Developer: Beautiful Glitch
Publisher: Those Awesome Guys
Played on: PC
Release Date: April 27, 2018
Played with: Mouse & Keyboard
Paid: $0 (Key provided for review)
Dating simulators are a genre of conflicting sensibilities. On the one hand, we’re encouraged to immerse ourselves in the absurdist high school fantasies, ludicrous fan-service, and never-ending conflicts over waifus and husbandos. In other words, there’s a general lack of self-seriousness to the proceedings. However, this immersion is all but lost when you realize that – in many titles in the genre – everyone loves you by default. Even if you “lose”, you’ll still end up with someone, even if they weren’t your first choice. Before you know it, making decisions becomes an automatic process, requiring only a cursory glance at the options to determine which has the best chance of leading to intimacy.
So, imagine my surprise (and intense satisfaction) when Monster Prom came along and shattered those expectations while still managing to stay true to its dating sim roots. At the outset of the game, everyone treats you with something between tolerance and contempt, and it’s entirely possible to finish the game in that same state. Success isn’t a guarantee by any stretch, which both cleverly subverts the traditional dating sim formula, and adds a huge amount of replayability to the experience.
Taking control of a student at Monster High, you (and up to three other players) have one simple goal: spend three weeks wining, dining, and grinding (your character’s stats, silly) before executing the most dangerous of plans: asking someone to the prom. Along the way, you’ll meet an array of colourful characters, including Vera the gorgon, Damien the demon, and Polly Geist the…well, you can probably guess. Each has their own distinct personalities and levels of interest in you, and all of them manage to be entertaining in their own way. Even folks like the excessively flamboyant Interdimensional Prince have a certain appeal to them, even if most of that appeal comes from the thought of slapping them in the face.
All these characters are wonderfully brought to life with vibrant assets, diverse expressions and costumes (everyone has separate outfits for gym, the theatre, and so on), and some phenomenal writing. I seriously can’t underestimate how fantastically written Monster Prom is. The near constant string of puns, references, and over-the-top character moments could easily become cringeworthy and draining, but I never found that they did. Even the parts that get repeated (for instance, the introduction) remain charming on subsequent playthroughs, though I did tend to skip over them to get to the game faster.
Now, great writing is nice and all, but what really brings dating simulators to life is the player agency. How am I supposed to fall for my waifu if I don’t even have any input on what she thinks of me? Once again, though, this is an area where Monster Prom excels. Each day in the game allows you to choose two different places on campus to spend time in, with bonuses given to different stats depending on which you pick. These sections also bookend a lunchtime segment where you get to choose which characters you want to sit with. Lastly, all three involve some sort of randomized event, where the characters in the area (or ones that show up) will find themselves in some sort of quandary, and you get to throw in your two cents.
These problem-solving scenes are where the real meat of the game is, and it’s truly impressive how many paths you can go down. Decisions frequently cause characters to turn on you, fall for you, or just question your sanity, and the “correct” answers aren’t always predictable. It’s a great change of pace from the often incredibly programmatic approach of, “Be nice, or be an asshole; take a guess as to which one’ll get you some lovin’”.
Character affections can even collide with your own intentions. In one run, I was doing everything I could to be nice to Vera, only to have Damien suddenly approach and allude to his…favourable feelings towards me. This in turn added a great twist to the gameplay, as I was suddenly trying to figure out whether I should blow off Damien and keep going after Vera, or just “settle” for the (admittedly attractive) demon who was obviously gunning for me. Add in choices that can trigger lengthy side stories, a shop that sells items that can change the whole course of the game, and a stats sheet for your character that gives you hints to where you should focus your efforts without making things predictable, and you’ve got a recipe for an extensive, incredibly replayable experience. Hell, even after several runs, I’ve only seen a fraction of the available events and endings that Monster Prom has to offer, and that’s by no means a bad thing.
Monster Prom is an exceedingly simplistic game at its heart (walk around, interact with people, make choices, ask someone to prom, and hope for the best), and yet framing it as such does it a huge disservice. So much love and attention obviously went into every aspect of the game; the great character designs, event artwork that varies for each player character, and even the option to choose your character’s name and pronouns (regardless of their appearance) manage to warm my heart every time. It’s cute, fun, and frequently had me bent over from laughing so hard, and it’s a game that I’ve found myself recommending to countless people since I first started playing. It’s tough work getting a date in Monster Prom, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll fail a lot. It’s a testament to the game that all those failures were just as much fun as the successes.