Namco High is a browsser-based dating game from Homestuck creator Andrew Hussie, starring a cast of officially licensed characters from Namco's back catalogue. You can play it for free right now with extra characters available to purchase for a small fee. But should you? We sent Cassandra Khaw back to school to find out. Warning: spoilers for the intro and one of the free characters.
Call me weird but I'd totally play a Dark Souls dating sim. Solaire, I imagine, would be an absolute gentleman; the doe-eyed kind that perforates others in your name while spouting eccentrically wistful lines like, "If only I were so grossly romanceable!"
But he's not in Namco High and neither are other crowd favorites like the bodice-busting babes of Soul Caliber or the iconic Afro Samurai. Instead, we have a cousin of the Prince from Katamari Damacy as the protagonist and a bevy of halfway familiar characters as potential love interests. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The ship from Galaga, for example, takes center stage as Namco High's beauty ... queen?
Sovereign monarch of indeterminable gender and species?
God knows. What’s disappointing is that this visual novel-slash-dating sim starts on a promising note, with your character (I named mine Roly-Polyanna) launching into a soliloquy about how they’re just like you, before nonchalantly adding, “My uncle is the King of All Cosmos.” Well. The complexity of the situation escalates, of course. Eventually you find out that that our leading extraterrestrial is in trouble because they mistakenly rolled half the school, principal included, into a Katamari. (A Katamari is, for those unfamiliar with the word, this weird ball that expands in size by causing everything but its creator to affix to it in a ludicrous, arm-flaily manner.) Detention naturally followed.
As you might have already guessed, this classroom of delinquents is a strange one. Everyone is a caricature or an outlandish impossibility. Donko from Taiko Drum Master? Most popular girl/musical instrument in school, don’t you know. The graphics are equally dissonant. All of the characters are presented in their native art styles, a creative decision you will probably either loathe or love. (I liked it.) Regardless of how you feel about this, Namco High doesn’t waste time: almost immediately after your entrance, you’re accosted by these delinquents. Donko, the talking traditional drum, announces that you look "weeeeeird" (have you looked in the mirror, Donko?) and that segues into a roll call as the characters, one after another, pop up to bicker over you.
After that is done and dealt with, a sequence with Principal Dig Dug (yes, the one from that 1982 arcade game) and the jaguar-headed, detention officer King (yes, that’s the dude from Tekken) will follow and once you’re through with that, you're set loose amid all these romantic possibilities. My first choice was Donko, obviously. Who doesn’t love the acerbic high school princess? Why settle for the mundane when you can have tempestuous power plays and deep-set issues instead? I nudged Roly-Polyanna, via the help of a single button, towards her, eager to see what a torrid affair between a musical instrument and a jelly bean-headed member of royalty would be like. Can you imagine their kids?
“Uh huh, yeah. In detention again. Yeah, for talking on my phone in class.” Donko drawls, oblivious as Roly-Polyanna rolls up. “It’s, like, hell-OH, of COURSE I’m on my phone, because everyone’s calling me all the time!”
She makes a linguistic error and Roly-Polyanna, ignorant to all the rules of high school courtship, immediately pipes up. Donko ends her call. Turns. Barrels down on my pink-sweatered, rosy-cheeked avatar.
“Are you giving me ATTITUDE? Do you, like, even KNOW who I AM?!” Donko demands.
I didn’t think such a cute little drum could be so scary. Roly-Polyanna whimpers inwardly, possibly in search of reciprocal comfort. I don’t respond. I can’t, anyway. Namco High is a little stingy with opportunities for interaction. And even if I could, I’d probably have left her to her own devices. Roly-Polyanna’s mounting panic and Donko’s haughty reproach are a delight. My joy crescendos when Donko laughingly reveals that her tirade was just an act. What a monster. What excellent narrative opportunities, oh my.
The two eventually go on to have a normal conversation and Roly-Polyanna soon revises her opinion, deciding that Donko is a medley of negative traits but also really cute. There is no accounting for taste but I’m not going to complain. I move Roly-Polyanna away, prompting her to go mingle further. We chat up Anti-Bravoman and the blue-haired Hiromi before migrating to a dialogue with Davesprite, a flaming, omniscient bird-spirit-boy who is hyper-aware of his status as a game character.
“I’m actually kind of flattered?” Roly-Polyanna simpers, after being complimented about her garb.
“Yeah. See? It’s already happening,” Davesprite sighs. “You’re a player character so you’re literally programmed to be all over me.”
Something that Davesprite proclaims starts to prickle. Roly-Polyanna is indeed rampantly attracted to virtually everyone in detention. It’s understandable as to why, though. Namco High’s developers obviously wanted to account for all player decisions. But there’s something stilted about Roly-Polyanna’s burgeoning affections, an awkwardness that only comes when someone is trying to force reason when there’s no room for such.
But I ignore my own doubts. Roly-Polyanna has a romance to pursue. Sapient drums are too rare to give up just like that. I hit the “Just wait for detention to end” button. The day melts into tomorrow where I’m once again faced with a panel of buttons to click. There’s no real introduction, no lateral banter; just click a detention member’s name, won’t you?
Fine. Let’s get down to business.
I click on Donko’s name and Namco High immediately leaps to another brisk exchange where it is revealed that Donko is, unsurprisingly, a member of the band. Before I can even articulate my thoughts on this, a lurid pop-up makes itself known. You have not unlocked this character, it warns. I choose not to purchase access to Donko and the game telegraphs me back to the selection of names. Out of curiosity, I click on Donko’s name yet again and the whole episode replays itself. You have not unlocked this character, the pop-up advises snidely again. It’s the same with any of characters behind the paywall. Every time you engage them in conversation, it will invariably end with a subtle-as-an-anvil nudge to unlock the character. Pay up, or get out.
In the end, I give up and resort to charming the boosters off the Galaga ship. After all, romancing an interstellar vehicle should be fun, right? Wrong. Oh god, so wrong. So wrong that I’m glad I didn’t decide that 2 bucks was worth spending on a joke and a review. You’d think that such a situation would be prime real estate for peculiar antics and zany, over-the-top remarks. But Namco High never capitalizes on it. Instead, it turns Galaga, against all odds, into a teenage Mary Sue. (Which I guess was unexpected, maybe.)
It’s really a bit heart-wrenching to see. So, Galaga’s segment revolves around the theatre, right? There, you discover that as a consequence of her impressive hull and the villa (?!) she docks nightly at, Galaga is immediately given the role of Juliet. Your character, in a fit of armour, auditions to be Romeo. And fails. Miserably. But that doesn’t stop Galaga from later requesting the protagonist’s assistance at rehearsing. You agree, of course. Romance compels you. And after some set-up, your character will point out that Galaga fumbled a line.
“No one ever corrected me on that before. Everyone else just let me do the line wrong...”, remarks Galaga, crowned with a Selphie-inspired wig.
Naturally, comforting words are uttered. But Galaga presses on. “It’s, like, everyone, my whole life, they’ve treated me different. Like they never cared about me. Who I am. What I can offer to the world. It was all about, y’know, my hull. I’ve always been defined by my looks. Even in school, the other kids will help me study or to just cheat. I skip, I talk during class, I miss homework, and the other kids cover for me. I’m just coasting through everything and it’s all about how I look! And they don’t even care about who I really am!”
The ordeal continues spiralling downhill. I want to say that this was some kind of brilliant joke hinging on Galaga’s complete ignorance of the fact that she is a two-ton ship capable of shooting aliens from out of the sky. But it doesn’t feel like that. Instead, it feels like a vignette out of High School Musical or an episode from one of those Nickelodeon programs for tweens. Protagonists get detention. Stress mounts. Teenage angst builds. Same drill, stranger characters.
At some point, you’ll be presented with the option to help Galaga with a big, dramatic gesture. Should you agree, the game will progress into this Shakespeare-inspired scene where your character will throw rocks, wake Galaga, apologize for inflicting double detention on her and then proceed to awkwardly confess feelings before Galaga’s parents (yes, human parents) show up to chase you away.
The next day is arguably stranger still. Principal Dig Dug shows up to inform the class that a malevolent, alternate version of Namco High's cast have kidnapped Pac Man. A rescue mission obviously follows. Galaga will ask your character to consume a power-up in order to increase your combined fighting potential. If you do, you’ll then be treated to flashing images of Evil Namco High and then an abrupt transition to a rescued Pac Man. What happened, and why an Evil Namco High even exists is never, ever explained. Instead, Pac Man will relay his gratitude and the game simply … ends.
It hurts my head. Maybe, the characters behind the paywall are more interesting. Maybe, that’s Namco High’s ploy: to ease players into a false sense of disillusionment before utterly blowing their minds with amazing content. Maybe. But Namco High’s aggressive treatment of the freemium model completely puts me off like the smell of durian. Hang out with the kids from detention if you like, but don’t expect a class act.