(Disclosure: I got a copy in order to support the producers and show willing against fuss, censorship and wild and crazy missing-the-point that was going on. I am absolutely biased in favour of supporting adult material being available and against prudery).
HuniePop (Hunie to rhyme with Honey) is a strange hybrid of a game, part ‘Dating Simulator’ and part ‘Puzzle Game’. It combines a cast of characters that you are trying to seduce by giving them gifts, learning about them and taking them on dates with a match-three game in the style of Bejewelled. Its a peculiar sort of mix and given that there are plenty of free, pirated or dubbed dating sims and erotic games out there (courtesy of Japan and teams of dedicated western perverts) why would you buy one?
In one of a great many knowing winks to the audience and the stereotypes of the genre, HuniePop starts you out as a hopeless loser with all the sexual charisma of a dugong in a blue rave wig. You have the lucky stroke of haphazardly hitting on what turns out to be a Love Fairy from the magical land of Sky Garden and she sets out to straighten you up and unleash your inner stud.
This consists of teaching you how to tell women what they want to hear, to give them gifts, to remember details about them when they ‘test’ you, and to play the match-three game as an abstract representation of your conduct and capability on dates. Play the games well, say the right things and you’ll impress them. Eventually you’ll impress them enough to get them into bed and with persistence and skill you can bed every character in the game and unlock new characters to seduce in turn.
The game does lack an ‘ending’. Some of these sorts of games have you choosing a particular girl at the end to settle down with and to end your ‘playa’ days. That might have been a good cap to the game story, even though story in these games is most often just a veneer to supply a reason for sexyfuntimes, and that’s fine. When you’re paying for a game like this you might want a little more.
Talking to the girls is mostly a matter of figuring out their stereotype and understanding what answer is best to give them. The game has taken a bit of flak for its stereotyping, especially when it is playing up to national stereotypes, but it is done with a nod and a wink and in terms of gameplay it gives the player a decent ‘in’ into figuring out what to say to them.
Gifts cost money and you get money for completing dates. You can also up your skill in things like ‘sexuality’ or ‘romance’ by earning points in conversation with the girls and giving them gifts. The more gifts you can give, the more points you can get to make your skill better and that, in turn, makes the match-three game easier to complete.
You’ll also get gifts in return, special items that you can use during the match-three game for special effects like extra turns, removing bobbles of different types (they’re thematic and different characters are more impressed by different types) and so forth.
You can also buy food and drink which lets you talk to your date longer or get her tipsy, which lets you be more charming and earn more points. After you’ve finished talking you can invite the girl onto a date and once you’ve succeeded on a date four or five times you can angle for a night date, which if you succeed on lets you take the girl to bed.
In the bedroom you play a different version of the match-three game where it’s really all about speed. You get a bar that constantly decreases and you’re trying to match bobbles as fast as you can to push the bar all the way up to the top – at which point you’re rewarded with the ‘pay off’. A bare booby shot in the censored version, a money-shot in the uncensored version. There’s no fail-state on this game and that makes it more frustrating than rewarding, a separate mini-game with a fail-state might have made this part more interesting and given the game greater longevity.
Gifts and dating success also unlock other, more innocent, images which the girls text to you – a nod to modern dating – as well as unlocking customisation options for the girls – hairstyle and clothing.
The art is done in an anime-ish style, part of the weird circle of influence from the US to Japan and back. It’s pretty good and well executed. The girls have a distinctive look and the voice acting is a nice touch, making the game more charming and fun (even when you’re being sworn at by the megabitch) than its free alternatives.
The writing isn’t fantastic, but you do get a sense of the personalities of the different girls. Much of the reason for the writing issues, such as they are, is as a result of playing up to the expectations of the genre. What girl would really be impressed at you asking her bust size, let alone remembering it? (Unless you were buying her lingerie as a gift).
The game’s well done, it runs on linux as well as PC and Mac, which is nice. The lock-out of the adult content on Steam is annoying, but fairly easily fixed. It’s just a pointless, needless, roundabout way of doing things and you really might as well just have the full-on adult version available on the platform.
There’s barely any animation, something that would have been nice to see and would have helped the characterisation some more.
All in all you don’t need great presentation for these kinds of games, but by the standards of these games this is very nicely done.
Please note that typical magazine/site scores are biased upwards. On my scale 3 is truly average – and that’s not to say anything bad. A 3 is a perfectly worthwhile and fun game, it’s just not outstanding.
Style: 4 (Nicely presented, fun, charming characterisation).
Substance: 3 (There could easily have been more depth, more options in conversation and some more spins on the game. A decent end to the storyline and a bit more writing and ambition could have improved this massively).
Overall: 3.5 (Worth buying in order to stick-it-to-the-man and to see if the studio can do even better).
There’s the review. Here’s the opinion:
Dating Sims Vs Bioware
The dating sim is a weird subgenre of games and one I’d likely not have heard of if it hadn’t been for being an early-adopter on the anime front back in the 80s and 90s or my fascination with sexuality in media and games. HuniePop definitely plays up to the expectations of the genre and they’re not particularly flattering to men or women (lie and buy your way into people’s pants and be shallow enough to be fooled by that, respectively).
Dating sims, especially the erotic ones, get a lot of flak. Partially because any and all pornography and erotica does but also because of the reasons I gave above. There’s an element of taking it too seriously when you’re talking about a wank-game, but there’s also an element of truth. I give HuniePop props for understanding the ridiculousness of the genre and making fun of itself (one of the characters even calls you racist – with a laugh – for giving stereotyped gifts) but the next step is probably to go beyond parody and to try and improve the genre.
People who criticise games like HuniePop as being shallow, but praise Bioware’s games such as Mass Effect or Dragon Age for their romantic and sexual components are, frankly, being hypocrites. To bed a Bioware hottie you do exactly the same things that you do in HuniePop. You tell them what they want to hear and you give them gifts (sometimes in the form of quests). Indeed, you could see Dragon Age Inquisition is simply being a really, really over-bloated dating sim.
The success of both Bioware and HuniePop dating sims definitely shows there’s an audience for romantic and sexual material, beyond the bounds of the ring-fenced niche of the porno-game.
Steam & Censorship
Steam – in the form of Dread Lord Gaben himself no less – recently stepped in to reverse a decision to censor the game Hatred. A rather graphic game of mass murder. This was the right decision, absolutely to make. However, in order to unlock HuniePop’s truly adult version you have to dick around with adding a small file to your install to remove the restrictions.
This is pointless.
This is especially pointless when there’s a thread on the Steam forum itself, with Steam’s blessing, telling everyone how to get around it.
What may be going on here may be a problem relating to payment processing, advertisers and some of the other companies selling via steam. Some of these services are weirdly touchy about adult material, don’t want to be associated with it or use the shaming that adult material encounters as an excuse to add surcharges.
HuniePop’s fix to this issue might be a pointless and needless workaround, but it also might be a way for Steam itself to hold up the middle finger to censors. There’s no real way of knowing, but it’s a frustrating situation. Adult material should have access to the same markets and points of sale as anyone else.
Ambitions for Adult Games
The idea of treating adult material in a mature and integrated manner is one I’m somewhat obsessive over. HuniePop and others make me want to work on adult material more and make me want to move forward on erotica versions of Choose Your Own Adventure books. The form needs to be more ambitious though, to go beyond eye-candy to engage the mind in the way that the best written erotica, a very few films and experiments with erotic ASMR have been going. Equally, it would be nice to see the big development studios truly commit to the half-hearted efforts in Bioware games or The Witcher.
The rise of the indie is an opportunity to do it right and to aim a little bit higher.