Set My Heart Aflutter
If there’s one thing the Japanese game industry creates more than anything else, it’s dating sims. The genre is a big thing over there, as everyone wants their own kawaii waifu to caress lovingly through the static veil of their computer screen and suspiciously sticky keyboard.
…Yeah, okay. I can’t give this a good, proper, funny lead-in as I usually would. The thing is, the subject of this review can’t be skirted around with graceful flight. You can’t peck around it so easily. You just have to jump in, wings spread wide, and hope for the best. Today, I get down and downy (as in covered in feathers) with Hatoful Boyfriend, a game about romancing birds. And no matter how much of a hardass (hard-cloaca, maybe?) I can be about this game, the fact remains that it’s actually considerably more witty and fun an experience than you might think. Build yourself a nest, little chicks. Let me tell you about Hatoful Boyfriend.
Hatoful Boyfriend places you as the sole human student in an all-bird school. This isn’t a new situation for our nameless central character, who has lived among a predominantly avian society for her entire life. How this all came to pass is kind of vague, but everybirdie (that’s a thing they say in the game, by the way) accept the humans, referred to as “hunter-gatherers,” as a normal part of society. Humans rule the land no longer, apparently.
The game takes us through a year as a sophomore at St. Pigeonations, a bird high school which you attend. Being the lone human attracts some attention your way, but “the problems of fitting in” aren’t really anything to worry about. No, the focus of the game is instead focused on building a loving relationship with one of the various central characters among the school’s student body and faculty. Birds such as your childhood bestie, the pompous rich kid, and even your lax, narcoleptic teacher are just a few of the nine possible targets of your zoophilic affections. The game even includes a feature that shows you an anime-style picture of a human version of each birdie as you meet them, which actually helped me decide who I would pursue on my first playthrough.
As far as actual gameplay goes, Hatoful Boyfriend is light. The game is technically a “visual novel,” and is therefore more about telling its story than engaging the player. That said, figuring out how to win the small, frantic heart of the bird of your dreams is still a bit different for each character. Some can be found through various clubs, some are in your own class while others are not, and a few of them even have multiple endings based on certain choices you make along the way. Some of those choices may seem somewhat asinine in relation to the results they give, which could be chalked up as either clever misdirection or simply bad design choices, depending on how you look at it.
Gameplay all comes down to simple choices. For instance, several times over the course of your semesters at ST. Pigeonations, you will be presented with “elective days,” giving you the choice between music, math, or gym classes. You even get a little list of your different attributes (charisma, intelligence and physical fitness, respectively) that will be affected by your choices. They all start out in very different places, but evening out the numbers doesn’t matter as much as making the choices that will best further your chances with your future lovebird. Choices presented in the story don’t usually apply to every single bird, so if you like, you can hang out with a few of them before deciding whose delicate talons to trust with your heart.
Hatoful Boyfriend is not a long game. A single playthrough can take as much as a couple hours, or as little as twenty minutes with the aid of the fast forward button at your disposal at all times. With brief length and no real depth in gameplay, the one fluff of brilliant plumage on this bird is the writing.
Frankly put, Hatoful Boyfriend is a really funny game. One might expect that the whole game would be written around the running joke of “hey, they’re all birds,” but this really isn’t the case at all. Each character has their own eccentricities that offer some amusement, especially the creepy doctor Shuu and the pudding-crazed track athlete San. The cast in itself offers a variety of what are ultimately stereotypes, but funny stereotypes nonetheless. Even your player character has a very distinct personality. Where a lot of games of the type would have a generic protagonist looking to find the man of their dreams, the protagonist of this chronicle of winged romance is a snarky, somewhat sarcastic person who is every bit as funny as everyone around her, and often treats the situation with the same amount of bewilderment and fun that players might find themselves feeling. In other words, she’s a great cipher, and a much more realistic and honest one than expected.
At its core, Hatoful Boyfriend is as amusing as it is because it knows better than to try and take itself seriously. There’s a pigeon biker gang, a famous pigeon blogger, and a bunch of other additions to the world that are completely goofy and charming. The one issue with this is that when the game does intend to add a serious note to things, it usually ends up feeling forced. Some characters have storylines marred by tragedy, and in all cases but one, it ends up being a bit hard to care when the game up to that point doesn’t really feel meant to be taken seriously at all. There is hinting towards what caused birds to become as intelligent as humans, but it’s quickly forgotten for more silliness. The game isn’t always great at handling serious stuff like, say, a Planet of the Apes-like birdpocalypse.
Hatoful Boyfriend is funny, cute, and simple. It’s short, begging replays in order to pursue everyone from the reclusive bookworm to the creepy school doctor. There’s not really much to it beyond clever writing and the promise of the warm, winged embrace of somebirdie close to your heart. It tends to fall on its face when it tries to be serious, because we all know it’s not meant to be. That would be like trying to watch Birdemic and legitimately critique it as a film, instead of just making fun of the whole thing. You just don’t do it. Hatoful Boyfriend is hollow-boned, but brightly feathered, enough so for three and a half shameless bird puns out of five.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed) ; Publisher: Devolver Digital: Developer: PigeoNation Inc, Mediatonic; Players: 1; Released: February 15th, 2012 (PC), September 4th, 2014 (Steam); Genre: Visual Novel; MSRP: $8.99
Note: This review is based on review code provided by Hatoful Boyfriend’s publisher, Devolver Digital.