There have been many good video game doggos over the years, but relatively few games are devoted to man’s best friend. Similarly, there are a plethora of dating games out there, but most are only about humans. Developer Starcolt aims to address this imbalance with Best Friend Forever, a visual novel that is about finding true love while taking care of a furry, four-legged companion. The concept should appeal to dog lovers, and dating game fans will enjoy the cute cast of eligible humans, but the execution leaves a bit to be desired and the experience is perhaps too short for its own good.
You are a new resident of Rainbow Bay, the most dog-friendly city in the country. After signing up for Woofr, a hot new dating app, you decide to visit the local pet clinic to adopt your very own furever friend. What follows is 15 weeks of training and care for your new buddy while you hang out with friends and go on dates. Every five weeks, you have a mandatory story event and a check in at the clinic to see how your pup is doing. The main story is pretty bare bones and proceeds in exactly the same way every playthrough. You learn a little about yourself, but it’s not enough to make your character interesting, and you end up feeling like the game has barely just begun by the time the credits roll. While it may be short, Best Friend Forever is also quite humorous. Dog puns abound, like the car service Awoober, and there’s a delightful dose of snark and clever pop culture references, including video game references, that players will likely enjoy. As fun as the writing can be, there are a ton of typos that occasionally distract from the story, and while I appreciate that the game lets you choose your pronouns, it doesn’t always respect your choice, which is disappointing.
The six humans you can get to know over your 15 weeks in Rainbow Bay are a fun and cute bunch, representing a variety of skin colors, body shapes, identities, abilities, and family situations. Robin, for example, is a single mother trying to balance work, family, and her personal hobbies. Anders is a blind family law attorney with commitment issues, and Astrid is a figure skater who dreams of making it to the Olympic Games and loves everything occult. I ended up with several favorites by the time I finished dating everyone, and I honestly still can’t decide who I liked best. While I enjoyed everyone’s stories, Sacha’s stands out in a way that may hit close to home for some players. As you get to know him, you learn that Sacha is trans and that his biological family rejected him when he came out. He has since found his own family, which you become a part of if you date him, and while there is pain in his story, there is also love and hope. In an industry and a genre where trans people are not always treated well, it’s nice to play a game like Best Friend Forever that provides respectful representation.
As much as I enjoyed the cast of characters, their stories ultimately feel too short, just like the main narrative. You only get three dates with each character, and while some of them are quite long, it feels more like you’re witnessing snippets of a relationship than going through a romance with a beginning, middle, and end. Between dates, you can hang out with your chosen paramour or other friends, but these short sequences don’t really let you learn much about your acquaintances and are more like brief run-ins, often with a hilarious choice to make. The end result is that, just like with the main story, I was often left wanting more. But I suppose the silver lining is that I genuinely liked all six main characters enough to feel that way in the first place.
Best Friend Forever is a visual novel, so “gameplay” is mostly what you would expect. You push a button to progress dialogue and occasionally make a choice that elicits different responses, though none of your choices seem to make a significant difference in either the main story or when you’re on a date. What sets the game apart from other visual novels is, of course, your furry companion. They are constantly with you as you meet with friends, and you can pet them pretty much at any time. Occasionally, a dog event happens, and you have to tend to your pet in the middle of conversation by doing things like patting them to make them feel less nervous and, yes, picking up their poop. While these are cute at first, there are only four kinds of dog events, and they do get a little old. Every week, you have a limited amount of time to spend hanging out or going on dates. Once you’ve done everything you can do, you then plan activities for your dog that raise their stats in five different areas, such as manners and fitness. Finally, you tend to your dog’s needs by feeding or grooming them, and you can even play with them a little by offering them their favorite toy. At every clinic check-in, your dog’s progress is evaluated, and at the end of week 15, you find out if your pup passes the training program and whether they receive the vaunted valedictorian status.
Training and caring for your dog is a nice little addition to the traditional visual novel format, but the more you play, the more you notice issues with how the system works. Take your dog’s stats, for instance. They don’t impact anything other than your three evaluations, and even after playing through the game six times to date everyone, I still don’t know how to make my dog valedictorian. I tried leveling stats evenly, then focusing on one or two stats, and then I just spammed the same activity every week. Every time, my dog passed the program, but they never made valedictorian, even when their regular evaluations were better than the other dogs in the class. Thankfully, your dog doesn’t need to be valedictorian in order for you to beat the game or get a happy ending, but it’s frustrating nonetheless to be given a goal and then find yourself unable to achieve it no matter what you do. Caring for your dog is arguably even worse. You have five meters to mind that measure things like how full or clean your dog is, but they don’t matter at all and you are not punished for neglecting them. No one mentions if your dog is starving or half asleep all the time, and it doesn’t come up in evaluations either. On the one hand, I’m glad that you can’t kill your dog by failing to care for them properly, but the lack of consequences — or even just recognition — makes the activity feel superfluous. It doesn’t help that there are only a handful of ways you can care for your dog, either. Needless to say, it gets repetitive pretty quickly.
Overshadowing all of this, even the good parts of Best Friend Forever, is the horrible control scheme on Switch. The game appears to be a straight PC port, in that you have a cursor you move with the left analog stick and two buttons for confirming and cancelling (though the latter only works in the pause menu). Everything in the game — from selecting dialogue options to caring for your dog — operates with this terribly awkward pseudo-mouse experience. It’s particularly bad anytime you have to scroll through something, as you can’t just push up or down on an analog stick as you might expect; instead, you have to use a scroll bar. That’s right — a scroll bar. I understand why this control scheme might be necessary for taking care of your dog, but there’s really no reason why the rest of the game can’t take advantage of the controller. Luckily, the game has touchscreen functionality, and unlike the joy-con control scheme, it’s implemented mostly well, outside of a few items in the UI that are hard to hit reliably because of their small size. I really can’t recommend that anyone play this game docked for long periods of time; even with the added comfort of the pro controller, it’s just not an enjoyable experience.
Finally, let’s talk about the audiovisual elements of Best Friend Forever. Character art is clean and everyone feels distinctive at a glance. I wish each character had more than one pose, for the sake of variety, but they do at least have different facial expressions, and there are various animations that pop up to help convey their emotions. Backgrounds are bright and colorful, and it’s nice that outdoor locations get daytime and nighttime variants as called for by the story. There’s a decent variety of locations, though you will still end up seeing a lot of the same places as you hang out with your friends, especially if you play through the game multiple times. On the audio side of things, there is some voice acting, but it’s minimal and doesn’t really impact the experience much. Strangely enough, the opening cutscene (featuring two throwaway characters you never see again) is almost entirely voiced, but for the rest of the game you simply get random quips every now and then. The music is decent but doesn’t stand out much; I was almost more impressed by the ambient sound effects, which vary from location to location and do a great job of making the places you visit feel more real.
I went into Best Friend Forever expecting to pet a bunch of dogs and date some cool humans, and in that respect, I was not disappointed. The dogs are good boys and girls who deserve all the love in the world, even when they poop. The humans are a fun and varied bunch whose stories may be on the short side but still have a lot of heart. Sadly, the gameplay did not live up to my expectations, but I would love to see what improvements could be made if Starcolt one day decides to create a sequel. If your love of dogs is stronger than the issues I’ve laid out in this review, then you might want to check out Best Friend Forever. Just do yourself a favor, though, and play it on PC.