Let’s talk about that title, as it’s key to what’s good about C14 Dating, the latest visual novel from Ratalaika Games. It’s a terrible name of course: a borderline placeholder that looks more like an error message than a game. But if it suggests anything, it’s that this is a dating sim, and that you’ll probably spend most of your time flirting.
Except it isn’t, and you won’t. There is a dating sim in the background of C14 Dating, but it feels like the writer was least interested in this aspect. That’s because the term ‘C14 Dating’ doesn’t only represent that kind of dating: C14 Dating is the technical term for ‘radiocarbon-dating’, the process by which a material’s age is determined using the radioactive isotope of carbon. It’s an archaeological and geological process, and C14 Dating is definitely more interested in that kind of dating.
You’ve got to love the catfishing of the title. Imagine the lusty people who buy C14 Dating, clutching a Mills & Boon, hoping to get some softcore romancing for the night. They’re going to be disappointed. C14 Dating firmly puts you in the boots of an American archaeology intern called Melissa, as you arrive in Belgium for a kind of archaeological boot camp. You’re green, you’ve not really done this before, so you’re given an extremely detailed account of how to run through the whole process, from exposing material, to processing and recording it. It doesn’t shy away from terminology like Microstratigraphy and Mousterian, and you’ll feel like you’re being repeatedly whacked round the head with the Dummy’s Guide to Archaeology.
The cliché has rarely been more true: this won’t be for everyone. Look deep inside yourself and ask whether you want a visual novel that treats archaeology like it’s rock and roll, and assumes you feel the same way. We can imagine quite a few people ‘noping’ out. In our case, we found the ballsiness to stand nerdy-and-proud to be endearing. It’s not a topic that we see often, if at all, on the Xbox, and C14 Dating doesn’t dumb anything down.
That lack of dumbing-down creeps into the dialogue and characters, too. Having recently played 2020’s Roommates, which shares a publishing house, interface and art style with C14 Dating, we were expecting to have our brains microwaved in frothy dialogue. But C14 Dating is one of the best-written visual novels we’ve come across, penned by veteran SleepyKitten. The dialogue feels authentic and believable, and the characters – while still pigeon-holable into jock, wallflower, etc – have traits that take them in unexpected directions. The writing gets bonus points for exploring diabetes, prosthetics, LGBTQ+ issues and deafness without a hint of sensationalism, and with a fair amount of sensitivity.
But while it’s mature and unashamedly nerdy, there is a trade-off. There’s not enough room for C14 Dating to cut loose and have fun. With archaeology and sensitivity dominating the dialogue, you begin to crave some action, scandal, partying or conflict. For all its foibles, Roommates had murder mysteries and school concerts, but the height of drama here is some mislabelled remains. If this was purely an archaeology sim it would be fine, but it’s burdened with being a dating sim too, and it’s too musty and dusty to make that half exciting.
That’s not to say that it’s completely stale. There’s some interactive strata running through C14 Dating. However, in archaeological terms, it’s a mix of museum-pieces and coprolites.
The game takes place over eight weeks, and each week is preceded by a timetable where you slot in activities. While you’re working in the mornings, the afternoons and evenings are up to you, and you can choose to video-game, socialise, study and more. While this sounds intricate and interactive, it’s not at all, as it plays out solely in the interface, and each activity will be arbitrarily ‘failed’ or ‘succeeded’ without a jot that you can do about it. Succeeding adds to your Sims-like stats, like Stress and Empathy, which does little more than improve your ending. It’s all a bit naff and infuriating.
Then there’s the archaeology itself. C14 Dating panics you by over-tutorialising it, when it’s all simple. Digging is basically a game of Picross; a nonogram where you’re given indications on rows and columns about how many squares need to be dug up. If a row says ‘10’ then you have to dig up all the squares, but if a column says ‘0’ then you shouldn’t dig up any at all. It’s a logic problem, and you might have encountered them in the back of a Sunday Times. They’re pretty good examples of Picross, actually, and they work well as a corollary to digging. The mix of visual novel and nonograms reminds of the recent Nintendo Switch hit, Murder By Numbers.
But then you get the lab minigame. Urgh, we dreaded them, but they’re essential if you want a good ending. it’s basically a game of Blackjack, except you only get to see one of your cards. You’re given a number total that you need to achieve, and five tools with hidden number values. The first tool you choose will reveal its value, so you might choose a cloth that has a value of ‘7’ but you need to get to a total of ‘21’. So, you have to randomly choose the other items, hoping they get you close to – but not beyond – that 21. It’s horrible, random, and much respect to anyone who reaches the end without spamming them.
Finally, there’s the whole ‘dating’ shebang. There are six romantic options, from rugby player Deandre, to meek gamer Shoji, to non-English-speaking Joan. Spending time with the characters, making the right dialogue choices, and generally not pissing them off will cause you to gain ‘hearts’. Gain enough, and you might trigger a romantic sequence (and an achievement or two to boot). On the plus side, the dating never feels sleazy, and you can play the whole game without even realising it’s a dating sim, which is a nice difference from bumping and grinding against each other in similar games. On the negative side, the subtlety means that it’s actually pretty darn hard to find a romantic partner, if you’re of the mind to: you have to effectively match your timetable with them to have any kind of chance, and that does feel sleazy. Playing through multiple times, it’s perfectly likely that you won’t see a single romantic match-up.
Luckily, the skip system is as strong as we’ve come to expect from a Ratalaika visual novel, and you can merrily replay in a matter of minutes. A rewind feature also allows you to return to a dialogue branch if you didn’t like the consequences, so it’s all rather generous. Less generous is how the skip function works with the minigames: you’ll have to replay them over and over if you want to get the best endings, and that’s not anyone’s idea of fun.
A quick word on the price, which introduces the age-old argument of whether cost should factor into a score; after all, we’re seeing games reduced by -80% within a year, yet reviews are evergreen and can be viewed at any time. The problem is that C14 Dating is £19.99, which is – let’s be frank here – a ridiculous price for a visual novel of this length. You’re getting three to four hours of gameplay, and only limited replay value. While the quality is higher than most visual novels, particularly in terms of the writing, it’s not justification enough, and we can only suggest that – should C14 Dating sound appealing – you might want to wait for a reduction.
We make the suggestion because there’s a niche group that will love C14 Dating on the Xbox. It’s the thinking person’s dating sim, when the genre is crowded with sleazeballs that most right-minded people would want to avoid. It’s an archaeology-themed game that skirts close to being a sim, and plenty of budding Time-Teamers will revel in that nerdiness. Sure, it’s got rough edges, particularly when it tries to do anything interactive (and no one could make a case for the £19.99 entry price), but chisel them away and you have a mature, thoughtful little visual novel.