Platform: PC (£6.99)
Publisher: Devolver Digital
For the last few days, I've been the only human girl in a high school for birds. I've flirted with Rock Doves, agonised between chasing a haughty Fantailed pigeon and his dreamy half-brother, entertained the notion of dating my narcoleptic button quail teacher and embarked on a quest for the One True Pudding. All between trying to ace my tests and pass the semester.
It's was weird, even for someone who reviews localised Japanese games and doujin titles on a weekly basis. Thankfully I've loved every delightfully bizarre and comfort zone-shattering minute of it.
At its core, Hatoful Boyfriend can best be described as a dating sim with birds instead of people. Like any visual novel, you'll click through reams of quirky text dialogue and narration accompanied with crude character portraits, occasionally choosing between a few different options to push the narrative in a new direction. Hanging out with and being nice to your harem of clichéd potential boyfriends (the shy bookish one, the complex Tsundere one, the hyper one, the childhood friend after something more, you know the drill) may make them fall for you, at which point you'll enjoy an intriguing ending, unlock some character artwork and then start all over again like a pigeon-fancying version of Groundhog day.
Only, again, the boys are birds. And if you don't manage to find love you'll be brutally murdered in your bed.
Okay, back up. We'll get to the murdering in due time. Though Hatoful Boyfriend is incredibly basic in terms of presentation -- a small number of recycled portraits superimposed onto a tiny number of backgrounds -- and repetitious by design since 'gameplay' involves clicking through reams of text and occasionally picking an option from a dialogue box, it's fiercely entertaining. The characters are genuinely excellent, despite initially coming off as one-note stereotypes, each of whom offers a satisfying (often unexpected) ending, personality arcs and totally new story diversions depending on how you treat them.
They may be birds, but they're all unique and interesting. So long as you engage with the premise and force yourself to leave your comfort zone, romancing your classmates, teachers and deliciously creepy school doctor feels like a real achievement.
Your choices, from whether or not to pursue a part-time job in the summer vacation to your role at the school's sports day, all lead to fun and quirky asides, often telling a smaller and totally self-contained extra story arc in the process alongside extra opportunities for romance.
The writing contains a number of typos, which could well have been purposefully included to increase the 'oh Japan' factor, and frequently fails to bring some of its jokes through the language barrier alive, but manages to be upbeat and unpredictable enough to keep you engaged. There are cringe-inducing moments aplenty, yet the whole thing is surreal enough to work. Yes, the 'boys are birds' conceit may be a gimmick, but it's a good one that keeps the experience fresh and leads to plenty of humorous takes on how would birds would live in a world designed for humans.
A few annoying flaws come with the territory. Hatoful Boyfriend is infuriatingly opaque when it comes to telling you what your three stats are actually required for, and which you'll need to raise by undertaking 'lessons' in order to get a better ending with your bird of choice. Not to mention which decisions and dialogue options will lead to your desired result. All too often you'll encounter a bad ending with no real idea how you could have done things differently. Yes, love doesn't have scripting flags, but a little more transparency might have been nice at times.
More annoyingly, though, you'll have to sit through the same lengthy introduction and preamble every time you start afresh (the save/load functionality seems to be slightly unstable at the time of writing), which can only be sped up as opposed to skipped. It would be useful to unlock the ability to start at the very first decision, not from the very beginning, meaning that you'll need to exercise extreme patience to really make the most of Hatoful Boyfriend.
If Hatoful Boyfriend stopped there, it would have been an entertaining if fairly short-lived and ultimately forgettable distraction. Quirky. That's the word. I've used it several times already, and that would have been the end of it: a fun little quirk that you'd consume and either love or be baffled by before moving on.
But Hatoful Boyfriend doesn't stop there. As you should have already surmised, seeing as the fourth paragraph of this review and the Steam store description mentions being killed in your bed.
A thought-provoking, dark and disturbing premise lurks just beneath the happy high school hijinks, occasionally bubbling up for a second, making you question the nature of the school and the world in general. Every so often a snippet of dialogue, an off-kilter backdrop slide or an unlockable case file will sneak out and stop you in your tracks, forcing you to really think about what it means and what it might imply, before quickly moving back to the saccharine shenanigans. It's impossible to build up a full picture without playing the story multiple times, exploring different routes and even unlocking a massive extra ending, which completely changes both the tone and real story of the game itself.
I can't fully explain why without ruining the surprise for you, but suffice to say that a weaker game would have laughed off obvious questions like "why are we the only human in a school for birds?" or even "why am I the only human" by saying "because that's the premise, silly." Not here. Not by a long shot. There's so much more at play here, with exposition gradually teased out rather than dumped onto you all at once, encouraging you to piece together the scant fragments yourself before finally discovering the truth.
It's the kind of tact and subtlety that was sorely missing from Danganronpa 2; foreshadowing and arming you with clues without killing the tone and disbelief any more than it has to, and it enriches the experience immeasurably.
Hatoful Boyfriend won't sell you on dating sims or visual novels if you're dead against the genre, while many gamers will find it to be too text-heavy, unabashedly 'quirky' and lacking in traditional notions of 'gameplay' to really engage with. Which is fine: this is a big industry that caters to all comers - you can and absolutely should like what you like and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. For those of you with an open mind and a a little patience, though, it's likely to become a surprise highlight of the year.
Or at least tide you over this weekend before Destiny arrives.
- Quirky and unpredictable premise will defy your cmfort zone
- Upbeat, often hilarious and knowingly cringe-inducing writing
- Surprisingly strong characters
- Gradually and subtly reveals its dark side over multiple playthroughs
- Some typographical errors and misfiring translated jokes
- Repetitive; wading through the intro requires extreme patience
- Let's face facts: it's not for everybirdie
The Short Version: Hatoful Boyfriend may be a bonkers twist on the traditional Japanese dating sim, but its surreal 'boys are birds' premise is more than just a gimmick. Courting your potential feathered suitors is rewarding and frequently hilarious, while eventually unravelling the story's darker elements bring the real heft and value to the experience.
If you're willing to leave your comfort zone, it's worth sticking your beak in.