Review: Date Night Bowling
I’m always on the lookout for new and exciting genre mashups. It’s a great way to add new flavor to a stale scene, to challenge genre norms. So naturally I was interested in Date Night Bowling. I do enjoy bowling IRL and while it rarely comes across well in video games, the change in theme to a date seemed a natural fit: I’ve always felt bowling is better enjoyed as something to do while socializing rather than for its own sake. So, with a fair bit of anticipation, I sat down to see what it had to offer.
Date Night Bowling released November 26, 2021 for PC on Steam, developed by Serenity Forge and published by Way Down Deep.
Afraid of Commitment
So, let’s get the good out of the way: The bowling is done fairly well, probably one of the better examples of video game bowling I’ve seen that didn’t involve motion controls. Admittedly I’m not the biggest fan of video game bowling; I feel the static nature of every frame doesn’t lend itself well to video games. No matter what your opponent does or how your previous frames went, every frame is going to be approached the same way.
For the bowling itself, you get a fair amount of customization at the start between your choice of bowler, ball weight, handedness, and lane oil. Once you’re bowling you pick where to stand, where you’re aiming at, and then you have two timing-sensitive inputs to determine the amount of spin and power. It certainly felt like I had less control than other bowling games I’ve played in the past, and I mean this in a good way. The scores I tended to get in Date Night Bowling were more along what I’d expect when I actually go bowling, rather than being able to easily just yeet the ball down the lane just off of center and get a strike every time. So, decent customization, not too easy, and other than that a pretty decent simulation of bowling.
That brings us to the other half of the game, the date night portion. So, if you’re playing two-player with either an AI or a friend, after each frame you’ll do a little cutesy thing with your partner like picking out snacks, getting them a drink, winning a doll from a crane game, all done with a simple minigame that’s over in seconds. There’s a bit of banter as they get to know each other as well, and depending on how well you do at the minigames the date could go successfully or not.
Unfortunately, I really don’t feel they lean hard enough into the concept. The minigames take up a small fraction of the gameplay and don’t really seem to care about which two characters you’re using or how things have gone so far. There’s unique dialogue between the characters over the course of the game, but it’s just one conversation at the beginning, a couple during the game, and one at the end. It’s a little interesting to get to know the characters a bit better and some of them have existing history, but it feels less like getting to know a character during their route in a dating sim and more like going back to a town in an RPG to see what new things the NPCs say… if you had to do 20 minutes of bowling to hear their new lines.
Adding onto this, it almost feels like the game is afraid of committing to the date portion. The date mechanics are entirely divorced from the bowling aspect, so you’re essentially just playing two games side by side rather than one game with two elements. You can play a casual bowl if you wish to do just bowling with no dating but there’s no equivalent to de-emphasize the bowling part. And perhaps my biggest annoyance of all, you start out with just two characters and to unlock more you need to play as them for a game of one-player bowling, just ten frames of throwing the ball down the lane.
It technically took a few hours to see all the game has to offer, but honestly? I feel the game was “beat” after maybe 30 minutes, once I’d bowled a few games and seen every minigame at least once. Every frame I approached things the same way, every time a given minigame came up I had to approach it the same way… it was just a grind of doing the same thing over and over again just to see a bit of different dialogue.
An Arcade Throwback
One of the better aspects of Date Night Bowling is the presentation. Bowling alleys tend to be pretty retro and 90s in general, and here they’ve replicated that with pixel art that evokes the feeling of 16-bit games during the main bowling and strays closer to 8-bit during the minigames, and many of the confirmations and victory fanfares are fairly chip-tune. The soundtrack is appropriately jazzy as well, though sorely limited with only about three or four tracks.
Now, that said, it’s a bit of a faux retro. It takes all the most nostalgic pieces, but has some more modern conveniences. Namely, the pixel art has a far wider range of colors, the animation is smoother, and the foley for sounds like the ball rolling down the lane and the crash of the pins is much higher quality.
A Disappointing Split
Overall, I feel pretty mixed about my time with Date Night Bowling. As far as being a bowling game goes, it’s functional and has a nice presentation, but due to keeping things fairly accurate and simple I feel it doesn’t have a lot of replay value, or even initial play time. I could see a fair amount of fun playing two-player for the fun of competing against an actual person, though in that case I worry the name of the game may be a problem depending on what kind of friends you’re playing with.
The dating aspect is the part I was more interested in, but also where I felt they dropped the ball. At the risk of playing amateur game dev here, it would have been more interesting if the choices of characters actually impacted how I approached the date. For instance, if I controlled conversation choices and knowing my own character’s strengths and my date’s personality could help me pick the perfect choice. Or if some were naturally better bowlers than others, and performing similarly to them made them happier.
Really, if I had to boil down my issues to one thing, it’s that the developers need to understand how to add content to a game. Games are all about what we as players choose to do, and for extra content to actually mean anything it should ask me to make different choices. For every dating minigame I’m making the same choices every other time that minigame shows up, for every frame of bowling I am making the same choices as every frame before it. All the pretty visuals don’t change that it is the same minute or so of content repeated over and over.
Review copy provided by Serenity Forge for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.