Kiss puppies and people in Best Friend Forever, a dog-and-dating sim

I came into Best Friend Forever with a sense of envy.

Here’s the general premise: You need a new start, so you head off to a city called Rainbow Bay, where basically everyone has a dog, and there are a lot of single cuties. It’s basically an irresistible dream world.

This kind of experience — making friends in a new city full of dogs — is something that’s just out of reach. When the pandemic hit, places to gather shut down and people mostly retreated indoors. The dog park, once a haven for a lunchtime romp with my little dude, closed down as well.

I miss the dog park. Not just the dogs, but, surprisingly, the people, too. Dogs provide an easy opener, something to talk about.

The effortless conversations of Best Friend Forever reminded me of the dog park, surrounded by fellow frenzied dog people. The game’s setting helps, too — Rainbow Bay is basically a playground for dogs, and people happen to live there, too.

Image: Starcolt/Alliance

You immediately adopt a dog once you get there — I chose a pit bull named Cardigan from a scroll wheel of cute dog options — and move into a new apartment. (I could rename the dog, but I liked Cardigan. It fit.) Everyone you meet is also a potential suitor, and the idea is to balance dating, training, bonding with your pup, and starting your new life.

As a visual novel-style dating simulation, these scenarios play out in (mostly) static scenes and via conversation. The big addition is that, in addition to your character in the left-hand corner, your dog is over there on the right.

Your pup will randomly need assistance throughout the game. Sometimes, he’s scared and needs a pat. Other times, he’s pooped and you need to toss out the bag. I enjoyed the management element of this at first, having to balance reading each conversation with caring for my dog.

I later realized the dog events were mostly random, and had no bearing on my relationship with Cardigan or how well he was being trained, which is what I had assumed. Even as he passed his Paws Academy classes with flying colors, Cardigan continued to poop in inconvenient places, like at a burlesque show while I was on a date, but the interaction was nothing more than an annoying blip on the screen. No one even flinched!

Image: Starcolt/Alliance

However, I did love being able to idly pat Cardigan as I read dialogue between me and the other characters.

Training comes partially from those “dog event” moments, increasing a “score” on a profile page that tracks attributes like manners, sociability, trust, smarts, and fitness. Weekly, you’re able to do more intensive training, which consists of optimizing activities from a selection to increase your pup’s stats. You choose five activities, each of which will increase a stat, and they’re run automatically for you. After that, you’re able to spend a little bit of quality time with your pup — feeding, bathing, or playing with toys. I wouldn’t describe these, necessarily, as mini-games, but they are interactive: You shake treats out into a hand and feed them to your pup.

Largely, I felt that the dog training program came secondary to the dating aspect of the game, though I did enjoy watching Cardigan react to the different care protocols. He did not like his ears to be cleaned, which … relatable.

Image: Starcolt/Alliance

Dating, too, takes place over weeks, through a dating application. Before heading out into Rainbow Bay, you can access the app and see a map of the world. A bunch of little notifications pop up to tell you where people are looking for dates.

You can choose to run into folks at different locations, take someone out on a date, or do an activity with your dog. Sometimes, you can do all three at once! This is where you start managing your dating life, balancing dates with the delightful singles of Rainbow Bay. I appreciated the diversity of the cast, too — all of whom I would have chosen to date could I have juggled that much love.

Alas, I got to know each of the people I met through these casual encounters before deciding on who I might want to date; it felt wrong to be dating everyone in town at the same time. Instead, I dated Sacha, a cutie with an Italian greyhound, and Astrid, another cutie who has a big, fluffy, white pup.

Dating each of these two Rainbow Bay residents means exploring the city together, hopping around the local joints to read their stories as they unfold. There’s back-and-forth dialogue to choose from, but I didn’t feel my choices made much of a difference on how things played out. Once you’ve hung out with a person enough, you can progress the relationship to going steady. There are 15 weeks, total, to play through for the duration of the game, by which you’ll be able to go steady with one of your dates.

Image: Starcolt/Alliance

Each of these plot lines seemed separate from each other, and nothing ever really referenced anything else, despite all the characters being friends. I also encountered a few bugs in my pre-launch playthrough, one of which hindered progress in the game, but has since been patched out of the Windows PC version. It remains in the Nintendo Switch version, according to a known bugs list on the Best Friend Forever Discord, pending approval of the patch. Other smaller bugs were less disruptive, like an occasional character model missing.

I didn’t necessarily feel like there was much at stake within the dating portions of the games — it seemed like I’d woo my dates no matter what I did. But that’s not exactly a problem … I didn’t come to a dating simulator to re-enact the terror of online dating and moving to a new city. I enjoyed how easily the silly conversations came, and getting to know the new faces around town. It didn’t feel like there was a major storyline to get invested in, rather than a bunch of separate, easy conversations.

The ease of the interactions made me miss the real-world dog park even more, where there’s always someone new to meet or a cute pup to pet. It’s definitely not a replacement for it, but in a pinch, it’ll do.

Best Friend Forever launched Aug. 27 on Nintendo Switch, Windows PC, and Mac. The game was reviewed on PC using a download code provided by Starcolt. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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