You have to hand it to Wales Interactive: they know how to flourish in lockdown. Best known for FMV adventures like The Bunker and Maid of Sker, they could have thrown in the towel, as they need actors, sets and direction to launch a game. Instead, they’ve adapted, and we’re getting more from them rather than less. The controversial Gamer Girl is on its way, and we now have Five Dates, which zeroes in on online dating and what the dating landscape is like under lockdown. Who needs film sets when you’ve got an iPhone?
You make choices for a character called Vinny, a 20-something man looking for love online. Goaded on by your wingman, Callum, you create a profile, choose three women from a selection of five (amusingly, the main character can’t afford the premium dating package that would let him date more), go on virtual dates, and then whittle the three down to a final one – presuming that one still wants to meet you.
As you’d hope, there’s a vibrant range of personalities among the women looking for love. There’s Maya, a Spanish free spirit; Grace, a straight-talking lawyer; Shaina, a time-strapped nurse; Paige, a fitness influencer; and Saffron, a self-proclaimed hipster. There’s an interrogation-like feel to these dates, as they ask you questions – and you them – with your answers getting real-time reactions. After debriefs between the dates with your wingman (we’ve never heard the word ‘debrief’ used so often), you’ll assess how it went, move onto your second date (amusingly framed as a series of party games like I Have Never) and then a final dinner date. Get to this point and you might swap numbers, signalling the end of the game and a hefty achievement popping.
There’s not much more to Five Dates than that. It’s designed to be replayed, as you get to know each of the five ‘dates’ over the full runtime, and there’s a handy ‘RB skip’ function that lets you fast-forward through the stuff you’ve seen before. By the time you get to your third or fourth runthrough, you’ll be speed-dating like a pro.
Our first reaction when playing Five Dates was… relief. We’ve played far too many FMV horror games – an inexplicable number – and Wales Interactive have only added to the pile. But, having played Five Dates, we want to shout across an E3 floor and say “Look! There are other genres out there!”. It’s a no brainer, really: dating has always been a game, and the virtual dating scene more so. There’s no reason to be sensitive when producing a game about it, particularly as we’ve been just dandy with lopping off heads and gutting people in horror games.
There was relief, too, in booting up Five Dates because this could have been crass – a Leisure Suit Larry of innuendo, inappropriate flirting and strip poker. But it’s not. This is, dare we say it, an adult take on virtual dating, and it delves into the limitations of virtual dating and the effects of lockdown. There’s no weeby Japanese dating-sim stuff going on here – these are real women with real lives and issues, and any leeriness gets slammed down pretty early.
Each of the five women are well-rounded, too, bucking the stereotypes you may initially have of them. They have character-blemishes also, revealed over the course. We don’t want to ruin too much, but Five Dates explores them sensitively. In one particularly well-performed section, one of the girls suffers from anxiety symptoms, and it’s handled with pinpoint care. It could have been mawkish or heavy-handed, but it was done well.
The actors are also superb. Everyone will have their favourites – this is a dating game, so it deals in subjectivity – but Maya (Marisa Abela) and Shania (Mandip Gill, fresh from Doctor Who) bring so much warmth with them. The whole dating framework just drops away and you want to hear more from them. Props to the main character, Vinny (Taheen Modak), who has to anchor proceedings while leaving enough room for the player to imprint on him. He sidesteps from sensitive to confident with barely a wrinkle.
It’s not all smooches round the bikesheds, though. There’s a fundamental break when playing Five Dates that will need some calibration to fully overcome. When playing Five Dates, you can answer the questions as you would, effectively foisting your own personality on Vinny. Or you can answer the questions as Vinny would, trying to adopt his personality. Or indeed you can play it as a game, trying to anticipate what the women want to hear. The problem is, Five Dates doesn’t disclose enough about Vinny to make the ‘play as Vinny’ option viable, and playing as yourself will likely only afford you progress with one or two of the girls.
To progress the farthest in Five Dates, you need to choose what your date wants to hear, and that feels a little scummy. No one wants to be Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, playing each day loop after loop to find out a favourite ice cream flavour. It’s hard to imagine an alternative manner in which Wales Interactive could have handled this, so you’ll need to overcome this in your own way. Perhaps you could treat it as a psychological interrogation game rather than a dating sim, or imagine that Vinny does, indeed, believe all of the things you make him say (this is the way we made it work). Or you can just accept failure and let some dates go to pot!
It’s a shame that there isn’t at least one gender swap baked into Five Dates, too. It would have cost twice as much to make, sure, but my wife – for example – had less interest in playing through as a man. Particularly as Five Dates is tiptoeing into romantic comedy territory, it would have been welcoming to offer an experience for those who want to date men.
Other niggles are minor. We felt sorry for Vinny, having to come up with umpteen different ways of saying ‘I’m thinking about an answer’, as we dilly-dallied over dialogue choices. Audio is patchy, with some mics not quite set-up properly. And not every actor and character is up to snuff: the wingman, Callum, is a little over-interested in your love life and inauthentic (perhaps we’ve just never had a Callum in our lives before), while Grace never lets her armour down enough to really form a connection.
We played Five Dates with a smile firmly across our faces, as the characters are so endearing and the conversation – when things are going well, of course – is natural and funny. As long as you’re not expecting anything hours-long or life-changing, this is a great date-night game, or just a fun, throwaway experience that will get you an avalanche of achievements and some virtual crushes.
It’s a minor-lockdown miracle, then: Five Dates on Xbox One is a well-written, funny and endearing FMV game that manages to turn dating into a game without making it crass. Once you get over the awkwardness of choosing options based on what dates want to hear, you’ll be in the thralls of some fantastic actresses with engaging stories to tell. Swipe right on this one.