Piddling Pigeons and Dark Mysteries
Don’t think I haven’t noticed the attractiveness of the average pigeon. I long ago noted the big fat speckled hunks that punctuate every corner of Winchester. Comparable to the majestic black and white beauties that flutter through the streets of Cambridge, there is something rather rousing about them. Maybe that’s going a bit far but they’re certainly worth a second glance compared to the dirty-grey, one-eyed, limping monstrosities that infect my own home town. Urgh. See? There are attractive pigeons and there are moron pigeons. If I had to pick one for a boyfriend I wouldn’t go looking anywhere around here. Of course I never thought I would have to pick one. Well blow me down with a feather, turns out I do. Hatoful Boyfriend is a Japanese avian dating sim and visual novel and it invites us all to pick a feather-covered lover.
If you’re familiar with the average Japanese game, the whole premise of Hatoful Boyfriend probably sound just a tiny bit quirky rather than an outright crazy break from the safe confines of reality. Who needs safe, though? Reality is boring. You are the only human in St. Pigeonations Institute, a school for gifted birds. Your friends are birds, your teachers are birds and the school doctor is a bird. Therefore your high school romances are limited to, well, birds. Still, beggars can’t be choosers. Pick one.
Actually, it’s strange how easy it is to buy into the illusion of dating a pigeon. When each character is introduced you have the option to see a human version of each bird. Although you only see that representation once, it is weird how it helps you to relate to each character. By the time you’ve run through the game and found the first ending, it does feel as though dating and interacting with a bunch of birds is perfectly normal.
Prepare to meet a whole flock of interesting and endearing characters. It’s so easy to pick a favourite. I’ll admit a fondness for Sakuya, the Draco Malfoy of the bird world. He’s a stuck up bastard but, phwoar, check out that plumage. There are a good range of personalities to meet at St. Pigeonations. Some are beautifully exaggerated with true Japanese flair and some have stories so touching you’ll wonder what kind of brilliant nutcase wrote this story.
Hatoful Boyfriend is a visual novel more than a sim game. Static pictures, lots of text, lots of choices to make and many different endings that, put together, will form a much bigger story. However, unlike the Steins; Gates and Virtue’s Last Rewards of the world, each of the standard playthroughs of Hatoful Boyfriend are a lot shorter and as such could be a great introduction for anyone looking to try out this madcap genre. For those of us already fully immersed into the beautiful world of the Japanese visual novel, this game begins as a gorgeous little nibble. To be clear, it isn’t a short game but by visual novel standards it initially appears as though you’re comparing a Garfield strip to Gone with the Wind. However, this light-hearted ‘sim’ is fooling nobirdie. An intense darkness looms and things are about to get far more substantial.
Each runthrough of the game will take you through a whole school year. You’ll select clubs and classes to attend, who to see after school and who to give presents to. More or less everything you select will have an impact on the path your story will take. For example, attending music class will improve your charisma stats, maths class will improve your wisdom and gym will improve your vitality. This in turn will affect how particular characters view and interact with you. We’re certainly not talking Persona 4 Golden levels of depth and interaction, but the premise is very similar if very scaled down. What this effectively means is that Hatoful Boyfriend is an uncomplicated pleasure. You’re not bogged down with RPG style activities and grinding that could otherwise take away from what makes this game so damn good, but you are left with many many many choices to make. Whereas some visual novels are more about a big fat story with a few major divergence points, this game gives more of a feeling that you are in control of the events unfolding around you.
Hatoful Boyfriend is a hoot. If you’ve got a daft sense of humour, you’ll go completely cuckoo for both the nutty premise and the whacky comedy. Expect real life LOL’ing. If you’re looking for a game to play on the bus, one that will make you look like a goofy idiot, this is the one. I never knew pudding could be so funny. The writers seem well versed in stupid comedy and nearly every inch of text is a cracking one-liner. Japanese games are well known for their bizarre humour, but there’s also something fundamentally English about the comedy in Hatoful Boyfriend. It has an old-fashioned ridiculousness to it that wouldn’t be out of place on a BBC sketch show.
There is, however, something darker hidden within the game’s silly humour. Eagle-eyed players will note on the first playthrough that something isn’t quite right, and as you search for alternative endings, an uneasy feeling should rear its feathered head. A game that starts out as a hilarious way to kill half an hour here and there gradually becomes a more sinister and serious story that demands you put in some serious hours to find the true ending. Upon finally heading down that ultimate path, expect the game to take a sudden turn into Danganronpa style territory. It’s a game-changer and absolutely worth all your efforts and eyelash batting. Your dating sim is now more akin to a mystery novel that is far deeper, sicker and extensive than the earlier sections of the game.
The graphics are spot on as you would expect them to be with this sort of game. At first I wished there was the option to see the human representations throughout as they do look pretty gorgeous, but actually a lot of comedy does come from seeing barmy birds behaving like barmy humans and you do soon get used to the weird human/bird dynamic. The game also has some lovely environments and plenty of background variety. You can’t really ask for much more. The musical score is also surprisingly great. When you’re at school making decisions between classes and activities there’s a traditional ditty which WILL nest in your poor little brain. Other scenes have equally awesome music, some of which you will recognise such as The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and a weirdly incredible and touching version of Silent Night (No I didn’t cry, I didn’t I didn’t I didn’t I didn’t) (I did).
The only disappointment in the entire game is the lack of a platinum. Instead there are fifteen bronze trophies and two silver. This was previously a PC release so there are plenty of walkthroughs available if you do struggle to find the more obscure endings. Do take a moment to rejoice in cross-buy and cross-save between PS Vita and the PS4. The game does have an unfortunate and intermittent crackling sound on the Vita version, and later in the game make sure to save because we crashed a few times. There was also one scene that should have been covered in feathers as in the PS4 version, but on the Vita the background was completely white. We 100%ed the game on the Vita and no other bugs were detected. We found no glitches on the PS4 playthroughs. Despite the fairly minor issues with the Vita version it was still our platform of choice over the PS4. The handheld is definitely the way to go with these games.
A little birdie did inform me there is a sequel on the way, and I do wonder if it will include the risks of teenage egg-laying and the current difficulties in obtaining a council nest. But whatever the content, a sequel will be welcomed with open wings here at Punk and Lizard. Hatoful Boyfriend is a cracking visual novel – hilarious, charming, engaging, pretty, and just about the most original concept you could ever dream up. We would love to see another game.
Anybirdie who is a fan of the Japanese visual novel genre will enjoy Hatoful Boyfriend. It’s fun, funny and fantastically unique. It gives me sleepless nights to think that many will turn their beaks up thinking Hatoful Boyfriend is merely a dating sim. It isn’t. Strong gameplay, original story, great writing and a twist so twisty your brain will never be straight again, Hatoful Boyfriend is the surprise of the year. Enjoy a dark mystery, embrace the romance, and be the wind beneath some lucky pigeon’s wings.
S J Hollis Rating – 9/10