Alright so here’s the deal. I’ve played a few visual novels in my time, but Hatoful Boyfriend is some next-level shit. Ask everybirdie and they’ll say the same. But here, c’mere let me lean in close. Ever wanted to date a pigeon?
I’ve known about Hatoful Boyfriend for a long time, but with the upcoming release of the PS4/Vita version, I decided it’s time to get hands on and drop right into bird school. For those unfamiliar, here’s the basis for the game: You’re dropped into this world with no context as a human female high school student in a school for birds. All your classmates are pigeons, all your teachers are pigeons, everyone in town is a pigeon. The goal of your game is to continue down a storyline and pursue a pigeon. Everyone dreams of experiencing love, romance and courtship with a bird right? Your main character, default name Hiyoko Tosaka, is the only human and is also in her final year at bird school, and you experience the highs, lows, loves and losses of that last year.
The thing is, this game doesn’t take itself seriously. That is key. So important I had to put it in bold and italics. I mean, except for the insanely real backstory of the game’s universe, but all that is completely dependant on the reader actually wanting to learn it. Hatoful Boyfriend isn’t afraid to be silly because, at heart, it’s a silly premise. As you get deeper into the game though, you’ll pick on some slightly chilling and really interesting subtleties that aren’t addressed, as if they’re normal. To avoid spoilers I’m not going to specify what, but I can provide a few light examples – your main character seems to live in a cave, and there’s a REAL BLOG for pigeons, by a pigeon that actually has tidbits of info on the Hatoful Boyfriend universe.
So to experience the weird and interesting backstory, you’ll have to persue different storylines. Stay inside with the library shut-in and learn more about his life, or maybe help your childhood friend who you’ve known since he hatched; your choices through the game decide the outcomes of several scenarios, including some optional plot points that offer characters and stories unrelated to your chosen pigeon-date.
It’s actually surprising that the characters are so likeable, considering they’re pigeons. Maybe I’m just one of those goddamn pigeon racists. Each character you meet has a unique personality with a fun comedic spin in some cases. Even the slightly more dismissive and quiet characters are written in a humorous way, which I really commend. It’s really hard to write likeable characters, this coming from someone who writes characters as a bit of a brain exercise (I’m trying to say I’m completely untrained and unskilled in that field and have no place critiquing anyone’s characters really but hey, games journalism).
The gameplay itself is rather simple, as things should be for visual novels. It’s like a book with pictures of people and places that pop up every now and then. You read through the text and occasionally answer a choice. Some choices will increase your Charisma, Vitality or Wisdom meters which affect what routes you can actually take. If you’ve never played a visual novel before, there’s probably tons of awful flash ones you can find on google to give you an example of the average gameplay.
Admittedly, after playing through the game a couple of times I ended up on the wiki page and got more backstory than anyone could’ve hoped for. The actual plot of the game is absolutely insane. Really creative and unique, but written in such an accessible and often comical way. It’s no wonder this game earned “cult following” status.
On the flip side, there are a few things I have mixed opinions on. The game is incredibly short (or I read incredibly fast). I honestly can’t decide if that’d a good thing or bad thing, because that means it’s perfect for short bursts of an hour or so, but I finished one of the game’s routes in roughly 40 minutes. I guess it’s best to weight it up against the price tag and decide if that’s worth it for you. The shortness and multiple pathways does open the game up for tons of replayability though, with a gallery that you can fill by completing different routes.
Did I mention how great the game looks, for a visual novel? The hand-drawn character art looks great, the pictures of actual pigeons that are used in the game don’t look completely out of place and the backgrounds are relatively well-drawn. It’s just a shame there’s so few backgrounds and that they get reused a lot. The music also suffers from this too – while it’s all really well produced and sounds great, like most visual novels the music is repeated a lot. Since this game is a little silly it could easily be that their point was to satirise modern visual novels, but I’m not convinced.
There truly isn’t much more to say about this oddity of a game! At least, not without spoiling the story. Priced at £7.99 in the UK, I think you could easily get your money’s worth if you’re into visual novels or Japanese-style gaming. That, or I fit comfortably into the niche of “enjoys weird games about dating pigeons and so this review was doomed from the start”.
Hatoful Boyfriend was reviewed on a PS4 copy of the game given to us by the sweet folks at Devolver Digital.