Some mild spoilers regarding the story and content some have thought should have been warned beforehand. If you want to go in blind, the review is spoiler-free and starts from the 3rd paragraph.
Kitfox games, developers of Boyfriend Dungeon, have been one of those indie studios that I have a real fondness of their games, yet never memorized their name and got excited by their presence or their announcements as I have with other indie studios; its not due to their excellent library of games and its not due to me not being easily excitable, so why don’t I have the same excitement for their games? What’s been missing was a game that I truly love; I like Moon Hunters, The Shattered Isle, Shattered Planet, but I don’t often think about them and I need to search for them to be reminded which ones are which. When I hear Image & Form I don’t need to be reminded of which Steamworld game is which, but that takes an excellent game to make that bond; Boyfriend Dungeon is that game. I never expected to love every second of a 10-hour playthrough about a game where you date hot dudes who are also weapons, but that is part of the charm of video games and Boyfriend Dungeon is a charming and excellent video game.
Before I get into the reasons why that is, I have to address the elephant in the room or, in this case, the stalker in the bush; you may have heard of Boyfriend Dungeon and the controversy its content warnings (or lack there off) have created. I was always very torn on this matter, even before the latest controversy, and this one certainly didn’t help me in coming up with a definitive, all-encompassing take on the matter; most of the time, content warnings that are thorough yet vague enough are a good thing. Something as simple as “disturbing images” may be enough to allow people to make an informed decision, but sometimes that could be complete bs or forced on a game that doesn’t deserve it; “disturbing images” in something like a shooter may inform the player of the level of gore and allow them to make an informed decision, but the same description on any horror game just doesn’t work because a horror game may show you zombies and their decaying bodies (which counts as “disturbing” but given how well-worn that genre is, not by much) or it could mean something much worse that the player may not feel comfortable experiencing. The devs won’t want to say what it is in order to preserve the element of surprise or may want to elicit a visceral reaction from the player, which leaves everyone at an awkward compromise; content warnings mostly work, but are rarely what they should be for either side. Even something as simple as epilepsy warnings are often omitted, either by neglect or fear of spoiling a certain surprise, and those can result in serious health problems for certain players. Boyfriend Dungeon is in that grey spot where the stalker situation is important to the story, but it is also important to that particular experience; if you know about it, then it won’t catch you off-guard and it won’t be off-putting and kind of horrifying when it happens, which is the intended experience. On the flip side, you can’t expect people wanting to play a wholesome game about dating hot guys to also be cool with a little bit of stalking. My take on this particular case is that, I got the experience I was intended to have and I saw it through to the end and I was happy with not having that experienced spoiled; if I was stalked and had serious issues with that, I would like to know so I can avoid it, but I wouldn’t personally spoil the experience that took so much effort and care to be crafted, so that no one would be offended. From my perspective, it’s the same dilemma other creators have to face when having a similarly controversial aspect to their creations and then having to “negotiate” their way through content warnings; if you were Park Chan-Wook, you wouldn’t want Oldboy to have a warning about the nature of the twist shown to the audience before the movie even began, but some people would have loved to have known that so they wouldn’t relive or experience something that reminds them of a tragic personal experience. To summarize, I don’t know what the correct answer is to content warnings, but I personally had no issue with Boyfriend Dungeon or its depiction of that particular character.
The game starts with you creating a character – choosing gender, looks, name, and pronouns – and then places you at Verona Beach, a fictional urban city where you hope to live the summer that will change your life. Your cousin Jesse sets you up with an apartment and wants you to mingle with all the single friends he has; also, you enter the gig economy as a ‘wielder’, fighting monsters in dungeons called “dunj”, using people who can transform to weapons. That is your game loop; enter dungeons with a weapon, make money and get crafting materials and recipes, craft new gear and gifts, date people to level up your love rank with them, then back in the dungeons with new abilities and gear. While neither genre (dating sim or dungeon crawler) is done particularly well, I found Boyfriend Dungeon to be an excellent experience. The writing is fantastic, especially in the characterization of the ‘weapons’, the presentation is great, and the pacing is spot on. The combat is very simple and the dungeons don’t look particularly great, while the dating sim aspect suffers from the ‘weapons’ being characters the game wants you to interact with so it has to account for you wielding them until they are at max ranking, but not having any romantic interest in them. However, these issues don’t really hold a candle to what the game does brilliantly; it merges two genres and attempts to do lots of things well enough, but it also takes great effort in making sure that these features are all part of the same whole and when they intersect, there are great moments to be enjoyed.
For example, combat in the dungeons is basic and kind of lackluster on its own; I never felt like there was strategy or decision-making, button-mashing seems to work just fine with a few combos here and there. However, the reason I maxed out all ‘weapons’ wasn’t because of the few (but enjoyable) choices I could make on my relationship with them or their upgraded combat capabilities; its because both are fun to go through alongside all the other features the game has. Finding a hangout in the midst of a dungeon, for example, was a chance to heal for free, give gifts to the weapon I had and progress their love bar, get their perspective on the location and enjoy their story, and figure out their character and have them slowly win me over. For me, it was the consideration in the details and forging them to make a great experience that makes the difference. For instance, the floors of each dungeon aren’t that big, meaning that even if the ‘weapon’ I was wielding wasn’t particularly fun to use (which applies to only a couple), the floors weren’t that long to get through and at the end of each floor, I could swap to another weapon; so, I got a weapon that wasn’t fully maxed out, got it to the next threshold, then switched to something else that needed leveling or that I enjoyed using more. Given that I fully completed the game in 10 hours as well, I never felt like I was grinding or the game was patting time, it just felt like I was doing what I wanted to do and saw everything the game had to offer me.
Similarly, when I reached the threshold of a character and their date triggered it always was a breezy yet insightful look into their personality that offered a variety of emotions to suit my wants at the time; some like Rowan, a scythe mage who’s just lost someone close to them and is having an existential crisis was never too much of a downer, because his dates were never super-long or self-serious. On the other side, more intentionally silly and goofy “dates” like the ones you have with a cat, always added a bit of humor and variety to the loop. This does lead to moments where characters that you’ve rejected romantically, still try to hit on you and become super flirty as dates progress, but since they are so short it was barely noticeable. What did become noticeable is how much care and attention went into the writing; like I said before, there is a certain character who becomes important later on that does some…shady stuff, but their backstory and personality don’t feel like an excuse for their actions, but context for them – a trait very hard to find in such cases. Beyond that, the main story, the characters and the world, all feel wholesome and a joy to interact with; there are some serious themes and each character predictably goes through some tough times or faces some past mistakes, but it’s the unique voice each has, their unique attitudes, that makes them endearing and memorable. Lastly, while I was lukewarm on the music in the beginning, it grew on me, so much so, that I started listening to it outside of the game and still find it pretty good. In general, I think the presentation of the game is brilliant; from voice acting to the music and, specifically, the models and art-style of the backgrounds are impressively good.
However, for each animated intro that reminds of Anime, there are those bland dungeons that don’t really change and look underwhelming compared to the rest of the game; this could have been nullified if there were more than two “dunj”, but the game (as is, since at the time the expected 3rd dungeon is not out yet) could use a few more dungeons. Despite saying that I never felt like I was grinding, I did feel like I wanted more dungeons simply to feel like I am progressing all of the systems available to me at all times (which is where the game shines). I enjoyed going back into the dungeons to max out all ‘weapons’, but I loved doing it while I was still leveling up and still progressing through the various floors of the dungeons. To add to this, I feel like the game could have used a few more ideas when it comes to bosses; they aren’t bad, but they are some of the most forgettable bosses I’ve ever experienced, especially since one of them becomes a regular enemy and I forgot it even was a boss to begin with.
Boyfriend Dungeon is one of those games that spoke to me and made me love it completely, despite some issues, yet I can’t really convey why; its one of those games that is more than the sum of its parts and delivers a far better experience than any of its individual features can, on their own. It’s also a great example of how Game Pass can open avenues for games that may have struggled on their own; I would have bought Boyfriend Dungeon at a deep sale on a Steam Season event in a couple of years and would have loved it then, regretting that I didn’t trust it now. Despite a few issues, I already feel like it has earned a spot in my favorite 10 games of the year and would love if the planned support it gets (for now 2 new characters and a new dungeon), gets even bigger and more significant as I truly believe the game can become a surprise hit with people jumping in a bit later; even as it currently is, I can’t recommend it enough.