The more invested in an idea you are, the harder it can be when the idea doesn’t really pan out the way you thought it would. Such is the tale of Best Friend Forever, which launched recently on Nintendo Switch, Steam and itch.io. On the surface it’s hard to see how a bright colorful game about dating and adorable dogs that also manages to work hard to better some of the more unhealthy underpinnings of its genre would go wrong. Unfortunately, despite a lot of great components, Best Friend Forever has some major issues.
Developed by StarColt Studios, Best Friend Forever is, as mentioned before, a dating sim. On a train ride to who knows where, you’ll discover your destiny with the help of two morning DJs who tell you about Rainbow Bay, a dog lover’s utopia where everyone has dogs and no place makes you leave them at the door. But there’s more to this city than endless canine camaraderie, as it’s also a city of love. Woofr is the dating app of choice there, an app that’s specifically for “people who love dogs who love people who love dogs.” You are apparently excited about this, and some sort of Dog Wizard you saw in what could also be a fever dream and so, you end up on your way to a new life.
One of the first things you’ll do in Best Friend Forever is create your Woofr profile. And though there are few choices as far as character customization goes for your player avatar, it’s a refreshingly diverse and stylistically beautiful set of options. You’ll also need to answer an intentionally bizarre survey whose effect on your dating profile you can’t easily discern. It’s clever in that you can’t really “ace” the questionnaire and get a better result.
One great thing Best Friend Forever’s dating sim side does is to be inclusive and allow for representation without sending up a smoke signal and rolling out a parade to announce it. An entire run of the game can be completed in a few hours, so I played through several times with several different characters, answering the questionnaire differently and playing with the few different character types. I even picked different dogs as my companions, but we’ll get into that later.
Best Friend Forever does a great job by unblinkingly continuing with its story whether you’re presenting as male, female or nonbinary or a person of color with any body shape or size dating any combination of the above rainbow of possibilities. Characters are built around their personalities and nothing else, and care is taken for them to be realistic, with both good points and bad. Even though people are generally magnanimous and like-minded in the game, there are conflicts, but they’re handled maturely and rationally with respect–something I wish could be translated to real life more often. Unfortunately, it seems that less care was taken in some other aspects of Best Friend Forever..
Though choice paralysis is a factor in some games, it feels as though both the character models you can choose to play as and the dogs you can choose as your forever friends are extremely limited in Best Friend Forever. Much of the game’s lore revolves around knowing a lot about dogs–and the developers do seem to know their canine facts–so it seems especially strange that there’s only a few breeds on offer.
Similarly, though the game does present a wide range of characters of various ethnicities, orientations and body shapes, they don’t extend this same consideration to the list of characters you can choose to represent yourself as. Maybe that’s in service of the fact that personality is what matters, and I can’t claim to know whether that’s the case, but I find myself more personally attached to characters I can see myself in, and it was a great opportunity to let people customize and be creative.
Gameplay is rigid and as with Rainbow Bay, everything revolves around you and your pooch. When you first arrive, you’ll run into a neighbor that suggests what will become the inevitable adoption fair at the local veterinarian’s office, where the question will not be if you get a dog, but which one you get. Each of the few dogs available has different skill sets. Some are smart but not very fit, some are smart and fit but have no manners (lookin’ at you Cheeseball) and others are more middle of the road.
From that point, you can rename your friend and set off on a mandatory 15 week training course that serves as the bones of the game. You’ll be evaluated 3 times in those 15 weeks and see how you stack up to other dogs in your class and in general and theoretically given pointers on what to work on with your dog.
Training your dog involves two main mechanics. First, there is the aforementioned training course. The main way you’ll improve your dog and your relationship with your dog is via weeks of training. Each week has 5 slots in it that you’ll fill in with a menu of activities you’ll do with your pup. Each individual event, like Pupflix and Chill, increases different stats for your dog. In addition to the regular week of activities, there’s also tending to do, as well as a Feels system to measure a few other key traits like satiation, hygiene and energy that are also important in your quest to graduate training school and even being valedictorian (shouldn’t it be valedogtorian?)
The other part of training is through a “dog events” system. Best Friend Forever’s main conceit is that of a Japanese dating sim game, and to that end most of what you’re doing is reading text with a little bit of voice-over interaction, answering questions and deciding which one of the matches (or which ones) you’ll be pursuing since they’re all blessedly interested in you and highly flirtatious. You only have so much social energy, measured in motivation points, or MP, and dates and major events take up more motivation points, so you’ll have to choose wisely. There are even Pawsonal Time events that can give you a little extra boosts to certain traits.
Dog events happen during the regular gameplay and take a few different forms. Dogs can tug, “bork,” poop, dig and cower, with a few other interactions like growling and farting. These events happen at random on the lower right hand side of the screen where your dog faithfully stays by your side on your dates–because after all, this is Rainbow Bay. Each event requires a different reaction which you can perform using the touchscreen if you’re playing handheld and a controller if you’re playing it on a larger screen. Drag the poop to the bin, pull your dog upwards when they dig, pat them quickly and repeatedly but gently (?) when they cower, etc. This is where control issues come into full view. I had my Switch docked through most of my first runthrough and struggled with being able to use the joysticks to control the cursor quickly enough to pass the events.
I tried with touch controls in handheld mode thinking that might help, but it did not. Unfortunately, the controls are finicky and floaty in either case, meaning the timer can run out on a dog event or even a cleaning task when tending even though you’re desperately trying to complete it. This doesn’t completely break the game but it does mean you are sometimes at what seems like an unfair disadvantage.
Unfortunately this was one of the more minor issues we encountered. In the evaluation portion, I repeatedly earned a silver medal in one area but got an achievement for getting “only” bronze medals that added insult to injury by implying I hadn’t tried to do better. That especially stings when the story and characters are so fully formed and you feel like you actually have relationships established with everyone, including the vet who evaluates you. It also likely messes with your overall score, which is important since despite trying several different approaches, I only managed success on one of three runs.
This brings up the issue of feedback. While evaluations tell you what you most need to work on it’s still not entirely clear what you need to do to get the gold or end up graduating successfully. In my second playthrough I chose a difficult but skilled dog and put a lot of time into the extra training sessions you can opt for that boost their skills further, but still only managed silver despite taking feedback that I needed to work on manners and sociability.
Another major problem Best Friend Forever has lies in its dialogue based gameplay. Unfortunately, though the story was well thought out and the art both well executed and pitch perfect, the mechanics are flawed, meaning that in some cases, the character speaking either doesn’t appear or appears next to themselves, or that you get stuck in a particular conversation tree and can’t get out of it. One of the times that I got stuck, I exited the game completely, came back in and tried again and was able to replay the scene and progress, but in my second run, the same issue arose again, and reloading never fixed it, essentially ending my attempt with Cheeseball (who I’d renamed Zia) , the extremely talented but headstrong Shiba Inu.
It’s also worth mentioning that in a game that emphasizes relationships, consent, and an overall utopia where we can all agree that corporate greed is bad and love and peace are the answers, that the fail condition is so harsh. On my very first run, when I both didn’t have a handle on the dog event mechanic and had been trying to build a well rounded dog instead of stacking points into one or two stats, when I didn’t pass the class part of the dialogue suggested that I might consider rehoming my pet, which to be honest felt pretty bad after all the time I’d spent trying to bond with it.
Other relationships including the one I’d chosen to pursue the most, also didn’t come to a satisfying conclusion, and though there was a lot of talk about the dog statues on the isle of Fenrir outside of Rainbow Bay, I never got to see it, nor did I get very much resolution on if the Dog Wizard was indeed real or even relevant to the entire story.
As I said when I reviewed House Flipper–I’m not mad, just disappointed. Best Friend Forever has a great premise, does great things to further representation, diversity and inclusion in games, and even addresses some of the problems with the genres it emulates. But lack of feedback, major gameplay and control issues really make it a title I would not recommend in its current state.
Best Friend Forever is available now on Nintendo Switch, Steam, and itch.io
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