I don’t come across many ‘growers’ when it comes to video games. I find it more common in films or music, when I come to accept the tone or style; in games I tend to grate against the gameplay, get angry and switch to a game of Slay the Spire.
So, yeah – I hated Roommates at first. With a passion. It’s not that I dislike visual novels, which Roommates very much is, or that I have some pre-disposed dislike for Ratalaika games (who have a reputation for being hit-and-miss with the games they publish). It just seemed to want me to hate it.
I chose Max, the male character (unusually for a visual novel, there are two to choose from), who is, in his own words “a lean, mean music machine”. His approach to college? “Well, as much as it’ll break mum and dad’s hearts, I just don’t have it in me to be yet another white-collar stooge.” Everything he says is like that. He talks like a character from Happy Days, prittsticked into an episode of Gossip Girl. I don’t know if I was meant to dislike him or not, but woah-boy, I disliked him.
(As it turns out, choosing Max was one of my many mistakes when I played the game. Anne, the female character, would have been a far less irritating choice. I’ve only played half of her playthrough, but she is infinitely less stranglable.)
Then I met my roommates. They introduced themselves one by one, and the generalisations were brick-subtle. There was the narc one, the flirty one, the hippy one, the ‘She’s All That’ clever girl with looks. The most unforgivable, for me, was a boy who is both pressured to become a doctor by his Indian parents (haven’t we got bored of this stereotype yet?), and is bisexual – obviously not an issue, but Max (dammit, Max) would only react with an aura of disgust. Luckily, the game wises up and loses the phobia.
Then there was Isabella, who I wanted to help, the poor girl. She was the flirty one, but she spent the entire game – I kid you not, every last one of the five-or-so hours – with her arms above her head in a sultry pose. It must be exhausting to gyrate for a full year of college. She spent most of the winter in a boob tube, too, which can’t be good for her.
Isabella also happens to be the target for a slimy barrage of innuendo and perversion from Max. You don’t get a choice in it, I’m afraid, you’re going to be circling her like a lion in heat for the whole game, and it’s going to get uncomfortable. Expect to burp out a “can I scrub your back?” whenever she dares to emerge from a bathroom. There’s some splash sordidness for the other girls too: this little chestnut is saved for the shrewish roommate – “under that grandma uniform I see a repressed goody-goody schoolgirl just waiting to go wild”. You’ll be unsurprised to hear that she’s already in a skirt that barely reaches her thighs.
Did I say that I hated Max?
He calls a housemate, named Dominic, ‘Douchenic’ the whole game and never thinks that maybe, just maybe, he’s the Douchenic. He spikes drinks. He wants to buy a girl a magazine called ‘Better Homes and Asses’, because, you know, that’s what girls like. His jock nemesis is literally called Chad.
But around the halfway point, I had a massive 180 on Roommates. It’s got nothing to do with Max, and everything to do with the other characters in the shared house. While they’re as pigeon-holable as hole-shaped pigeons, they’re warm and approachable, and through attrition I grew to like them a lot. By the end, culminating in a party (as all college films do), I felt like I was genuinely going to miss them.
A lot of this is due to the positivity in the writing by Celso Riva, which isn’t necessarily accomplished but is hugely good-natured. You’ll make choices that will mean focusing on one housemate over another, but rarely will you damage the relationship with the one you don’t pick. They are all out to help each other (except for poor Douchenic, who gets a bad rap in my eyes), and there’s an unavoidable togetherness about their escapades.
The 180 was also down to some of the mechanics, which felt like deadweight when they were first introduced, but became more interesting as time went on. The choices, which initially just built up ‘rep’ with each housemate, started to have some tangible meaning, and unlocked dialogue branches that I hated to bypass. Some of the choice-scenarios were fun and unexpected – a murder mystery and a prisoner’s dilemma crop up and turn the visual novel into an entirely different game. For a visual novel that loves its stereotypes, it was great to see it go off the tracks occasionally.
Probably the headline difference from traditional visual novels was the interface-driven ‘Week Planner’ sections. You’ll get to choose how your choice of protagonist spends their time, breaking the week into 21 chunks where you can skip/go to class, rest, study, earn some cash by working or take time out for a hobby. Each of these replenishes – or takes away – from your cash, energy, character stats and grades. At first, this feels benign, as you’ll have a huge pool of each, but they soon whittle away, and become something that you have to manage a little more intensively.
If I’m honest, I’m still on the fence about the Week Planner: while it grew to have more influence, it was never completely transparent what I was unlocking (or, more worryingly, missing out on). By the end, after a couple of evenings’ play, I realised that I hadn’t min-maxed them fully and should probably have taken another approach. The game wasn’t quite entertaining enough to warrant a return to the start, unfortunately.
That was my second mistake with Roommates (after Max). On normal difficulty, you need to be near-perfect to get anything like a good ending. You’ll have to focus your attentions on only one of the four potential romance options (Roommates is wise enough to give you at least one same sex partner possibility), and pick every correct option to – by the coating of your leather jacket – unlock a satisfying ending. If you dare to keep your options open because they all initially seemed like cardboard cutouts, then you’re doomed to an ending that barely whimpers. It’s a strangely ruthless approach to a romance simulator. I’d recommend plumping for ‘Easy’ on first-playthrough to add some leeway, as it doesn’t impact anything else – not even the majority of achievements.
And for those of you who know their Ratalaika and assume this is an achievement hotbed, then keep it in your pants. While I may have flunked the romancing and got one of the tepid endings, I got one lone achievement. You’ll have to put the time in to get something near the full 1000.
All of this adds up to a game that’s hard to score. On one hand Roommates is regressive, and part of me wants to score things low out of a kind of moral outrage. On the other hand, there’s a Saved By the Bell/High-School Musical positivity that drags the whole thing forward, and I can assure you that you’ll grow to love this confectionery box of stereotypes. It’s closer to the worst visual novel than it is the best, but it gets marks for ‘working out’, as it at least tries new things. Just don’t pick Max, I beg you.
A dirty-pint of stereotypes, awkward situations and leery dialogue, this is a visual novel that somehow manages to become likable over its runtime.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by the publisher.Want to keep up to date with the latest Xt reviews, Xt opinions and Xt content? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.