Review by Ragn_Charran

Reviewed: 02/19/09

A true dating sim that's more than the sum of its parts

First of all, it must be said that Casual Romance Club is an adult game with graphic sexual content. It should not be played by anyone underage or who is offended by depictions of sexual activity.

Sometimes, it’s good to have losers for friends. For example, one of them might get tired of failing to attract girls the conventional way, and decide to set up a lighthearted dating club. And, if you’re lucky, he might be just smart enough to realize he can get more girls to join if he can recruit some popular guys first, but not smart enough to make the connection that the girls will focus on the popular guys and he’ll still be a dateless wonder.

If this sounds like the way you’d like to meet women, then make friends with Jordan Price, because he’s about to start the Casual Romance Club.

Characters and Story: 9/10

The Casual Romance Club consists of 15 members, 3 men – yourself (whom you get to name), occasionally seen comic relief man/bad cop Jordan, and the never-seen-but-sometimes-discussed Mark - and twelve women, whose personalities are based loosely on the twelve horoscopes of the zodiac. While this sounds cheesy, the zodiac is never made out to be part of the game, and the concept is developed well, as each woman’s personality is unique enough to stand out in the much larger than usual crowd for a game of this nature. This is further coupled with a nice variety of backgrounds, with some women old friends and others complete strangers, some older, some younger, and while a lot of them are high school girls, not all of them are, and a variety of schools are represented. The women are also just cliche enough to not require massive amounts of character exposition, but also original enough to be interesting. Odds are most of the women will remind you of someone you know, and one of the women will stand out to you (for me it was Bridget).

However, because Casual Romance Club strives to be a true dating simulator, rather than a visual novel like so many other bishojos, it is fairly light on story. Not to say that nothing happens – each woman has goals you explore, from as basic as learning to ride a bike to as complex as trying to reconcile her conservative values to her sexual desires, everyone has a life outside of the club, and occasional inter-member conflicts arise that need to be resolved. However, the game just proceeds on a day-by-day schedule as you get to know the women by having chats, walks in the park, shopping trips, or weekend dates. The real story, then, is following the progression of your relationship, which, depending on your answers, may blossom into trust, sex and love or putter into the dreaded friend zone. While the limits of the game format forces this progression to be overly simplified, showing only snippets of what would truly be required to build such a relationship, the progression is realistic, and you do have to mold your character’s personality, via the things you say, to match the girl you are pursuing to succeed.

Gameplay: 5/10

Almost all of Casual Romance Club takes the format of a one-on-one conversation with women you choose to talk with, whether in the “clubhouse” restaurant or on a date, occasionally interspersed with bonuses like late-night pager messages (dating the game considerably!), diary writing scenes with a woman you’ve impressed, or even a masturbation scene when a woman starts to get attracted to you.

Like most bishojos, Casual Romance Club uses a question-and-answer format determine the exact path you follow and what bonuses you get, but what sets this game apart is the sheer volume of decisions you make as a player, and it is a very sharp, double-edge sword. You need to decide which women to talk to each day, the topics of conversation for each, often the answers to their questions, and whether to ask her out for an evening date or for the weekend. Even focusing on one woman exclusively, ignoring all others, requires a minimum of a hundred or so choices (including choosing to talk to her each day and setting up dates). Multiply that by twelve women, and the decision tree quickly becomes a forest. While not every answer you give has to be perfect, certain scenes require one or more perfect answers to unlock, and some women are much less forgiving of deviations from the “perfect” path than others - some of the women already have a crush on you, meaning they’ll go out with you no matter what you do or say, but others see you only as a friend, some don’t know you at all, and (hardest of all) some joined the club solely to get you to fall in love with her friend, and will devote all of her energy to keep herself from falling for you.

From a simulation standpoint this volume of choices creates a lot of depth, replay variety, and a fair amount of freedom, but from a game perspective it can be aggravating as some scenes have very specific answer criteria, and some ridiculous restrictions placed arbitrarily in the game system can amplify this. A key example is that you cannot go on an evening date with a woman on the game day you ask her for a weekend date. Logically, this makes no sense, and makes asking the woman out on a weekend date a hindrance in your relationship – when I was courting Sidney, I made the mistake of booking a weekend date on a day when I needed to have an evening date, which forced me to miss a diary-writing scene that was critical for the relationship to advance, even though I said all the right things in conversation. Another example is that you can only talk to three of the twelve women on any given day, which is frustrating when you’re first starting the game and actually want to meet all the women. And on top of everything, you can only save at the start of a day, meaning using save/reload strategies to find these perfect paths are more time consuming than they need to be.

Technical issues further mar things, there is no master file to save unlocked portraits, meaning you need to save a “complete” file for each woman and load it to view her pictures (though I have heard there is a patch to fix this issue), nor is there any way to revisit scenes aside from saving a copy of the game just before they happen. Translation errors, while rare, do pop up, often in very strange ways, such as using “heroin” instead of “heroine”.

A final note here is that the game design assumes you will stay focused on one woman, so it has very little contingency in place for if you decide to stray from this format. For example, I was disappointed to find that when I tried, on a whim, to piss off the ultra-conservative Sophie by sleeping with her then promptly dumping her to sleep with Amy, she did nothing, and still talked to me at the end like we were an active item.

Graphics: 8/10

Casual Romance Club uses a very simple but effective artistic style that makes the women very distinctive and displays their personalities and emotions well – the way Valerie leans into you while she talks or Bridget cocks her head to the side when looking at you ads a touch of humanity to the characters without using cheesy chibi effects. Conversations are generally limited to two pictures – a side view of the woman sitting in the restaurant booth or a close up of her face – with a variety of additional portraits for dates and (of course) sex scenes. File photos of each woman in winter, summer, and beach apparel are shown while you talk, and if you dig into the bonus files on the DVD you can find additional art, including a second set of hi-res swimsuit poses and a set of detailed, realistic portraits to convey what the women would look like in real life. And on the topic of bonus materials, the game comes with a very nice hardcover instruction manual, with detailed descriptions of the setting, perspectives on Japanese culture, in-depth backgrounds on each woman, and even a “decision tree” flowchart to tell you which girl best suits your personality, a very nice touch in a genre usually devoid of such frills.

It should be pointed out, however, that the sex scenes retain Japanese censorship, meaning that all genitals are fully covered by mosaic.

Sound: 4/10

Casual Romance Club is marketed as the first bishojo game with English voice tracks, but this is a very deceptive statement. While the women do speak English if you set the game to do so, the original Japanese voice actresses, who show a very obvious lack of experience in speaking English, are the ones doing these voiceovers. Furthermore, only the first few words of conversation are said - the only dialogues fully read aloud are the diary, masturbation, and weekend date scenes - often cutting off sentences half-way through. The result is a very choppy, unnatural voiceover with heavy accents (made even worse by the seriousness of the scenes with full voice acting) that lead me to switch back to the Japanese tracks.

Aside from this very prominent flaw the sound is merely average, typically light and airy background music plays throughout, and standard volume options (aside from turning each woman on or off, which are mostly unnecessary since you’re picking who to talk to anyways) exist.

Sexual Content: 6/10

Despite the word “Casual” in its name, the Romance Club here has nothing to do with casual sex. At best it takes two full weeks of game time to get a girl into bed, and it generally requires dedication – to get the full portrait and scene set for a woman requires talking to and going out with her every day she’s available, and since you can only go out with one woman a night, this puts pretty heavy limits on playing the field. It can still happen without – as mentioned above, I’ve managed to sleep with two different women in the same run, and I once “accidentally” ended up sleeping with Jeannie just by going out with her every time I got rejected by Sophie (which, on my first run, was a lot!) – but there are no crazy harems or weird fetishes here. Most of the women are virgins, and all of them want a boyfriend, not a booty call. The realism of this is appealing, but this is not a game you could ever play just for the sex. And as mentioned above, the graphics retain Japanese censorship, so all genitals are concealed by mosaic.

Replay Value: 8/10

With twelve unique women, Casual Romance Club can offer a lot of simulated companionship. While the lack of a skip feature and difficult-to-avoid starting repetition can be annoying, for the most part each path is unique and enjoyable. I wouldn’t recommend trying to finish all twelve women right away, I’ve taken the approach of trying a new woman every few months, which has kept the game interesting to me for over two years at this point – and I still have a few women to go.

Overall: 8/10

While Casual Romance Club has some pretty serious flaws – primarily in its clunky question interface and failed attempt to be English – it is one of the most enjoyable bishojos I have played to date. While it is not for the hentai crowd, and requires patience in dealing with the interface, I found it meets its goal of being a true dating simulation. You won’t get a harem of women who’ll drop everything to do you, but if you’re dedicated and charming enough, you’ll get a woman who loves you and, eventually, expresses that love physically. Which is what romance, rather than just sex, is all about.

Rating:   4.0 - Great

Product Release: Casual Romance Club (JP, 04/25/03)

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