I have never owned a dog. They’re loud and poop and then you have to pick it up and I absolutely adore them and would die for any dog I met but could not own one. I have, however, owned many virtual dogs which I think makes me a bit of an expert on the subject of (virtual) dog ownership. I mean, I played a lot of Nintendogs and had a Tamagotchi. I know what’s up.
But the thing about these games is they lack a certain personal element. Yes, I can pick up the poop of my virtual dog, but who’s out there to pick up my virtual poop (which is, in this case, a lot of emotional baggage and loneliness). Best Friend Forever, a game by indie New Zealand studio Starcolt, heard my pleas into the ether and delivered upon to us a delightful combination of visual novel/dating sim/dog ownership sim.
OOOOOOOHHH YOU’RE MY BESSSSTT FRIEND~~~
Upon loading the game, players are introduced to the delightfully quirky world of Rainbow Bay. If you didn’t immediately gather from the title of the town, this is going to get very gay, very quickly (if you want it to). Upon listening to a fourth wall breaking radio segment, our protagonist (who walks a thin line between self insert and pre-set character), is instructed to make a Woofr account. It’s like a dating app, but everyone on it has dogs, and I would use it if only to pet those peoples dogs (dogfishing????).
After answering a few goofy questions, selecting one of three avatars and generally setting up your fake online dating profile, you’re all set! Well. Almost.
Where is the dog, you ask?
The dog comes in shortly after, because apparently living in Rainbow Bay without a dog is a criminal offence. Not really, but, this is a big dog kinda town where everyone has and loves dogs. So, therefor, you too must obtain a dog. There’s several to choose from, with popular breeds like a shiba inu and maltese, as well as my personal favourite, the mutt. His name is Blocker and all he does is fart. I like that about him. It’s relatable.
From here, players are allowed to tackle the game on a week by week basis, with 15 weeks total and a set amount of activity points per week. Encountering a character or training your dog will take one, where dates will take three points, so it’s important to manage accordingly in terms of who you want to date and how good you want to train your dog.
It’s a delicate balancing act that left me on several occasions having to toss up between hanging out with one of the romantic leads, in my case, Maribel, the urban planner with the best dog in the world, getting to know the other characters, or training your dog. In other words, you definitely won’t see all the content available in one, or even two playthrus. Which is great, one route typically takes a couple of afternoons, ensuring it never feels like a slog to get through to seeing all the babes on offer.
But if I’m at the dog park, and you’re at the dog park, then who let the dogs out?
Alright. So. Babes, we got that, we know that’s part of the game, but what about the dog stuff? Well, once you have your four legged companion, you’re tasked with proving you are a good and capable dog owner. Being a good virtual dog owner I thought to myself, ah, yes. My time to shine. I will own the most superior dog possible.
At the end of each week, it’s possible to train your dog and conduct certain activities with your dog (going to the park, dressing them in cute outfits, that kinda thing). Each of these activities will raise your dogs stats, like manners and intelligence, and also need to be balanced with your dogs mood which has its own big list of stats. Essentially your dog is a very rowdy spreadsheet.
Said rowdy spreadsheet is graded 3 times over the course of 15 weeks against other dogs in dog school, which is for dogs, and your dog is given a grade for each of their stats out of gold, silver and bronze. I received a lot of bronzes, despite my best efforts, although apparently the difficulty of the grading has since been patched to make it a little more forgiving and less likely to make me feel like I have failed my sweet smelly spreadsheet dog, Blocker.
There are also numerous events through the dialogue and map for chances to give your dog a little extra training and caring for, picking up a dogs poop or stopping them dragging people around while you’re mid-romance is a mood killer for some, but for me, I would call that a bonding experience. These little events sometimes aren’t the most intuitive however, as it took me a good while before I figured out exactly how to complete each activity, as well as numerous occasions of accidentally advancing dialogue while trying to boop my dogs snoot.
Though thankfully the Starcolt team are very much on top of any bugs and quality of life issues, with the team working on patches for various things as we speak (and there’s already patches out, too!).
Please show me pics of your dog
Best Friend Forever is one of the most interesting and inclusive titles this year. It’s got a wildly diverse cast of datable singles to choose from, as well as the supporting cast who pop up now and then, with all of them living across a wide range of various minority things you never really get to see in games. All abilities, sexualities, genders, race, you name it, it’s probably represented in this game somehow. Also, the dogs. That is incredibly important.
The writing is stellar, with every character feeling completely unique and compelling, with glimpses into their lives during brief interactions and events that make me think, ‘hm, maybe I should have dated them’. And I did, eventually! Every new route I found myself thinking of who I was going to date next until I’d dated everyone, because this is a game that just keeps hinting at larger parts and interlinked lives and stories, ensuring it’s basically mandatory to play every route if you want the full lowdown on what’s what in Rainbow Bay.
I mean, Maribel and Gravy are still easily the best duo out of the cast, and I will fight for this if I have to, but all in all Best Friend Forever is a delightful little home grown experience that wants its players to feel positive, safe and included while also providing them with all the delights of dog ownership and none of the fur all over their belongings.
Best Friend Forever is out now on Nintendo Switch and PC.