Multi-genre games are always a risk. If one aspect gets the job done but others lag behind, it can lead to an uneven experience. Romancelvania has a unique premise and I was excited to see how a Metroidvania could mix with a dating sim. The art direction, dialogue, and voice acting are all of high quality, but the game is inarguably damaged by uneven pacing, iffy collision detection, poor level design, and awful combat. Considering how much effort and talent was utilized in bringing the game to life, it’s unfortunate that the result underwhelms so, even if I didn’t necessarily hate my time with it.
Romancelvania puts players in the shoes of Dracula (please, just “Drac”), an immortal vampire who has run out of steam after being dumped by their ex. One day, the Grim Reaper reaches out and tells Drac that they’re putting together a reality dating show and they need a star. Grim revamps Drac’s castle, gives them the option of changing sexes if they so desire, and sends them to go gather contestants all to find someone with whom to settle down. It’s admittedly very silly. But it mostly works, even if a lack of focus can sometimes make things feel a bit uncertain.
The character writing and voice acting absolutely hold the game together. Members of the voice cast mostly portray more than one character and do an excellent job of differentiating everyone. The acting itself is also much better than I had expected, even if Grim’s voice doesn’t fit his character all that well. The game’s world is also well realized, with a lot of attractive, varied locations to explore. There is an overall narrative, but it takes a backseat to the characters. Due to the way Romancelvania is structured, though, they don’t even come close to all getting the same number of chances to shine. Oh, and 3D character faces are often absolutely hideous. Just look at Drac’s face in the featured image above.
Fighting death in a living hell
The combat and movement are the worst things about Romancelvania. Getting around and fighting foes are what you’ll be spending most of your time doing in most Metroidvanias, and this one’s no different. But it features some of the worst gameplay I’ve probably ever seen in the genre. Drac simply doesn’t feel good to control; movement is weightless and inexact. Almost all of the game’s weapons feel terrible to use. You start with a crummy sword that attacks in an arc, and are given a spear shortly afterward. The spear causes Drac to jut forward, which is wonky and jarring at the same time.
Drac also gets a hammer with a windup that’s so long that it leaves them vulnerable whenever they use it, rendering it mostly useless. When you get the whip, things get slightly better, as it’s the only weapon that’s consistently useful. Even then, the combat remains wholly unenjoyable. Enemy movement is strange and they can be too fast for no good reason. But the worst part is how the vast majority of enemies simply don’t respond to getting hit. You’ll hit most of them and their health will go down, and that’s it. I was shocked to see mechanics this poor in a modern game.
Problems extend to the rest of Drac’s repertoire. Drac can dash using wolf abilities, but this makes them run so fast that controlling them becomes difficult. You can also turn into mist, which is almost always totally useless. There’s also the standard double jump, which also has problems due to the awkward way the camera jerks upward rapidly upon executing it. It’s all a godforsaken mess.
Maps to the stars
For whatever reason, Romancelvania doesn’t have a map, which makes navigating tougher than it needs to be. That being said, it’s divvied up in a way that’s easy enough to remember where things are and where they lead, especially since the different biomes are mostly interesting enough to be memorable. But the larger, more combat-oriented areas completely lack a sense of place, feeling instead like random assets dropped into the environment on a whim with no rhyme or reason.
Areas can be confusingly laid out and have multiple exits or locations that are hard to spot simply because of how maze-like and repetitive the surroundings are. A map would have made a huge difference here. But the other big problem is the lighting. A lot of the areas in Romancelvania are so dark that you can’t see what’s in front of you. Drac is followed by a bat with a lit camera, which helps a bit. But, even then, I found myself getting hit by enemies that blended into pitch-black areas. I often had to stumble in the dark to find the way forward.
So much of what’s on display in Romancelvania flies so hard in the face of accepted standards that I could scarcely believe it. You can backtrack to find health increases and trophies that grant Drac a number of bonuses, but it’s a pain without a map. Drac also has some special moves that are accessed similar to Alucard’s in Symphony of the Night via fighting game-esque combinations. But they’re not complicated enough, so I found myself accidentally activating them just by walking around and attacking small fry. This is made even worse by how insufferably long skill cooldowns are. I’d accidentally use a move and then have to wait minutes to use it again.
I hardly know her
Romancelvania is broken into a handful of chapters, most of which require you to track down contestants for the reality show (remember that?). They have quests that need to be completed before they join. You can talk to them at your castle, invite them to date spots scattered around the world, and give them gifts. Certain buyable upgrades are locked behind getting their affection levels high enough. But chapters end with you voting characters off, so you can permanently miss out on upgrades depending on who you vote off and when.
This could have been interesting, requiring you to weigh keeping people around for love or utility. But most of these affection-gated unlockables feel like afterthoughts. Occasionally, characters have very useful upgrades. Brocifer, one of the game’s most irritating characters, offers great upgrades. But I voted him off right away before realizing this, so I missed out on these boons permanently. A lot of the other character-specific upgrades just aren’t worth the effort in any capacity. Medusa’s affection gates upgrades to her ability, which lets you shoot her head out like a Street Fighter attack. As I constantly used this attack by mistake, I voted her off since I had no use for it.
A lot of the cast is actually fairly likable and they’re buoyed by the aforementioned fantastic voice acting and terrific character portraits. But the game gives little thought to how it divvies them up. You’ll obviously have much more time to interact with characters you meet in chapter one versus the ones in chapter three. Some of the latter have far fewer dates and dialogue options than the former, which makes certain characters feel more like afterthoughts.
The characters also don’t gain affection similarly. Some characters will have a ton of affection for you just from going through their quest lines, while others will leave you with a fraction. One character, Lulu, only has three dates and you don’t gain much affection from her story quests, so I had to grind her affection up from level two with presents. Similarly, I got Neira up to level six without doing much of anything. It’s simply unbalanced.
Aside from upgrades, their affection levels only gate whether or not you can invite them on a final date at the end of the game, but even this barely changes the overall ending. I spent the entire game aiming to at least see a specific character’s final date, but the quest required to see it never unlocked. I’m not sure if I missed something or if it was a bug, though. I scoured the location that contained the necessary item, but it seems it doesn’t spawn without accepting a quest that never showed up for me, so I had to walk away.
Naturally, there are some unsightly bugs here and there. On one occasion, Drac lost the ability to walk and I had to jump around in order to move. One dialogue event let me repeat it as many times as I wanted, which I could have used to grind affection with a specific character. During a mini-boss fight, Drac got caught on a piece of geometry outside of the camera field and I had to struggle to get back to the fight. One enemy can also get you caught between it and a piece of geometry, so I had to just wait and die so that I could respawn. It’s a mess all the way down.
The game took me about eight to nine hours to complete, but it’ll obviously take multiple playthroughs if you want to see all the final dates and character scenes — which is a shame. I can’t imagine doing three or so playthroughs of this game just to get to the good stuff. Voting cast members off is a funny reference to reality TV, but it’s really mostly pointless here and only serves to force players to miss out on content. The game’s optimization is also quite poor. At 1440p 120 fps and 4K 60 fps, my GPU got louder than I’ve ever heard it before. Even louder than when running AAA games with the same settings.
Romancelvania is a bad game, true, but it’s got a lot of heart and some very good qualities. The combat, movement, mechanics, and balancing are all fairly awful, which makes it a bit of a pain to play. But it can be fun. I did like a lot of the characters and things become manageable once you get used to much of it, but I can’t recommend sifting through all the underdeveloped elements just for the dialogue and date scenes. The art, writing, and voice acting honestly deserved a much better game than this.
What we’re left with is a mostly subpar Metroidvania that people will only slog through to get to the good stuff buried underneath all the disappointing aspects. Plus, there isn’t even a new game plus so that you can 100% it on one file or do quicker runs just to see the scenes you’re missing. Bad form, Peter. Bad form.