Be honest with me: when you read the words "Lovecraftian dating sim", did your mind go straight to a joke about tentacle porn? Horror-themed dating sims are not exactly new, but it's rare to be given the opportunity to date the eldritch gods themselves, and taken at face value, it's hard to imagine where else this could be going.
Well, allow me to dispel your illusions right away: Sucker For Love: First Date is not an H-game. It is, in fact, the most chaste dating sim I think I've ever played, while also managing to be the most obscenely graphic. You often hear games that straddle different genres accused of not knowing what they're trying to be. Sucker For Love does not suffer from this issue: it knows exactly what it wants to be. The challenge is for you, the hapless player, to keep the hell up.
Sucker For Love grew out of a shorter game of the same name, originally released in August 2020 as part of Dread X Collection 2. In case you're unfamiliar, the Dread X projects were a series of lockdown game jams bringing together the work of dozens of indie horror developers, including some bigger names like Daniel Mullins (creator of Inscryption, RPS's 2021 Game of the Year) and Airdorf (creator of the excellent retro horror series Faith).
Sucker For Love is the work of developer Akabaka, a solo dev specialising in horror-themed visual novels and RPGs with a focus on player choice. This full version expands on the original 30-minute "prelude" from Dread X, adds two completely new chapters, and increases the roster of potential "love interests" from one to three, for a complete experience that takes around four hours to 100%.
There are a couple of entry requirements for you to really get to grips with Sucker For Love, but neither of them hinge on whether or not you've played the original Dread X Collection game. First, it'll help if you know at least a little bit about the Cthulhu Mythos, though there are no deep cuts here that a broad awareness of pop culture won't have taken care of: anyone who's played any horror game in the last decade and watched season one of True Detective will be more than covered. Secondly, though it's less essential, you'll probably want to know enough about visual novels and dating sims to know what tropes are being parodied (literally) to hell and back.
Oh, third thing: you're going to want a high tolerance for gore. Maybe I should have led with that one, actually.
I meant what I said when I described this game as chaste. Despite claiming that he's motivated by insatiable otherworldly lust, our protagonist is just out to collect "smooches": an uncomfortable terminology he nevertheless insists upon and which doesn't appear to be a euphemism for anything more intimate. He also, at various points, graphically loses several body parts (and gains some ghastly new ones) in the process of summoning three goddesses of the apocalypse in pursuit of said smooches.
Like many visual novels, Sucker For Love wants to give the impression that your choices matter, but I truly believe that there is only one decision of any importance in this game. If you want Sucker For Love to be a relatively conventional dating sim, complete with the possibility of romantic happy endings (of an admittedly esoteric sort), you can just stop after Chapter 2. There's no shame in that. The game itself even encourages it somewhat, locking Chapter 3 behind a requirement that you find the three secrets hidden in the first two parts before you can proceed.
Because make no mistake, Sucker For Love is a horror game pretending to be a dating sim. Oh, sure, it's pretending a fair bit harder than, say, Doki Doki Literature Club — in places it seems to be considering changing track, even half-convincing itself that it's going to go in that direction in the end. It's not an overly romantic story, but it has its odd tender moments (in multiple senses of the word "odd"). But no, reach the third chapter and you'll be reminded just how deep into horror game territory you are.
I don't mean to over-exaggerate the tonal shift in the final chapter. To reach this stage you have to go through some truly gruesome stuff, including (my personal anti-favourite) your first-person player character ripping his face off to the accompaniment of a sickening sound effect that, unlike the rest of the scene, is unskippable. That might be a glitch, or the game fucking with you; you never can tell with horror games. What I can say for sure is that you'll need to revisit that moment at least three times to see every ending to Chapter 2. So by the finale, you know what you're in for in terms of theme and graphical content — but there's a but.
The next paragraph contains spoilers for the final chapter. I've tried to keep it as vague as possible in terms of plot, but please proceed with caution, and feel free to make your departure now if you don't want to spoil the game's main surprise.
The third and final chapter of Sucker For Love ups the pace significantly. You're no longer free to linger on a panel of text at your leisure: it's more survival horror than dating sim during the final stretch, with escalating real-time threats you have to deal with before they overwhelm you, or you risk finding yourself booted all the way back to the start of the chapter to try again. I debated whether it was too spoilery to mention this almost-total genre shift. But I really, really wished I'd known about it before I sat down with a cup of tea and a slight headache to play the end of what I still thought was, at its core, a spoof dating sim where curvy monster girls were going to convince me to do incredibly unpleasant things, but at least in my own sweet time.
Succeed in that final challenge, and you'll be rewarded with an ending that somehow manages to bring together the many different faces this game wears — cosmic horror story, dark comedy, self-aware dating sim — in a dead-on parody of earnest anime protagonists trying to save the day with the power of inspirational speech.
Does our dubious hero manage to avert the calamity he's brought about in his pursuit of celestial nightmare make-out sessions? It would be beyond me to tell you, not just because I'm trying to avoid story spoilers, but because this game is such a mind screw that I'm genuinely not sure. For what it's worth, though, I think the ending hints at the possibility of a sequel. It's called Sucker For Love: First Date, after all.
In the end, if what you wanted was a traditional dating sim populated with (in Akabaka's own inspired words) Cthulhu-presenting anime girls, Sucker For Love may not be exactly what you were hoping for. But if you want a one-and-done horror visual novel that knows its lore, revels in gore, and just might surprise you with a genuine sweet moment or two along the way, then there are many worse ways to spend an afternoon and a few quid.