Boyfriend Dungeon

Available on: PC, Nintendo Switch and Xbox

Price: $19.99

Developer: Kitfox Games | Publisher: Kitfox Games

Release: Aug. 11

Dating for me these days has been a mixture of video calls, texts at odd hours and a dreadful fear of intimacy. It’s also juggling multiple conversations, playing lots of games online and running away from feelings. Indie game “Boyfriend Dungeon” manages to re-create those awkward yet exciting sensations virtually with a cast of seven characters whom you can date and fight alongside in a series of (read: exactly two) dungeons.

“Boyfriend Dungeon” is both a dating simulator and a dungeon crawler. The game tries to juggle both genres well, but the way it meshes these elements together doesn’t always work.

In the game, you can date up to seven characters at the same time. Each of these characters can also turn into a weapon that players can equip in dungeons. The game has a surprisingly limited number of dungeon levels and bosses: The two dungeons have 12 floors each, and one final boss for each, with an additional big boss at the end of the game. Combat difficulty can’t be adjusted, but there is a goddess mode accessibility feature that cuts a player’s damage taken by half. I played on PC with an Xbox controller attached, as the mouse and keyboard aren’t optimized.

In “Boyfriend Dungeon,” your phone is always blowing up with texts as dates send you witty banter or emoji and occasionally ask you out. One of the characters is a Korean popstar named Seven, while another named Sunder displays vampiric tendencies. Isaac, a fencer who is your first dungeon partner, has daddy issues and can turn into a fencing sword. Two characters, Rowan and Sawyer, are nonbinary, and there’s also an option to date a woman, Valeria, who’s an art thief. The game also mixes things up by allowing you to date a cat. Dating this cat is pretty much like dating a human: You have to guess at their needs and hope for better communication. If you stick it out, the relationship pays off with a unique and memorable ending.

The game’s metaphor is a nice one, even if it’s not subtle. You play a character who is deeply afraid of getting to know people. They have to fight monsters that are retro tech gadgets and symbols of fear of change, and at the final boss you literally hack away at an ice-cold heart to make it beat healthily again.

“Boyfriend Dungeon” imagines a world where dungeon dates set in a monster-filled mall and club are peppered with some relaxing respites, such as a fountain to admire or a bar at which to share a drink. There are little bits of dialogue you can share with a date in these tiny rest spots, and it also helps restore your health points.

At those points, the game gracefully integrates dungeon crawler with dating simulator. But at others, the game’s two genres feel dissonant. One of the biggest hiccups is being able to unlock dates by grinding (the tedious kind, not the sexual) in the dungeons. Everybody playing this game will have different preferences and may not decide to date all seven characters, but for the purposes of this review, I dated all seven and maxed out all their love ranks. Doing so, I found that I ran out of dungeon levels to play before I could fully level up every character’s love rank. So I had to go back and replay dungeon levels. Alternatively, I often maxed out a character’s rank in the middle of a dungeon level and had to wait until I reached the next floor to switch dates and start building another character’s rank.

Each weapon has a different combat style that may not suit every gamer’s preference. I wanted to max out Valeria’s love rank to see the end of her story line before everyone else’s. She has a dagger combat style that involves tumbling past enemies to confuse them. It’s not as straightforward as some of the other styles, such as Seven’s lightsaber or the cat’s brass knuckles, which are some of the sleekest weapons to use. Sometimes with Valeria, my character died tumbling between different monsters that started closing in.

Most characters are kind, empathetic and respectful. And then there’s Eric. He’s the subject of the content warning controversy the game was submerged in after launch.

“Boyfriend Dungeon” publicly caught flak for not providing a strong enough content warning at the beginning of the game. The warning originally read, “This game may include references to unwanted advances, stalking, and other forms of emotional manipulation. Play with care.” It’s now been amended to read, “This game’s story involves exposure to unwanted advances, stalking and other forms of emotional manipulation. Play with care and take breaks as needed.” The developer, Kitfox Games, has also apologized “for any hurt inflicted” by the mistake.

Eric is a relatively minor character at the start, and at first he just blends in with all the other dates. But somewhere along the lines, the tone of his texts grows a bit more menacing. Before you know it, he’s flinging insults at your cousin and the other dates as well as showing general disdain for people who can turn into weapons. He can’t turn into a weapon, so he’s jealous.

By the end of the game, Eric starts to dominate the narrative regardless of whom you focus on dating. That’s to the game’s detriment. As a character you can’t really date like you can with the others, Eric grows persistently more annoying and creepy. Some of his behavior is similar to the other characters at a glance, but it’s just a degree more invasive and sinister. To give this character the spotlight, the climax of the story and the ending, is just a little too much oxygen for his toxicity, although — to the developer’s credit — he does admit he needs therapy.

“It’ll be interesting to see how different players react to him because he is inspired — well, all characters are completely fictional and not based on any real person — but also, he feels realistic to me,” said Tanya Short, Kitfox creative director, in a July interview. “We toyed with making it a lot more intense, but it felt like it didn’t suit the game. The game is ultimately supposed to be an escape of some sort. … We originally had a scene where Eric was like breaking into your apartment. And we’re like, ‘No no no no no, roll that back, hold on.’ ”

Other than the main conflict with Eric, “Boyfriend Dungeon” doesn’t have much of a plot, unlike other dating simulator games like “Dream Daddy.” Even the character arcs of each love interest can be predictable, with the payoff not being as great as it could be.

It’s fun to get to know these people, their insecurities and their problems and slowly grow closer past their bashful exteriors. Even if none of the characters are truly surprising, there are still little twists and unexpected charm to be found in the game. Sometimes characters ask you to make a really big life decision for them, and the game asks you: Are you more of a prescriptive dater or is your style more laissez-faire?

These decisions can be thought-provoking and spark conversations among friends in the real world about how to approach dating. For instance, one time Seven visited the main character’s home and said he was too anxious, and my friend suggested I not try to kiss him. I decided to make a move anyway because it’s a video game, but in that moment I learned about my friend’s more intuitive dating style, reflected on my own and came to some realizations about our differences.

The game also sets a nice ambiance with its music and graphics. You can toggle the appearance of the health potion you take into the dungeon to change it between an iced tea, coffee, bubble tea or soda. Crafting “zines” makes you more powerful and part of counterculture.

Regardless of your relationship status in the game or in real life, “Boyfriend Dungeon” has a little something for everyone. The game is good about being transparent with everyone that the player is dating multiple characters simultaneously, so that there’s no cheating involved. In a way, the name is deceiving: There aren’t that many dungeons and you don’t need a boyfriend, girlfriend or zefriend if you don’t want one. You can end the game being platonic friends with absolutely everyone, choose a single lover or be polyamorous.

The biggest qualm I have with the game is that it ended too soon. There weren’t enough cutscenes and romantic payoff with some of the more minor characters, and the dungeons were too short. My favorite ending would definitely be when — spoiler — the cat comes back around and brings you to see all their cat friends. It’s the kind of uplifting, fantastical moment that blew me away.

Perhaps it’s a good sign that “Boyfriend Dungeon” leaves players wanting more — it means that it’s compelling, even if only for a short time.

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