Developer: The Deep End Games
Publisher: 2124 Publishing
Release Date: March 7, 2023
Platforms: Steam (Reviewed), Xbox Series X/S, PS5, Switch (TBD)
Have you ever been playing Castlevania and felt “This is great and all, but what this really needs is more dating?” Well if so, then I have just the game for you.
Romancelvania is a comedic dating sim mixed with metroidvania gameplay where players take Dracula on a journey to find a monstrous lover that will reawaken his long dead heart. You see, a century ago Drac’s mate left him after he faced defeat at the hands of the legendary vampire hunter Van Helsing, and since then he has remained secluded in his castle, succumbing to his broken heart. This in turn has lead to his undead army to lose respect for their vampiric master, and they’ve taken to making his ancient abode their private party pad. Furthermore, the reputations of monster society as a whole has taken quite the hit because one of the most fearsome beasts no longer terrorizes the lands, and this must be remedied. As such, the Grim Reaper organizes a dating reality show so that Drac may find a new love that’ll reinvigorate his lust for blood, as well as earn money for a struggling monster world.
Indie developer The Deep End Games consists of husband and wife duo Bill and Amanda Gardner, who took their love for horror and gaming, and combined it with a concept about finding true love, something that resonated with them both. After taking their idea to Kickstarter, the concept gained quite a bit of attention, and even won a grant from Epic Games to bring their idea to life.
The Dating Game
A lot of attention was given by the developers to maximize the reality show theme, which is styled very much like the popular television series The Bachelor, in which 12 terrifying contestants compete to prove they are the one meant to sit with Drac on his unholy throne. Little details really bring this theme to life: save points are styled after the infamous confession rooms where contestants divulge their secrets to the producers; areas of the castle and its grounds are littered with tacky, out-of-place romantic props; production assistants are placed about to offer their blood to Drac, granting them an increase of health; level-ups are instead called “ratings increases;” and trophy awards that resemble the classic Emmy can be found, giving a boost to Drac’s many stats and abilities.
The cast of ghoulish contests are the true stars of the game, being much more colorful than the mostly drull Drac. Each character embodies a stereotype often encountered in dating sim games, but if you take the time to get to know them, they are surprisingly complex and insightful. Some standouts include a werewolf with a taste for the finer things in life; a “switch witch” who has been cursed to inhabit a pumpkin-like body; a Cthulhu-esque Elder God who has taken the form of a 1950’s housewife; an incubus bro who is all about the frat boy lifestyle; a genie whose master won’t allow her to return to her bottle, so she’s instead turned to drinking so she can be around “other bottles;” and plenty more. You even get the chance to woo (or antagonize) one of Van Helsing’s descendants, which adds some intriguing tension into the mix.
You may notice that the cast is well-rounded with a decent mix of chiseled hunks and enchanting women. The game is pretty progressive in discussing sexual relations pretty openly; I also wouldn’t expect a shambling corpse to be all that picky with whom they take to bed. After the tutorial area, players are able to choose whether they’d like their Drac to have a feminine or masculine body, as well as either a feminine or masculine voice. It’s great to see this kind of open-mindedness in a dating game, though I don’t know why you don’t make this choice from the outset; waiting until after the tutorial really breaks immersion.
In the beginning there are only three contestants for players to get to know before you’re asked to vote one of the off the set. Once they’ve been asked to leave, they are gone for good. Not only do players not get to further a relationship with these booted characters, but also lose the chance to obtain passive bonuses that each potential lover provides as their relationship level increases. These include being able to do more damage with certain weapons, gaining new properties to particular abilities, expanding the amount of XP received when killing foes, and so on.
I really like how this dating mechanic compliments the action-adventure aspect of the game. While in typical dating sims you’re mostly making your choice based on how much you actually like a character (or something superficial like, say, how banging their body is), here players may need to decide to keep someone around solely because of the bonuses they offer.
After voting the first contestant off, you are sent on missions to recruit a few more before another voting round occurs, and then so on until you’ve brought on board all twelve potential mates. I don’t really like how this is structured, and would have greatly preferred to have access to all 12 cast mates from the outset. Some great characters are brought onboard only at the very end, robbing the player from ever really getting to enjoy their presence. One of these scary suitors could very well be the perfect one for Drac, but because the player has spent so much more time with these other contestants, there’s little reason to choose them because you’ve likely grown attached to someone else already.
Furthermore, there’s never really much of a “competition” for Drac’s affection here. Cast members will sometimes bicker “backstage” in cut scenes you encounter, but there’s never really any of that familiar drama that is the lifeblood of all reality shows.
Contestants are also always eliminated based on the player’s choice. An interesting mechanic I would have liked to see is more competitive elimination. Perhaps the player could give a quiz, selecting their favorite anonymous answers like something from the classic Match Game, with the contestant with the least favorable answers being booted off. This could make it so that the monster with one of the best bonuses is immediately eliminated, or even having the player’s favorite match leave the show unexpectedly. These kind of curveballs would really spice up the dating show format, making for better replayability as well as more strategy to the overall game.
Sadly, the gameplay of the dating aspect is just a tad underdeveloped. Despite being such a niche genre, dating simulation games have become increasingly complex in their design. In Romancelvania, you can do about the bare minimum of what constitutes a true dating sim. Players are able to take contestants out on dates, give them gifts, and complete quests in their honor, all of which raise their romance levels with Drac. While contestants each have their favorite types of gifts—all of which nearly guarantee an immediate romance level up—the sheer amount of gifts available allows for players to shower contestants with as much stuff as they desire to easily gain levels with no real limits.
Similarly, contestants have their preferrered date spots, but often you can just take all potential partners one-at-a-time to any location. I did encounter a few times where I wasn’t able to select any more people for a certain location, but there was never any indication as to how many times I could visit any one dating spot. This inconsistency proved to be pretty frustrating, as if I had known, I would probably have chosen more wisely.
Sometimes while talking with a contestant, you’ll be able to choose how you respond to them, though not always. I really would have loved to have much more control on how conversations progressed, as too often it felt like I was just going along with the script and not having any influence on how the relationship actually progressed.
What’s most damaging to the dating sim format is that there are no consequences for making bad decisions. Should you ask an inappropriate question, give an offending gift, or take a partner out on a boring date, the worst thing that can happen is that you don’t gain any experience with them. This makes the thrilling risk-versus-reward system of dating sims completely nonexistent. Imagine being so reliant on a bonus a contestant provides, or feeling a connection with one of these charming ghouls, only for one horrid date to take most of that away. Even in real-life dating competitions, couples face some kind of obstacle that hurts their relationship, and they have to work to rebuild that. It’s a dynamic sorely missing in Romancelvania.
Despite its shortcomings, the dating sim mechanic is worth investing in simply because the writing is so superb. Romancelvania is very tongue-in-cheek, with plentiful amounts of bawdy puns, sexual innuendos, and over-sexualized personalities. I was surprised at how many times I actually laughed out loud, especially at the antics of P.S. Elle, the pumpkin bodied “switch witch;” her absurd love for bad jokes, coupled with her penchant to be down for nearly anything, and an accent stolen right from DC’s Harley Quinn makes her a delight to talk to.
It’s not all jokes with Romancelvania though, as the writing can get pretty deep at times. Drac’s search for the meaning of his existence is a major theme in the title, as well as coming to terms with the brutal monster that they were in the past. You also aid the mythological terror Medusa in reconciling with her own past, and to accept that she can still have a future despite her head being separated from her body. Another example comes from a vampire contestant who struggles to identify with his former mortal life, and he ponders if that part of him still even exists now that he is a creature of the night.
As rough as the dating sim mechanic is in the game, Romancelvania’s action-adventure gameplay is even worse. This is very unfortunate considering metroidvanias can be some of the most fun indie games around. Players are tasked with exploring Drac’s Transylvanian castle and surrounding grounds—which have been revamped for the dating show, and are still overrun by his revolting servants—in traditional side scrolling action.
None of this feels all that well polished. Combat, for starters, just isn’t that exciting. This can largely be chalked up to poor utilization of some well-established action game features, such as having inconsistent knockback on both Drac and enemies when being hit, no invincibility frames upon receiving damage, and bad hit detection. All of these are staples in action games, well known since the NES days of providing the feedback for satisfying game play, and cannot be ignored in the modern day. The fact that all three are so mismanaged here makes it nearly inexcusable.
Enemy behavior is also awful. Games like Castlevania thrive on enemy variety, with foes not only looking distinct, but having their own attacks as well. Far too many in Romancelvania behave in similar, elementary terms: enemies that will just run up and hit you, or stand in place and throw things at you, or hop around while they pursue you, etc. Each area in the game has different looking enemies that seemingly do the same things that foes in previous areas have done, as well as what enemies have done since the 1980s. If you’ve been gaming for quite awhile like I have, then there’s nothing really new here.
This could be forgiven perhaps if level design was top-notch and enemy placement created some intriguing encounters, but that’s just not the case. Several areas are simply long, flat roads with enemies sporadically peppered throughout. On the flipside, there are areas that are littered with platforms every which way, almost as if the designers just placed them without rhyme or reason. These platforms don’t make combat all that much harder, but do make it extremely easy to get lost as everything just looks the same, and you can’t easily find your bearings.
You might think with all of these issues that Romancelvania would offer quite the challenge for experienced gamers, but again you’ll be disappointed there, too. Romancevlania is incredibly easy even on higher difficulties, which is another thing that feels out of character for a genre that is known to produce some notoriously difficult titles. Players will quickly realize that as their defense becomes hardier and their health points expand, most foes’ attacks are nothing more than mosquito bites on our hero’s undead flesh. Even so, health pick-ups are aplenty, and most baddies can be dispatched with little effort. Even bosses—which have multiple attacks and some tricky patterns—don’t deal enough damage to ever really be considered a real threat. In the late game, when these baddies should be their most threatening, the best strategy I found was to just shrug off their attacks while dishing out my own, and not even worrying about avoiding damage.
On the off chance that you do encounter one of the game’s more difficult adversaries, you can easily cheese most fights by attacking them from the edge of the screen. Often, enemies won’t pursue you if you aren’t in their immediate striking distance, and will just stand there as you prick away at their health bar from afar. I know that the game is supposed to be a comedy, but blunders like this are just laughably bad.
The one truly difficult thing—and for many this would be a deal breaker—is that there is no map to help guide you through Drac’s vast castle grounds. I can’t remember the last time I played a metroidvania style of game that did not have a map. The closest thing you have is when you attempt to fast travel from one of the game’s save points: you can get an idea of where zones are located in relation to one another, but never specific layouts. This fortunately isn’t as detrimental as it would be in most metroidvania games, since Romancelvania doesn’t have all that many branching paths—remember, most areas are just single long roads with very few platforms—but it can still be extremely annoying when I forget where something like the library is located within the castle.
Abilities, Weapons, and Items
To help Drac do battle against his foes, the player will gain access to an armory of abilities, weapons, and items; these are a mixed bag not unlike the rest of the game.
Let’s start with the abilities. Drac can turn into mist, which slows down time and makes them invincible to some attacks, but the inconsistency as to which attacks will penetrate their fog armor kept me from using it that much. Drac’s wolf form allows them to run at an extreme speed, and it can be fun to swiftly traverse a stage after clearing the way of baddies, but our protagonist moves so fast that the camera cannot keep up, and thus it’s just entirely too unwieldy. Late in the game, Drac will learn to do a double jump, which is extremely useful in reaching hard to reach places, but like with Drac’s speedy wolf form, the camera usually jerks around so much that it’s disorienting.
Several abilities are activated by entering fighting game-esque inputs. Case in point, pressing down, forward + attack will let Drac perform a “headouken,” where he slings Medusa’s head forward like Ryu’s special move from Street Fighter, and the Greek beast will turn its target to stone upon impact. Furthermore, Drac can call forth a tornado of blood that will slowly heal him, as well as impaling spikes from the ground, and a bolt of lightning from above.
These kinds of abilities would be all well and good if they worked when they’re supposed too. Although I played on Steam, I primarily used a traditional controller as recommended by the developer (the one I chose was a PS5 Dualsense, though I did try out a Switch Pro Controller and an Xbox Series X gamepad). Using the thumbstick to control Drac meant that these abilities were almost always activated as soon as they were ready. For whatever reason, the game recognizes any thumbstick input as “all the directions” when it comes to these particular moves, thus I was constantly calling forth a blood tornado every minute or throwing a headouken when I wasn’t wanting to. You can always just use the keyboard or the D-pad, but because you’re controlling a 3D model in a 2D setting, everything but a joystick just doesn’t feel right.
Drac’s weapons come with similar frustrations. The vampiric lord starts with a short range sword that feels weak even when fully leveled, and because enemies don’t always get knocked backwards when hit, getting in that close usually means you’re going to take some damage in return. The spear would be ideal for ranged combat, but using it causes Drac to plunge forward awkwardly, often traveling through an enemy, and because there aren’t invincibility frames, Drac’s going to take damage here, too. The mighty hammer functions as you’d expect as a slow, powerful weapon that can deal tons of damage, but the windup and the cooldowns of your attack leaves you open to severe punishment should you not defeat your foe with your initial swing. The only consistently useful weapon I found was the whip, which is so good that it feels practically broken. The whip can be used at a distance, and can usually pass through and hit multiple foes at once; it even can go through walls to defeat baddies waiting for you in another room. Once I got a hold of this, I never felt compelled to use the others except for very specific situations where an enemy might call for a certain attack.
Items are useful in the early game, but like I said, the whip is so good I virtually abandoned items, too. Many of these feel similar to Castlevania’s notable side arms: the rat can be thrown forward like a dagger from Castlevania, easily nailing enemies from afar; the bonerang (that’s weird to say out loud) is tossed out a short distance before returning as one might expect; the “unholy hand grenade” is simply a jar of holy water, but instead of breaking upon impact, it has an unexpectedly long charge. The swarm of bats are the only items I used habitually; summoning them causes the flying rodents to spread out in all directions, and are perfect for hitting multiple foes at once.
Graphically, Romancelvania is a bit hit-or-miss. The hand drawn character designs are admittedly both sexy and chilling, making each of the ghouls and ghoulettes really stand out from the pack. The 3D models aren’t very appealing however, with most contestants appearing unintentionally more gruesome. Enemy designs are just… weird. You have your staple skeletons and zombies, but then you also have these giant tongues with legs, or a tuna fish doing the can-can (also with legs), or another fish riding a penny-farthing—one of those old timey bicycles with the front wheel much large than the back. Few of these look like they were designed for this game, and really clash with the whole theme.
Levels have some variety to them, from Drac’s haunting castle, to a seaside harbor, and even a colorful cotton candy wonderland. Objects within these areas though seem to be borrowed or pre-made assets, and far too often they clash with the character models; this may explain why it’s so easy to become stuck in the environment, or why the hit detection is so shoddy. Foreground objects too are aplenty. I can’t count how many times a large beam or tree or something obscured an enemy from me during combat, or added an unnecessary difficult component to plat forming.
Sound and Music
The soundtrack in Romancelvania is serviceable, though comparing it to Castlevania’s legendary music would be a fool’s errand. Most of the music suits the atmosphere of the game: mildly creepy, sometimes sexy, but mostly full of laughs. I can appreciate that, even if I couldn’t hum any of the game’s tunes without looking it up first.
Sound effects though are really strange, with air horns and other weird noises used in the menus and when activating items. I don’t know if they were chosen to try and heighten the reality show asthetic, but they don’t really work for me. I don’t hate the corny laugh track when some jokes are told though, even if you’d never hear those in a reality competition.
The voice acting on the other hand is *chef’s kiss.* It would be so easy for the actor’s to phone this in, but their excellent performances really sell these characters and the script. As stated previously, I really enjoyed talking with some characters like P.S. Elle, Medusa, and Fenton the intellectual werewolf. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the one category in which Romancelvania gets the most praise, because it definitely deserves it.
At the end of the day, Romancelvania falls short of capitalizing on a great premise. The combat is boring, far too easy, and full of jank. The dating simulation is better, but not quite there, falling short of delivering on the risk factors that make the dating genre so compelling. The writing, voice acting, and superb cast of characters do really save this from being a bottom-of-the-barrel experience, and should be the one reason you should consider sinking your teeth into this title. I’d really love to see a sequel that expands on these ideas and polishes up the entire experience, because there really is a lot of potential in this premise. In short, if you come looking for a enjoyable metroidvania or a deep monster dating game, then you’re going to leave heartbroken.
Josh Cornett is a lifelong gamer who enjoys games across all platforms and genres. He has gone by the alias of “Block” ever since college, when he was nicknamed “Blockbuster” for his extensive video game and movie collection. Currently, he reviews a wide variety of games on his Youtube channel, and talks about all things gaming related on his Twitter and Facebook pages.
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