I have a shameful secret I need to divulge to all of you: I’m a dating sim fanatic. Whenever I see a trending dating simulator, from Hatoful Boyfriend, to Hustle Cat, to Speed Dating for Ghosts, I snap that shit up like it’s a limited edition Too Faced palette. It doesn’t matter what it’s about – if its racy or cute, if you’re romancing school girls or pigeons – once I have a dating sim in my sights, I just need to have it. So, you can imagine my excitement when I heard tell of Monster Prom, a dating simulator that would allow me to woo all my favorite supernatural beings in the curiously under-supervised halls of Spooky High.
Monster Prom, from Beautiful Glitch and Those Awesome Guys, looked great, had rave reviews and upon seeing the line up of fictional characters I could romance, all in the hopes of taking them to prom, I was already picking out my favorites. I decided the Rebel Without a Cause-looking demon with an anger problem was the first monster on the docket (because of course he was), and with that in mind, I booted it up, a fire for digital dating burning in my heart.
Surprise, surprise! I hated it.
Now, you might be thinking, “Hold the phone, Liz—I can see you’ve given this game a 9.7 rating. How can you praise it so highly, yet claim to hate it three paragraphs in?” I promise you though, I’m not being disingenuous. I honestly couldn’t stand this game on my first playthrough; it’s part of why this review took so long to write. I played it once and was so soured on it that I needed to step away from it for weeks.
I ended up scouring the press packages, website and Kickstarter page for some inclination that I’d maybe missed the point of Monster Prom. I was scrolling through negative reviews on Steam with all the irrationality of a venomous troll reveling in a shared hatred of something popular and innocuous. I just didn’t get it, and like a petulant five-year-old, I despise feeling left out. So, I decided this game was nothing but mindless drivel that was far too difficult for anyone to enjoy, didn’t take itself seriously enough and tried to play off its laziness as “you’re just not cool enough to understand, bro” humor.
Surprise, surprise again! I was dead wrong.
Monster Prom takes everything a dating sim has come to encompass and subverts it so seamlessly that I, a self-professed narrative dissector, completely missed it. Combining all the facets of a traditional dating sim (attractive bachelors/bachelorettes, text options to help you build a rapport and the goal of ultimately scoring with one of them), gameplay reminiscent of the board game Sorry! and a quirky, intelligent sense of humor, Monster Prom turns the genre on it’s head and points out the inherent silliness of a video game about dating a bunch of imaginary people.
And yes, judging by my initial reaction, that is something that needed pointing out.
After choosing one of four player characters, you are thrust into a game world very reminiscent of other dating simulators, but wholly different. Measuring your starting stats through what the game itself refers to as the “stupidest pop quiz ever,” you begin your first day at Spooky High with an assortment of numbers scattered between six different traits. Throughout the game, these traits will determine whether you pass or fail skill checks, and whether you gain bonuses to the skills or not depends on what you do during the cyclical school days you play through.
There is an option to play a short or long game, running either 45 or 60 minutes respectively, making Monster Prom an easy game to pick up and play. A standard school day begins with a morning free period, a lunch period and an evening free period. You can only choose which part of the school you’d like to frequent during the morning and evening periods, and where you hang out provides bonuses to your base stats that are integral to scoring the date of your choice.
Lunch period finds your character in the cafeteria, nervously clutching their plastic tray and trembling past the cool kid’s like Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls, and you’ll need to choose whether to sit with one of the six datable characters, or one of their less important schoolmates. Side characters grant you bonuses, or they will offer to sell you objects to increase your stats and unlock secret events (the corpse, for instance, becomes a talking point in all encounters from the point of purchase onwards). On the other hand, sitting with the dateable characters gives you a chance to get into their good graces and win their favour, which is the goal of the game… right?
Make no mistake, Monster Prom is hard. Just one wrong answer somewhere along the line can end up being completely irredeemable, and you will need to play through the game many, many times just to figure out what skills apply to which monsters (extremely) particular likes and dislikes. And while the game is balanced and beatable, it can come across as almost impossible for someone who is expecting Monster Prom to follow the same formula as every other dating sim they’ve played.
Which is why I hesitate to call Monster Prom a dating simulator at all. Sure, one of the key functions of the game is to find someone to go to prom with, but you don’t need to take anyone to complete the game. You can choose to go to prom yourself, you can ask one of the monsters out and get rejected or you can succeed, but either way, the game still ends once prom is over. Add to that the plethora of bonus content and secret events (seriously guys, how in the hell did you find the time?) that do not always appear in your dogged pursuit to date the hipster vampire, and I think calling it a board-game simulator with a visual novel slapped on top would be a more apt description.
I feel like this is one of the reasons I failed to see how good a game this is on my first playthrough. I went into it with high expectations, my manic dating sim fanaticism telling me I knew how a dating simulator is supposed to run, and it defied that expectation. For some reason that pissed me off, which is such an ugly reaction I was almost ashamed to admit it in this review. But I need to address it to get to the heart of my original criticism, which is that dating simulators have become so formulaic, so expectable that even the slightest divergence can throw a hard-core fan of the genre for a loop, sending them into a Twitter fueled tailspin and negatively colouring their perception of an admittedly great game.
Monster Prom isn’t afraid to poke fun at an oversaturated, niche genre in a way that is self-deprecative, self-referential and so bitingly witty that it goes over people’s heads. I was quick to dismiss its humor and writing as lazy, if only because I thought it was so entrenched in not giving a shit that it doubled back on itself and seemed boringly pretentious. It wasn’t until I rationalized it was a silly game about dating monsters in high school, that I understood I needed to climb down off my high horse and stop taking it so literally. It doesn’t take itself seriously, in point of fact it does the exact opposite, so why the hell was I bending over backwards to quantify it in a way it didn’t want to be quantified?
Because I wanted it to fit into the very genre it was rebelling against, that’s why.
The people you meet in the game, specifically the datable characters, are less fully fleshed out individuals and more caricatures of the kinds of stereotypical folks you’d find in a dating simulator. You have the bonehead jock, the spoiled rich girl, the too-cool-for-this-planet hipster, the bitch with a heart of gold, the party animal and the bad boy. They’re one dimensional, aggravating and completely unlikable people because they were meant to be, not because of some design flaw. They are all deeply horrible, but that’s the point… they’re monsters!
And it’s through this play on expectations that the game highlights the inherent futility of other dating simulators, and how silly it is to take them so seriously: it doesn’t matter how much time and effort you put into getting with this character, at the end of the day, they’re a bunch of two dimensional ones and zeros. For gods sake, the vampire says exactly that during the normal course of the game. Monster Prom delights in playing with your expectations. It wants you to enter the halls of Spooky High with every preconception imaginable, so it can smack them out of your hands like Corey Taylor does with cell phones.
I usually balk when a game (or anything, really) professes itself to be post-modern, or that it contains post-modern humor. I find that recently, creators across all mediums will use this moniker to excuse why an audience didn’t laugh at their joke or like their finished product: they just didn’t get it. It went over their head. It’s supposed to be subversive. This isn’t to say that everyone does this, or that post-modernism isn’t a thing, because it most certainly is. I just have a problem when it is called upon as defense for a poorly espoused idea. Art, particularly comedy in this case, needs to be self-aware, needs to contain a level of thoughtfulness and most importantly, needs to be conveyable. Meaning exists only in the minds of the audience, and it does not matter what you take away from your own game if it is not adequately communicated to your players.
While Monster Prom gave me pause when it touted itself as a post-modern slice-of-life, now that I’ve reached the end of my experience with it, I’m convinced that it is. It’s incredibly mindful, it has a statement to make, and it executes it brilliantly, through such cutting application of satire that it went completely over my head. Bra-freaking-vo.
Single player is a ton of fun on its own, but local multiplayer is where Monster Prom truly shines. There isn’t a game I’ve played in recent memory that took a simple premise and made it into such an enjoyable couch multiplayer, facilitating arguments, partnerships and co-operation galore. My husband and I played together, and while he’s not a fan of dating simulators or visual novels at all, he had an absolute blast. We’ve played multiple games since, and it’s become our favorite go-to multiplayer when we’re looking for something quick to play.
Giving you the option to work together or against one another, to compete for the affections of one monster or spread yourself out across the herd, Monster Prom’s local multiplayer forces you to actively communicate with other players through little minigames, and fosters debates to keep you engaged with other players. There’s a fair bit of strategy involved, and though my husband and I took a very diplomatic approach to wooing these B-movie baddies, should we have wanted to screw each other over we could have done so easily.
The soundtrack is top notch and super catchy, a delightful mix of the Monster Mash, surfer punk and that ambient, spooky sounds CD you keep on hand for Halloween parties. The character art needs no introduction, as you can see through the press images it’s absolutely amazing. Each character has a plethora of different outfits, expressions and poses, and they’re dynamic and constantly changing. Even the settings and backgrounds are extremely polished, with Arthur Tien really knocking it out of the park on this one.
To everyone still on the fence about Monster Prom, don’t be. This is an excellent game that is so much fun to play either alone or with a friend or three, and the replayability is just insane (seriously guys, where did you find the time!?). Please remember though, if you are going to take the plunge into the slime-addled pool of Spooky High, take it with a grain of salt. Don’t take the game so seriously, let your hair down and have fun with it, because at the end of the day, Monster Prom’s not pulling any punches, and you don’t want to let your preconceptions sour you on what is a truly funny and enjoyable game.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.