Dating sims are a niche genre, but they’ve spiked in popularity in the west in recent years, and why wouldn’t they? Dating sims put you in a place of power, skillfully negotiating social situations to get what you want. They’re a bit like interactive fan-fiction, and can sometimes be a little cheesy — but also very addictive.
They play like a visual novel, essentially, only the goal is to romance a diverse cast of characters. You read through the story, responding to different situations based on a series of choices or dialogue options. Each character has their own unique personality, forcing you to cater to their likes and dislikes in order to woo them. In this way, the games encourage you to replay through each story arch to get the full experience. Some even require these multiple playthroughs to understand the entire story. Fortunately, you can often fast-forward through segments of the game you’ve already played through, letting you skip right to the good stuff.
A good dating sim has memorable characters and a compelling story to suck you right in. Writing is key, and nice artwork doesn’t hurt either, especially when you’re trying to romance a couple of cuties. You’ll find that these recommendations will set you down the right path.
Hakuoki: Memories of the Shinsengumi
Set in Kyoto during the end of the Tokugawa shogunate, Hakuoki manages to mesh real Japanese history with a romance tale about vampire samurai. Don’t mistake it for another sloppy story banking on the now overdone vampire trend.
You play the role of a young girl in search of her father who is rescued one night by the Shinsengumi, a powerful band of samurai who take you in and protect you. You’ll have the chance to get to know each member of the Shinsengumi before choosing which one you want to fall in love with. Kyoto is brought to life in beautiful detail, and you’ll learn quite a bit about Japanese history along the way. The game retains its original Japanese voice acting but has been faithfully localized.
If you enjoy Hakuoki, Aksys Games has localized a bunch of other fun dating sims, including Code: Realize ~Guardian of Rebirth~, a steampunk visual novel in which you romance hunky versions of 19th century literary figures, and sci-fi mystery Norn9: Var Commons.
Date Nighto is an American team working to create dating sims for a Western audience. Their most recent title, Hustle Cat, places you in the shoes of Avery, the newest employee at A Cat’s Paw, a cat cafe. You’ll become close with your fellow employees, each of which have their own distinct background, strengths, and weaknesses. All is not as it seems at A Cat’s Paw, however, and it’s up to you to solve the mystery.
Mystic Messenger has gained quite the following in the past months. This Korean dating sim essentially models a popular messaging app like WhatsApp or Line. You mysteriously fall into a chatroom with a bunch of handsome dudes. The story plays out in chat, and as you grow closer to individual characters you’ll begin to receive texts and phone calls from them. It’s a really neat new spin on the genre, and it’s quite well-written, too.
I don’t want to give too much away here, as Hatoful Boyfriend is best enjoyed if you go in cold. You might know it as “that pigeon dating sim,” and you would be right. Kind of. Don’t let that put you off though. Hatoful Boyfriend is one of those games that’s ridiculous and hilarious and fully self-aware.
Rose of Winter
This is a short but sweet tale of a knight named Rosemary tasked with leading four princes through the wilds around the daunting Mount Needle. Romance abounds, if you want it to, and with multiple endings you’ll be coming back again and again.
Now’s a great time to take the plunge into the dating sim genre. Japan is still the dating sim capital, but Korean and North American dating sim creators are springing up in numbers, too. Even established developers are dabbling in dating sims.
Dating sims might seem like a weird, difficult niche to jump into, but they’re really quite welcoming. After all, what other genre of game would welcome you with literal open arms?