When the date ends on a gutterball.
Dinner and a movie makes for a pretty typical night out between consenting adults, but bowling has certainly earned its place among the pantheon of fun date activities. Date Night Bowling's title doesn't leave much to the imagination, but after throwing my fair share of strikes, spares, and gutterballs, it's hard not to wish more of the focus was on the date part and less on the bowling.
From the main menu, one option is Casual Bowling, which removes all of the dialogue between characters and mini-games. This is bowling plain and simple. The 10 available characters have slightly different stats in terms of power and spin, and each one has a variety of basic outfits that you can swap between on the selection screen. The other option is Date Night Bowling, the meat of the game, where you can compete against an AI opponent in a friendly match of knocking down pins. In between frames, your chosen pair will engage in some light banter and commentary, but phrases are repeated frequently. The game doesn't tell you this, but one way to unlock more than the initial three characters in the Date Night mode is by bowling a round with them in solo play first. Two players can also bowl against one another, with options to choose a heavier bowling ball, how slick the lane is, and left or right-handedness.
One unique element of Date Night Bowling is the variety of mini-games that play out between frames. Most are fairly rudimentary quick-time events; others involve memory or rhythm mechanics. Depending on your performance in these, you'll earn a Great, OK, or Bad rating, with the first two adding to your compatibility score with your bowling partner. What's frustrating is that most of the games are very easy to fail and leave almost no room for error. Refilling your partner's drink, bringing them food, or cleaning your teeth without them catching you provide a nice distraction between frames, but they end too quickly and punish you too harshly for failure. The simple appearance and design of the mini-games ends up detracting from the charm of the "date night" portion of the title. Fortunately, you will probably still be able to see most of the dialogue between characters, but the exchanges are brief and forgettable.
With only two bowling alleys, a smattering of forgettable background tunes, and no voiced dialogue or animated cutscenes, the overall presentation does little to buoy Date Night Bowling's flailing prospects. The character designs are largely fine, but the mini-games don’t give these eligible bachelors and bachelorettes any time to shine. For what seems to be a more casual and lighthearted experience, there are some major timing and reflex requirements for these side activities, and I'm not even talking about the bowling. Ultimately, the payoff for earning high ratings in the games or high scores in the bowling just isn’t there.
Sometimes a date doesn't go so well, but the restaurant was good, or the movie was enjoyable. Maybe you bowled a 200, even if you left the alley alone at the end of the night. That's kind of the feeling of playing Date Night Bowling. The bowling itself is fun and challenging, even if the presentation of it is quite bare bones. The dating elements, however, are a major letdown, especially considering the strength of other Serenity Forge-developed games like Half Past Fate and A Case of Distrust, which have particularly compelling narratives and dialogue. There isn't much of a reason to recommend what ends up being a pretty consistent gutterball, with the occasional spare thrown in to save face. I don’t foresee a second date happening.