When the date ends on a gutter ball.
A dinner and movie makes for a pretty typical night out between consenting adults, but bowling certainly deserves its place in the pantheon of fun date activities. The title of Date Night Bowling doesn’t leave much to the imagination, but after I’ve thrown my fair share of strikes, spares, and gutterballs, it’s hard to wish that the focus was no longer on the date part and less on the bowling.
One option on the main menu is Casual Bowling, which removes all dialogue between characters and mini-games. This is bowling, pure and simple. The 10 characters available have slightly different stats in terms of power and spin, and each has a variety of basic outfits that you can switch between on the selection screen. The other option is Date Night Bowling, the meat of the game where you can play an AI opponent in a friendly by knocking down pins. In between frames, your chosen couple will make light jokes and comments, but sentences will be repeated a lot. The game doesn’t tell you this, but one way you can unlock more than the first three characters in Date Night mode is to have a round with them in solo play first. Two players can also bowl against each other, with options to choose a heavier bowling ball, how smooth the lane is, and left-handed or right-handed.
A unique element of Date Night Bowling is the variety of mini-games that are played between frames. Most are pretty rudimentary quick-time events; others involve memory or rhythm mechanics. Depending on your performance in these, you will receive a “Great”, “OK” or “Bad” rating, with the first two increasing your compatibility rating with your bowling partner. What is frustrating is that most games are very easy to fail and leave almost no room for error. Topping up your partner’s drink, bringing them food, or brushing your teeth without them catching you can provide a nice distraction between frames, but they end too quickly and punish you too harshly for failure. The simple look and design of the mini-games detracts from the charm of the “Date Night” part of the title. Fortunately, you will likely still be able to see most of the dialogue between characters, but the exchanges are brief and memorable.
With only two bowling lanes, a few forgetful background melodies and no spoken dialogues or animated cutscenes, the overall presentation does little to reinforce the weak prospects of Date Night Bowling. The character designs are largely fine, but the mini-games don’t give these skilled bachelors time to shine. For a more casual and carefree experience, there are some key timing and reflex requirements for these side activities, and I’m not even talking about bowling. Ultimately, the payoff for high game ratings or high scores in bowling just isn’t there.
Sometimes a date doesn’t go that well, but the restaurant was good or the movie was fun. You might have bowled a 200 even if you left the alley alone at the end of the night. It’s the feeling of playing date night bowling. Bowling itself is fun and challenging, even if the performance is pretty nude. The dating elements are a huge disappointment, however, especially given the strength of other Serenity Forge-developed games like Half Past Fate and A Case of Distrust which have particularly compelling narrative and dialogue. There’s no reason to recommend a fairly consistent gutterball, with the occasional reload to save face. I’m not expecting a second date.