Dating sims are to American gamers as Xbox is to Japanese gamers; niche market doesn't quite begin to describe the simultaneous incomprehension with these respective genres. A fundamental difference exists within our two increasingly diverging cultures, for whatever reason the Japanese cannot produce a significant reason to own an Xbox just as my fellow Americans are similarly apathetic to dating sims. Oh, we can certainly enjoy dating elements in our mainstream titles (hello Sims, San Andreas, and Persona 3), but focusing an entire game toward trying to score with the opposite sex is relatively untested in our market. Everyone needs a guinea pig and, whether it was intended to be or not, Brooktown High is here to try and crack the genre open.
Call me Donnie
Things start off innocently enough. You're the new kid on the block straight out of Ohio and freshly transferred just as senior year begins. Your dude or dudette's name is totally up to you, but your in game self is a product of a mini questionnaire you that is filled out before the game begins. Based on your responses, attributes such as athletics, charm, smarts, and originality define how your character fits into the various cliques of typical high school culture. The ultimate goal is to show up at school every day, interact with the student body populace, and eventually become the coolest guy or gal in school.
Sounds good on paper, but right off the bat it becomes clear that Brooktown tries to execute this concept with the precision of an emu doing brain surgery. The real meat of the game is conceived entirely within the first thirty minutes (about two minutes of real time) before class starts every Monday morning. It's at this point where you'll talk to a handful of your classmates (more on this soon) through a series of multiple choice questions and responses. From there it's off to one of your four classes, which will then inexplicably last the remainder of the week. Next thing you know, you’ll make a brief pit stop at your job on Friday before finally getting your next chance to actually play the game on Saturday, which is usually reserved for dates or other social occasions. After that, Sunday forgets to exist and it's back to the grind next Monday morning.
Your activities, friends, dates, and goals are all defined by the strength of your social relationships with your twenty or so classmates. Nearly every high school stereotype is nailed with pin point accuracy; the bohemian goth, the school spirit girl, the videogame nerd, the conceited bitch, and a handful of others round out the field. If you want to get anywhere with any of these ungrateful classmates, you're going to have to go through a series of scripted interaction. Through a brief conversation, you'll select responses to their questions. Pick something that corresponds to their alleged stereotype and receive a boost in your status. Piss them off or say something ridiculous and be prepared for negative consequences. "Negative consequences" is sort of an understatement, as you're always given an opportunity to correct any mistakes the following Monday. Not necessarily by repairing the damaged relationship, mind you, but by having the exact same conversation with the person and selecting a different answer the second time around. Sure, this isn't the case with every conversation, but as the school year drags on you'll find your classmates are seriously lacking in original material.
Parker Lewis Can't Lose, and Neither Can You.
Not that you'll be screwing up that often. Usually, according to the particular students stereotype, the "right" and "wrong" things to say are pretty clear. When paying attention to these rules, it's virtually impossible to lose in any situation. One could make an argument, however, that deliberately sabotaging any given conversation results the one reward Brooktown has to offer; brief snippets of hilarity. The writing isn't particularly inspired, but at least half of the sophomoric blurbs are right on point with modern humor and usually illicit a smile or two. Arguably, the best parts of the game are the segments of WTF videos that accompany the conclusion of successful dates. I won't ruin the small beacon of hope for anyone who chooses to play this, and they definitely aren't worth the effort, but a few these videos are in the upper tier of gaming’s weirdest moments.
To help bolster your social status and slip yourself into the student populace, you're going to have to win people over with material possessions. This is where the "favors" device comes in, which has you logging on to your computer to do a little online shopping. You can also transfer gifts from one student to another, but each path has the same result; do something for someone, usually involving spending your money, and instantly they like you better. It's sort of amusing to intentionally screw these up and see your classmates freak out, but, ultimately, acquiring trinkets does little to stretch the already thin amount of substance.
Additional filler comes in the form of three brief minigames. When you're hanging out in your room (or through social activities later on), you're granted the opportunity to play through these minor diversions. One is standard strip-blackjack; if you lose, you lose clothes; if your opponent loses he/she loses clothes. This mode loses flavor when you're either (1) disappointed in the lack of nudity or (2) disappointed in yourself for looking forward to the possibility of pixel nudity. Another minigame apes DDR as you press button sequences along to music. Notice I didn't say in "rhythm with music" because the button input is completely arbitrary. A final minigame, tongue twister, has you guiding a set of lips around a screen whilst trying to avoid falling objects from every angle. You're supposed to spray the huge tongues away with binaca whilst collecting falling hearts. Unlike the other two failure piles, tongue twister is moderately engaging, albeit in small does.
These Conversations Kill
But, In a nutshell, conversations comprise 95% of the gameplay in Brooktown High. The classes, jobs, and clubs are completely vapid. You simply see a few seconds of a screen saying said activity took place and then, before you know it, you get your stat boost and its party time on Saturday. Rockstar's Bully successfully proved you can make a school days game and pass off minigames as a way of passing classes, but Brooktown High seems perfectly content with this complete absence of potential gameplay.
It was somewhat surprising to see Backbone Entertainment listed as Brooktown's development team. These are the same guys who put out the moderately successful (and personal favorite) Death Jr. 2: Root of Evil, so one would think their next project would at least come close to the finesse of their previous effort. While the gameplay took a dive, their knowledge of the hardware bleeds through the visuals, which, despite featuring goofy super SD characters, are well constructed. Some of the music is provided by established contemporary artists, such as Dashboard Confessional and Alkaline Trio, but original poppy tunes blanket most of your experience.