Sunday, June 16, 2024

Boyfriend Dungeon is one sexy roguelike adventure

Boyfriend Dungeon got a surprise drop yesterday at the Nintendo Indie World Showcase, but a few weeks back I actually got the opportunity to play the full game for myself. As you can see from my preview, I was very much sold on Boyfriend Dungeon for many reasons: it’s full of sexy people, it has a great character creator, and it does seem to genuinely care about the player. I can confirm that, despite a few hitches and a lacklustre ending, I still am ready to clap loudly and proudly about this game.

You start Boyfriend Dungeon as an anxious, 20-something-year-old who isn’t all that experienced with dating. In fact, it’s heavily implied you’ve never dated before and your mother shipped you off to the fictional place of Verona Beach so that your cousin, Jesse, can help you find your special someone. It’s a weird premise considering you’ve not seen Jesse since you were kids, but if ‘weird’ was a badge then this game would wear it with pride. And that’s more than a good thing.

Outside of giving you his rent-free apartment for the summer and helping you get dates, Jesse is also your guide to making money. You see, you’re known as a wielder. A wielder is someone who can wield the people who can turn into swords and blades and whatnot, but who can’t transform themselves. It might feel like you’ve got the raw end of the deal, but you’re able to use blades to clear dungeons and earn money from it, so who’s the real winner here?

Speaking of blades to wield, your first is introduced to you via Jesse and he is a cheerful, somewhat stoic, but undeniably kind businessman called Isaac. Isaac is a rapier, which is actually called an Épée but I don’t know jack about swords so we’re going to be calling him a rapier for a bit. Sorry, Kitfox Games.

I could hold Isaac in my hands until the end of time

With Isaac at your side, you’re introduced to the world that makes up half of the game’s name: dungeons! As Isaac explains, dungeons and the enemies inside make up the bits and pieces of your worst fears. The first dungeon is the shopping mall, which has enemies that take the shape of things like phones, vinyls, clothes, and so much more. According to Isaac, the enemies are unique to you, so it’s up to you to traverse the dungeon and figure out what ‘fear’ is making this place transform in such a vivid way. You’re on the right way to doing just that, but before you can go any deeper you come across another blade called Sunder. Sunder can’t remember how he got down into the dungeon, or why a part of his blade is missing, but as he transforms into a hunky fella who just screams ‘BAD BOY’, the message from your cousin indicating that weapons are actually going missing – making Sunder’s appearance feel very sus – will likely feel like a long-lost memory.

It isn’t just Sunder that you’ll find in these dungeons though. As you progress through the dungeon floors, you find yourself coming across different blades. What I like about this is that each blade is very different, and it reflects their personalities in fun, refreshing ways. For example, Valeria is a dagger and while she doesn’t have the (ahem) length of Isaac’s rapier form, she is powerful and straight to the point, often going for the jugular whenever she talks to you. She doesn’t mess around, and is very upfront to the point of being intimidating. Seven, on the other hand, is a saber that’s flashy, reflecting his career as a pop star, but actually has an introverted side that comes across through the transparent swish of the blade when you fight enemies. It’s a really neat, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it tidbit that I found real joy in spotting.

Combat itself isn’t the greatest, though I should say that I played with a mouse and keyboard, and probably works a lot better on the Nintendo Switch than it does on PC. Much like Supergiant Games’ Hades, you start small and use your experience with your weapon of choice to steadily improve your prowess until you can go further and, eventually, complete the dungeon by conquering your fear.

But I’m going to be super honest with you all. Combat isn’t what I went into Boyfriend Dungeon for. Nuh-uh, no way in hell. I went into this game with high hopes because everyone you meet in Boyfriend Dungeon is unbearably sexy, and I am nothing if not predictable.

Looking for a girlfriend just like Valeria, please and thank you

Jokes aside, Boyfriend Dungeon delivers not just by shoving sexy people at you, but by putting you in control of the relationships you’re looking to get into. In real life, having full control of a relationship isn’t exactly healthy but this is a video game, and it felt more than a little nice to have the option to embrace these characters as friends and not just love interests. It feels nice going out with Seven to a club without feeling the need to tell everyone every five seconds that ‘we’re just friends’. The game doesn’t make presumptions, you set the pace and the tone. Each relationship with your blades is respectful, and it’s what makes the villain of this narrative such a sharp contrast that’s both compelling and terrifying.

Once you’ve found the weapon you want to use your grindstone on, you can deepen your relationship in a number of ways. The first is simply by using them in the dungeon to fight waves of bad guys, which might seem a bit combative at first but fret not! There are plenty of resting spots, like an arcade or an ice rink, that’ll give you and your significant sword some time to get to know one another. During these times (as well as when you go on dates) you’ll get the chance to give your sword a gift. There are gifts that they aren’t all that interested in, but some they’ll absolutely love and will increase your relationship meter significantly. It might feel a little like cheating, and can ruin the pacing at times but I’m not going to judge anyone for just wanting to hang around with their attractive swordfriend.

As I said, all of the people you end up meeting are pretty darn cute. They’re all super queer too, with Valeria, in particular, being a love interest that is more than okay with polyamory if that’s the route you choose to go down. The only problem with this route is that you eventually do have to pick one during the ending sequence which feels a bit iffy, but ultimately doesn’t affect that throughout the rest of the game that polyamory isn’t treated in a negative light at all. In fact, you can even talk about whether you’re poly or not with your Mom. It’s a really sweet and supportive moment. Boyfriend Dungeon the game is also that too: sweet and supportive. Nobody judges you for using he/him pronouns and wearing a dress, and nobody is going to lose interest in you because you’re non-binary. You can be who you want, because if there’s something the game makes explicitly clear is that you, the player, are worthy of love. Despite the power-ups, the abilities, the swords… That message is the most powerful thing about Boyfriend Dungeon.

Unfortunately, it’s also what makes the lack of fat body types and love interests so disheartening to see. There is an implication that the one fat love interest you’re shown in-game, Jonah, will make a return somewhere down the line… But as of the base game right now, that doesn’t actually seem to be an option. And even Jonah is just one example in a sea of conventionally attractive, thin, or well-built love interests. At least he isn’t described as a glutton or typecast to be some sort of bad guy like the enemies in Hades, but that’s like…the bare minimum! Even with so much good in Boyfriend Dungeon, the wide swathes of genuinely great inclusiveness, it still lets itself down by not thinking about players who aren’t thin and that’s super disappointing.

Boyfriend Dungeon’s portrayal of its characters is respectful

Then there’s the pacing, and how it links to the game’s dungeon. Now don’t get me wrong, Boyfriend Dungeon has some really fascinating concepts with how combat works and I love that you can craft new clothes from what you fund in these Dungeons, but I feel like there simply isn’t enough dungeon to balance out the boyfriend. Overall there are two dungeons, the Shopping Mall and Sunder’s club, with the latter feeling more like a stepping stone than a stopping block once you’d completed it. But no, that’s the last dungeon and the end of the roar isn’t too far from that and well, it doesn’t feel too good for the game’s pacing.

The pacing in Boyfriend Dungeon in general doesn’t feel too good as a whole, actually. From the get-go there’s a lot to do, and it feels as though with each text message from Jesse telling you that he has a date planned for you, you’re too busy trying to get all the available blades in the first place. It does slow down during the middle of the game to give you some breathing room, but the moment you beat the second dungeon it picks up again before giving you a ginormously long bit of empty space where you can fill it by going on dates or just head straight into the end mission. It’s rough, and I think it really weakens some of the game’s most engaging narrative threads.

That said, despite some low points, Boyfriend Dungeon really is a much queerer roguelike experience than even Hades and it’s one of the most joyful experiences I’ve ever had the opportunity to play. I wish there was more to it… But well, there’s always the possibility of DLC.

Until then, I’ll just be listening to the game’s absolute banger of a soundtrack on Spotify.

Score: 4.5/5

A copy of Boyfriend Dungeon for PC was provided to Gayming Magazine by the publisher.

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