My safe word is “Phlebotomist”
Without hyperbole, Romancelvania has been one of my most anticipated releases this year. I just didn’t expect it to be so soon this year, and honestly, it probably shouldn’t have been. As a fan of both Castlevania and dating sims, you couldn’t throw a bowling ball further up my alley. It’s like inviting me to an afternoon of tea and ToeJam & Earl. I am there. I am already there.
However, my impressions of Romancelvania’s early demo haven’t been forgotten. My worry was that meshing the two concepts was an ambition out of reach of a small team. Having played through the whole game and landed my big fish, I have to say that the chase was indeed a lot more exciting than actually getting it into bed.
Romancelvania (PC [Reviewed], PS5, Xbox Series X|S)
Developer: The Deep End Games
Publisher: 2124 Publishing
Released: March 7, 2023
The plot of Romancelvania is ripped straight out of its inspiration. Drac has spent a century nursing their wounded pride, after the Van Helsings gave them a whipping so hard their lover left them in disgrace. The Grim Reaper grows tired of the pity party and whips up a reality TV show to help Drac get their mojo back. Drac must travel Transylvania to round up a delectable cast of singles, then gradually eliminate them until picking just one in the end.
The cast is rather diverse. There are tops, bottoms, lefters, righters, doms, subs, and switch-witches. It’s a sex-positive dating sim, so not only can you choose Drac’s gender identity, no one has a sexual preference. From the frat-boy incubus to the well-endowed pumpkin witch, the world is your buffet to rub your genitals on.
It’s quite refreshing. The only downside is that you have three Van Helsings, and you can only pick one. No polyamory option. Whatever, Romancelvania has enough variance to grapple with, to begin with. The point is there’s a lot available to fit your preferences. For me, Fenton the werewolf came in with the advantage of… being a werewolf.
Those peaks are turning me on
While the dialogue is laced with overtly sexual themes, the actual content is much tamer. It’s actually something of a mismatch, but perhaps that expectation comes from my familiarity with dating sims. Not that I expect conversations to end with explicit CGs, but Romancelvania isn’t even all that playful with its imagery.
The graphics might be the weakest part of the whole package. The game looks rather uneven and this just gets worse as the game goes on. The characters are represented in the world as 3D models, but in dialogue, there are 2D images. The unfortunate part is that there’s very little diversity to the 2D art, and the 3D is rough. A lot of characters don’t quite match. Ilessa the Succubus, for example, looks ravishing as a 2D image and like a twisted facsimile when the extra dimension is thrown in. She looks like that cockroach monster from Men in Black crawled into the drawing, and moves in much the same way.
What’s worse is that, even on my relatively beefy PC, Romancelvania chugged in a lot of areas. One particular spot was so bad, that I thought there might be a memory leak involved. I rebooted, went back in, and found that the same issue was there.
I just find the graphical work to be uneven and lifeless. It looks fine – even great – in some areas, and then others are a bit more slapdash. I feel like the game would have been better off taking a fully 2D approach, but maybe that’s my love of the source material talking.
Cuddle in the Bubbles
The consummation of the two genres could have gone a lot better. Romancelvania is one of those situations where combining the two genres created a product that doesn’t excel in either arena. It’s neither a very good dating sim, nor an enjoyable Metroidvania. If the Metroidvania was substandard but the dating portions worthwhile, or vice versa, that would have been preferable. Instead, it’s just all-around kind of weak.
The exploration is technically Metroidvania’s gated exploration formula; As you gain new powers, you get access to different areas. The problem is that the world feels poorly designed. It’s hard to boil this down to a few examples, but the best I can do is tell you that Transylvania has no flow. It’s a lot of disconnected branches going in all directions, so exploration is unsatisfying. Combat is fine, but is limited and lacks nuance. It gets as far as “gets the job done,” then stops.
As for the dating, it has a few high points and a lot of lows. I like the idea of discovering date spots out in the world, but so much of the dialogue feels disposable. You unlock new cast members on a chapter-by-chapter basis, but this means that the last batch you get has very little time to develop. Characters like Vess, the genie, are able to give direct lines to their hang-ups, but others, like the zombie pirate, Robert, I just don’t get.
I really tried getting into the character. Leira, for example, is a striking siren. However, when I tried to get to know her, I found she has the depth of a kiddie pool. Her hang-up is her duty to her royal subjects, and that’s it. Dig in deeper, and that’s the drum she constantly beats on. I still wound up taking her on a final date, based completely on her stunning appearance, and then she dropped the bombshell of what was required to get with her, and it was all over. Maybe that’s on me. I guess it’s an unreasonable expectation that someone will eventually express a personality.
Romancelvania’s biggest issue is that it’s monstrously unpolished. It gives that impression from the hop, but as you get closer to taking the bra off, it all starts shaking apart. Parts of it seem to be entirely unused, others seem to have been glued together at the last minute. There’s a skateboarding portion apropos of nothing, and it’s bewilderingly thrown together.
The plot has a major twist at the end, which sounds like it was thought up early on, but when it was finally implemented, it was crammed in as quickly as possible. Such little thought went into tacking the ending together, that I’m not even clear on what the heck even happened. It’s like getting someone’s clothes off, and they suddenly pull out puppets. It’s not your kink, and you might try to have a good time anyway, but the whole experience is going to weigh heavy on your mind later.
I feel like Romancelvania’s mechanics ultimately failed the writing. A lot of the dialogue is genuinely fun and entertaining. However, there wasn’t really enough focus for it. It probably would have been better if more of the visual novel genre had been pulled into it with the action sitting in its own silo, while the romance enjoys its own adventure elsewhere. The dates could have been more than just sitting on a bench and flirting, which gets us absolutely nowhere.
Romancelvania feels a lot like an idea too grand, a team too small, and a deadline too short. There is a lot of vision, a great deal of creativity, and no shortage of love, but all of that got crushed under the reality of the workload. The whole combination of two established subgenres is a substantial experiment, and that requires a lot of prototyping, testing, failing, and starting over. Romancelvania feels like it charged ahead without looking back on a lot of things. As such, the end product is a bit of a mess.
Like your own favorite hand, it gets the job done. You can accurately say that Romancelvania is both dating sim and Metroidvania. However, also like your hand, it’s ultimately an unsatisfying experience.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]