I picked up the Romancelvania demo at Steam Next Fest on Alice Bee's recommendation, and she was quite correct when she described it as "extremely relevant to [my] interests". So relevant, in fact, that I'm starting to wonder if this wasn't an attempt at psychological sabotage disguised as a friendly gesture. (You wouldn't do that to me, would you, Alice?)
Romancelvania is exactly what it sounds like: dating sim meets Castlevania. No idea how I missed it during my own perusal of the demo list, because unsurprisingly it's immediately become my favourite thing I've ever played at a Steam Next Fest. I was so drawn in, in fact, that I've been having a tough time putting it down, even when I really need to — hence my suspicion that this was some sort of test on Alice's part. No idea if I've succeeded or failed.
The demo starts on a promising note, awakening you in the persona of a comically brooding and exaggeratedly shirtless hunky Dracula. (The final game will include the option to play as a Lady Drac, if you prefer, who will not be shirtless, but not by a large margin.)
This man has literally not moved from his ornate throne in 100 years, electing instead to mope on the spot ever since his ex dumped him. Dracula's old mate the Grim Reaper cajoles him out of his torpor with the promise of a poker night with the lads. Instead — for reasons so entirely normal and not at all convoluted that I immediately forgot them — Grim reveals that this has all been a ruse, and Drac is instead obligated to take part in a reality TV dating show to help him move on from his old flame.
What follows is a bonkers descent into one of my absolute favourite game genres: a dating sim mashup. The willing other half of Romancelvania's pairing is, naturally, side-scrolling horror platformers of the kind popular in the '80s and '90s. Drac keeps getting attacked by his minions, you see, who are all a bit put out to have been neglected for a century. Every chamber you move through in Drac's castle (revamped Love Island-style) sees you take on a horde of mooks and mini-bosses in side-scrolling combat with a variety of swords, pikes, and other on-brand vampire weaponry such as swarms of bats. As the cherry on top, the game features an elemental weapon infusion system, because it really could not be any more my jam.
Amidst the melee you meet three of Drac's potential new paramours (out of a planned 12 in the full release). There's Vess, a cool genie bartender who's been cursed to never fall in love; Brocifer, a big red demon with a frat boy personality and a pixel blur where his trousers refuse to be; and Medusa, a severed head perched atop a statue who is also Drac's ex (but importantly not the ex he's hung up on). To introduce a bit of reality TV tension, one of this trio needs to be given the boot before you move on to the next round of introductions.
This turned out to be a surprisingly tough decision, which just demonstrates the strength of the characterisation on display. A dating sim lives and dies on the likeability of its love interests, after all, and Romancelvania does not disappoint.
Vess would have been hands-down my favourite if it weren't for her whole "cursed to never truly love" deal, which is a pretty big barrier when you're looking for romance. Medusa is clearly Drac's ex for a reason, but make the effort to be amicable with her and she genuinely asks for your help retrieving her body, making it feel more than a little cruel to show her the door afterwards. Brocifer may be the absolute worst, but he's hilarious, and hey, it's not like I've got to date him in real life. It felt worth keeping him around for comedic value alone, even before he showed the first hints of a deeper side during one of the game's dating sim segments.
It took me a whole weekend of thinking about it to make my choice. The point being: I spent all weekend thinking about this demo, and if that doesn't tell you how stoked I am for the full game, I don't know what will.
It's not that I have no complaints about Romancelvania. The tutorials could definitely stand to be better implemented, for one thing. The control scheme brings back memories of childhood in that platforming is incredibly fiddly (especially on mouse and keyboard) — to the point where, on more than one occasion, I spent several minutes convinced I'd encountered a demo-breaking glitch before realising that no, it was just possible to make that jump, even though a flavour object placed awkwardly on the platform really was shaving a few precious pixels off of my run-up.
But actually, in a way, that just added to the nostalgia. The one real bugbear I had was the save system, which relies on you trekking back to save points that are sparse and, in some cases, single-use. Nostalgia be damned: there's no excuse for a game that makes a joke of one character having his dick out in perpetuity but that doesn't allow you to save whenever you need to. We're all adults here, or at least that's clearly the idea.
In the end I had to burn about 10 minutes of progress because I couldn't backtrack to a save location in the time I had left to play that day. This left me quite downcast, because as you can probably tell, I am extremely invested in Romancelvania at this point.