Friday, July 19, 2024

Romancelvania Review — Junk reality TV at its finest

Reality TV is the junk food of television. You know consuming it is probably going to make you feel nasty afterwards, but it brings such masterful flavour that you’d be an idiot not to eat it.

Romancelvania, an RPG-esque metroidvania from developer Deep End Games, is the epitome of the early to mid 2000s reality TV, just with a vampiric twist. If 90 Day Fiancé, Big Brother and What We Do in The Shadows somehow had a gothic, blood-sucking baby, Romancelvania would probably be it. It’s what makes playing this mish-mash highly entertaining: it’s unhinged chaos from start to finish, and to be honest, would probably only be improved with a slice of pizza and a cold one from your local takeaway joint.

On review, the premise of Romancelvania is a rather simple one. You play as Count Dracula, a living legend that has been transformed into a lethargic loser after being dumped by your ex a century ago. As a character, Drac’s form can be selected by the player, allowing them to present as either feminine or masculine. You can also select whether your voice is feminine or masculine too, a nice queer-inclusive option. Drac’s personality can be formed through dialogue choices, but what remains steadfast is that, instead of dealing with the fallout in a suitable range of time, our hero has instead been pining away in their castle, ignoring calls, friends, and any other hand of comfort offered to them. It’s nice to know vampires also seem to be on the same wavelength as everyone else.

However, you’re no longer allowed to drown in your self-pity because your bestie, the Grim Reaper, has decided enough is enough. You’re going to find love, even if it means forcing you to become the star of your very own dating reality show: Love at First Bite. The twist is that you’ll have to recruit your own contestants, and boy, some of these sexy monsters will have you feeling a little wacky in all the best ways. You’ve got your undead pirate hottie, Cthulhu if Cthulhu was a housewife and wanted to enslave the entire world, a Werewolf who is a connoisseur of wine and cheese, an Incubus and Succubus who want nothing more than to bump and grind, a jinxed genie who is bound only to love her master and oh so much more.

Romancelvania Review
A succubus as a love interest? Nothing could go wrong!

Things are complicated, however. While some contestants are more than eager to take a bite out of you, not all of these monsters are as chuffed as you are to appear on reality TV. Either way, each contestant has some sort of hang up and it’s up to Drac to help them in whatever way possible, all at the same time as getting to know them a little more intimately. This can be through speaking (as long as you pick the right options), taking them on dates that you can discover through exploration in and outside of Dracula’s revamped castle, giving them gifts, and buying them a drink.

As you get to know them more, they open up and that’s where the real award comes in. As trashy as reality TV dialogue can be, the setting swap of a gothic castle with monsters really adds a charm to Romancelvania. The cast is the best thing about it, and complimented with ability-based progression, it feels as though you can take your time to get to know each character. Some do feel more well-rounded than others, with some characters only appearing much later in the game and thus leaving you less time with them, but there’s just that many contestants you’ll still feel spoiled for choice.

While romance and dating make up a lot of Romancelvania, these sections are broken up through exploration, combat, puzzles and, in one particular section that I won’t spoil, because it’s just that hilariously bizarre, word games. As mentioned before, you progress throughout the narrative through unlocking different abilities, most of them shaped like little trophies you see at the Oscars. With these trophies you gain abilities like super speed, the ability to double jump, call forth lightning, and more. Alongside these features are different combat weapons, such as Dracula’s signature Impaler, a sword, a whip, and a terrifyingly brutal hammer. You can pick and choose which suits your playstyle, and along with some other battle accessories (unholy bombs, rat darts, bone-a-rangs), you’ll be ready to face the legions of enemy scattered throughout the world.

Romancelvania’s cast are the true stars of the show

Enemy design isn’t the best when it comes to the low-level grunts you meet, but the game goes all out when it comes to its boss battles. I found myself grappling with a phantom of the Oprah, an octopus with a gun, and a hell of a lot of spaghetti. Each battle comes with its own gimmick that you’ll have to figure out how to overcome to proceed, and while not particularly challenging once you improve Drac’s health and defences, it’s still a lot of good, junky food.

Yet, for as much as I liken Romancelvania to junk food, it’s clear there’s a lot of real, authentic love to be found. Once you muck through the cheesy pick-up lines and saccharine sweetness, there’s plenty of heartfelt moments that made my heart squeeze a tad. Not only are you going through your own grief, some of your new friends are too, and while some problems are played up for laughs that feel somewhat mean-spirited at time, it’s hard to deny that cattiness, sex appeal and the odd heartwarming storyline is what makes up reality TV. Human beings aren’t perfect, and that goes double for monsters that have lived throughout centuries and centuries. They’ll say things you may not agree with to another contestant (and you can pick who you side with, it’s very Mass Effect), or they may just not be your type. Hell, they’ll even fight one another for your affections, and while that does make me uncomfortable personally, this is what the game’s about: a reality dating show. And well, Romancelvania excels at getting that point across, while also addressing how weird the situation is in the first place. Much like onions, this game’s got layers!

At the same time, there are moments where the game’s self-awareness of its concept (a dating metroidvania with Dracula as the protagonist) is its triumph and downfall. I personally adore the humour that’s blatant, on-the-nose and punny, so I laughed a lot throughout my time with the cast and crew, but often times the game pointedly breaking the fourth wall to let you know this is indeed a video game drew me out of the experience. It’s fine the first couple of times, but after more than a handful it feels as though the game is unsure of its own concept and it shouldn’t be! A metroidvania/dating sim/RPG? I don’t know many games that can combine that in the same satisfying way Romancelvania does.

Romancelvania Review
Drac’s got their fair share of enemies in Romancelvania

Unfortunately, a lack of confidence isn’t Romancelvania’s only hang-up. I won’t speculate why the game had to release in March, but I do feel as though it needed a little more time in the oven to fix some of the bugs that are currently there. As someone who isn’t turned off completely by glitches or small bugs – unless they are as game-breaking as Cyberpunk 2077’s back at launch – the amount I encountered threatened to turn my joyful experience into one that sucked. Whether it be glitched cast members who you couldn’t interact with, voice lines not being triggered or even there for certain characters (the Van Helsings suffer from this the most), or being locked into place after a cutscene, it became clear to me that Romancelvania needed more time for it to fully show off its platinum shine. As of now? It feels more like silver. A shame, because there’s still so much there to love.

Romancelvania’s buggy problems does drag its quality down, but once those are fixed I can’t think of a game I’d be more excited to jump back into.

Score: 3/5

A copy of Romancelvania for PS5 was provided to Gayming Magazine by the developer.

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