In Japan, the "dating simulator" video game craze has raged stronger than a schoolboy's hormones since the early '90s. But here in America -- where our gaming interests lean more toward Rambo than Romeo -- reception to the fad has been somewhat limp. That doesn't stop Brooktown High: Senior Year for the PSP, the latest attempt to bring dating sims to the States. As first dates go, however, this one's a little awkward. Put it this way: If Brooktown High handed you a note asking, Will you play me?, you'd probably want to check "maybe."
Like a twisted episode of Quantum Leap, you have taken over the body of a high-school student, navigating halls and hitting on the opposite sex to score points (and digits); think World of Warcraft with booty hunting instead of bounty hunting. In the meantime, you'll have to keep your grades up and run errands for friends in exchange for, say, their sisters' phone numbers. Screw becoming valedictorian: Winning here means landing a hot date in time for the prom.
The most jarring thing about Brooktown High is its character design. The kids inhabiting this drama look like slutted-out versions of your little sister's Bratz dolls. And you're supposed to make out with these things to raise your score? Creepy. Try playing a round of the PG-13 Strip Blackjack mini-game, and you'll start to wonder whether Dateline is recruiting suspects for a "To Catch a Predator" sequel.
But once you get past these bizarre cosmetics, each flirtatious conversation with Brooktown High's students -- a stereotypical Breakfast Club mix of preps, jocks, nerds, and goths -- is actually clever, biting, and often hilarious. For a dialogue-heavy game, it makes the grade: On your first day you're told, "Even the ugly people at this school are smoking-hot. Maybe it's something in the water, or maybe the publisher thinks it'll sell more units. Who knows?" Subversively, you can even sell cough medicine to kids looking for a cheap buzz, upping your "cool meter" in the process.
In terms of actual game play, however, Brooktown High gets a Saturday detention. The AI is stiff and robotic, and landing a date amounts to agreeing with everything the hottie says and picking obvious responses to her questions -- whether you agree or not. In other words, when a cheerleader asks whether you have school spirit, answer "Yes! Go team!" and you'll be in her pants before study hall. If only real life were this easy.
What's even more frustrating: You're given disappointingly little time to skirt-chase between classes, while the rest of the game is spent customizing your wardrobe, studying (lest your parents ground you), listening to mall-worthy pop-punk songs, and losing your patience during the PSP's long-ass load times. So yeah, in a way, it's pretty much like real high school.
For all of Brooktown High's many obstacles -- not to mention the PSP's waning popularity -- it's still worth taking out on a couple of summer dates. After all, you can always dump it for a prettier, more popular game come fall. Isn't that the way it always goes?