I have been on a bit of a cowboy games kick recently thanks to a combination of Red Dead Redemption 2, Evil West and most recently, the BL title Dead Man’s Rest. Scrolling through itch.io, I stumbled across the platform exclusive Courtin’ Cowboys, reminding me what an important gaming platform it is, particularly if you’re into your indie projects.
As another darker-themed dating sim, on par with The Price of Flesh, Courtin’ Cowboys is not to be played by those under 18 years of age. Its NSFW themes and which characters relate to each are extensively covered on the game’s itch.io page for those who may want to know about them before considering whether or not they should dive into the game. But, as always, bear in mind that when taking in any of that information, some of the title’s greatest surprises may well be spoiled for you. So if your interests lie in the darker and more disturbed side of what the dating sim genre has to offer, go into this ignorant of what awaits.
For those looking for a safer experience without needing to check the list of potentially triggering material, the game does offer a SFW version which contains only “cursing, romance, written gore and violence”. The NSFW version, by comparison, contains all of the darker material such as “non-con, sex, drugs, abuse, extreme torture, violence and nudity”.
This is a spoiler-free review.
Courtin’ Cowboys is a dark themed visual novel/role playing dating sim tucked away under itch.io’s adult and pixel art tags. It was created by Mr Fishess and jd. It features a fully customisable self-insert playable character, with name, pronouns and appearance choices being selectable. Body customisation options include body, parts (which do factor into the writing for the sexual encounters), face, hairstyle and clothes, with the latter two always being available to change up within a playthrough, and more clothing options becoming available to unlock as you progress.
Set in the cosy western town of Summerfair in 1863, Courtin’ Cowboys starts off as one thing and turns into something else entirely over the course of a single playthrough. The player character’s initial goal of getting someone — anyone — to spend the night with them turns into a one-night stand marathon with shocking consequences. Let your body count stack up and see who your grisly demise will be at the hands of, or what secrets would have been best left covered up.
A simple yet tricky system that conceals its darkest secrets
That’s usually the way any initial playthrough of Courtin’ Cowboys goes, since certain events can only be triggered through a combination of progressing down character scenario tracks and racking up a body count. While the in-game stats page is not all that necessary, the achievement pages are where you can deduce just how much percentage of playtime you have left of the main story.
The all-important character events track list is found on this second achievements page, with a total of 37 to experience. This consists of seven romanceable characters, all differing in ages, builds, genders and kinks. Since certain characters have a lot more involvement in the events of the game, these go as follows:
- Magnolia, the dancer who is located in the Saloon, has three scenarios.
- Florence, the sheriff from a neighbouring town who visits on weekends, and who is stationed at the Sherriff’s office has six scenarios.
- Dijon, the shepherd who works on the pasture, has four individual scenarios and ten involving other characters, making for a total of 14 appearances.
- Jade, the standoffish cowgirl who is always shopping in the store, has two scenarios.
- Will, the outcast who mans the woods has three individual scenarios and four involving other characters, making for a total of seven appearances.
- Jak, the tall drunk at the Saloon, has three individual scenarios and six involving other characters, making for a total of nine appearances.
- Jed, Summerfair’s sheriff, who is located at his office, has three scenarios.
While the initial encounters in Courtin’ Cowboys tend to be surprisingly wholesome, others hint to the darker potential outcomes of each hook up. With a gameplay loop that is completely dependent on the order in which you select encounters, the subsequent events you may witness and the ways in which you can handle them are all determined by past actions. It is due to this that backstories can remain mysterious and even missed out on completely if you fail to be at the right place on the right day or set in motion the correct turn of events. Thankfully, once you do discover this information, it’s recorded in your journal.
The domino effect of it all is continuously challenged by one lone character: that randomly appearing Bastard, a non-romanceable character, and one who is required to run into to obtain certain endings. There is therefore most certainly replay value here, especially with how the majority of playthroughs will hit you with dead ends as events stagnate and character routes get closed off. To put that last point into perspective, it took me hitting a total of 67 in my body count and 34 NPC deaths to complete the achievements section of the game while seeking out the last couple of scenes I had left to find!
In fact, getting a once over each time you die hints to there being a bigger picture, so the real challenge ends up revealing itself; in a nutshell, the reasons to keep playing all eventually mount up. A single playthrough lasts about 15-30 minutes each time, meaning that you’ll likely find yourself desperate to make the connections between the townsfolk, piece together the crimes that happen during your time in the town and uncover the secrets of its characters. You just need to get that perfect run down and connect the dots.
Cosy and horror colliding perfectly
With its retro inspired music and pixel art being a constant delight, Courtin’ Cowboys’ aesthetics are as pleasing as the subject matter is harrowing when you get into its context. With some great mysteries, and plenty of wild, unpredictable revelations, it only gets more rewarding the more time you commit to the title. With some routes being extremely pleasant in terms of character interaction and bonding – the expected ones being quite obvious – the others that go down the darkest paths help ensure that the overall experience is anything but comfortable and run-of-the-mill.
To further perpetuate the horror of it all, there are some quick-time events that keep you on your toes to avoid the very worst fates imaginable in the game – although these are sometimes hopeless, with 50/50 choices that do you no favours in either direction; these will have you backing out and loading an old file like a madman. Just make sure you have the event’s achievement ticked off, as it will remain listed no matter how many reruns you do.
As someone who has had to repeat from the start too many times to count to locate the most obscure branching paths, be sure to save often. There are only 10 save slots, so be clever with it.
There’s also some optional material that provides more hands-on gameplay, but it does very little other than adding more achievement hunting that is not integral to the core gameplay. Instead, it’s all quite a cosy collectathon time, consisting of a fishing minigame and picking berries, both rewarding usable items for the cooking feature.
The snakes minigame located in the pasture has its own achievements to unlock and is one of the game’s only viable ways of obtaining money. Shopping is a feature that provides numerous options, such as new clothes in which to dress your playable character, or more items to use to unlock recipes.
While the majority of these features are ultimately rather unnecessary, it adds some pleasant downtime after all the nightmarish sights and descriptions you’ll find yourself interacting with. It’s a perfect balancing act that helps us show that some characters are genuinely redeemable — and that some are absolute, legitimate sweethearts — compared to the majority, who are walking red flags. But that just makes any piece of fiction all the more exciting.
If you like the sound of any bit of our write-up, be sure to check out Courtin’ Cowboys and support the developer! They are currently working on their third game. You can also find their first game Lovers Trophy on itch.io; this contains two love interests, one of whom appears in Courtin’ Cowboys: best boy Jak!
Disclosure: Some links in this article may be affiliate links, which means we may earn a small commission if you make a purchase after clicking on them. This is at no additional cost to you and helps support Rice Digital!