialogue is reasonably strong
- Dungeon-crawling is limp
- Lacks challenge and longevity
- Story never really lands
- Massive thanks for the free copy of the game go to - Kitfox Games
- Formats - Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Switch, PC
- Version reviewed - Xbox One on Xbox Series X
- Release date - 11th August 2021
- Launch price from - £16.74