I’ve played a fair variety of game genres in my time, from 100+ hour RPGs to the most casual of casual games, but I have to admit that the world of dating simulators is a new one to me. Highly popular in Japan, save from a few titles the genre has never really made much of a splash in the Western market, and whilst the visual novel as a game genre is developing, it's still nowhere near its Japanese level of market saturation.
When I heard that Mediatonic was in talks with indie devs Devolver Digital to create an English language port of 2011 surprise hit Hatoful Boyfriend, however, I was pretty curious to say the least. That’s because Hatoful Boyfriend is not merely a dating simulator, no. It’s a dating simulator in which you play the sole human pupil at elite academy St PigeoNation’s, a school created for … pigeons.
The first thing to say, is that (as you might guess from the concept) Hatoful Boyfriend is completely bizarre. The second, more surprising, thing, is that it might just be bizarre enough to really, really work. At one moment, I found myself competing in a three-legged race at the school sports day with one of my best pigeon buddies. What’s more, he was allegedly supporting ME through the race. Was I a tiny human? He a gigantic fowl? Was he merely gifted with the super-strength to allow him to support a creature several hundred times his weight? These are the kind of deep, weighty and philosophical questions Hatoful Boyfriend throws at you from the off.
When you start to get answers about this weird human/ bird divide, things start to get pretty freaky, and even more weird. It turns out the bright colours and cutesy anime graphics cover a dark, dark secret, and Hatoful Boyfriend is revealed not as a quirky, unexplained world, but in fact a deeply dystopian future. A deadly strain of H1N1 "bird flu" in the year 2068 has destroyed most of the human population of the globe. An attempt to stop the spread by releasing a counter-virus to kill of the world's avian population backfires, and instead causes those birds resistant to the virus to develop human-level intellect. War breaks out, and as human continue to die, birds rise up as the dominant earth life form, enacting enforced segregation that forces many of the remaining human populace to live in the wilderness away from evolved bird life.
As a backdrop to the game, this immediately introduces a level of racial and political intrigue that I was most definitely not expecting when I picked up a game about dating sexy pigeon boys. There are tensions between political parties about how humans should be treated, and factions and politics slide into several of the game's many narrative strands.
As with most dating-sim type games, Hatoful Boyfriend involves less actual gameplay and more “choose your own story”; you’re presented with a number of choices (should I go to Maths lesson? Or should I take Gym class this semester?) and these result in divergent plot strands. It’s difficult to discuss this game with a straight face, but it does tick a lot of the boxes expected from its genre. From a pure design perspective, Hatoful Boyfriend provides a wide range of options, branches, and potential outcomes, which is really what you need in a good choose-your-own-adventure. There’s literally dozens of possible completely unique endings, from untimely death to meeting one of many Dream Birds, and the complexity and genuine emotion in some of the storyline is both surprising and a welcome boon in this apparently very silly game.
What’s really entertaining - or at first, deeply frustrating - about the game is how forcefully it pushes you to commit to decisions. You can just wander down one path, choosing options as a whim, and end up wooing no birdy at all (sorry), but if you do, it’s Game Over. Literally. If you fail find somebody or plover to get on down with, you lose the game. This is not just about casual dating, your poor maligned human paleolith really has to commit to her man. Bird. Man? Whatever.
Not being a native Japanese speaker, I have no idea how entertaining the writing of this game was originally, but the script for Hatoful Boyfriend might just be the work of a genius, be that Japanese or in translation. The writing fits the tone of the game wonderfully, switching between fairly basic prose conversations to off-the-wall philosophizing and, most surprisingly, a fairly large amount of narrative depth. If I was to have to describe it in terms of comparison, it would probably be somewhere between Pokemon and Jeeves and Wooster, so broad are the jokes and the general ridiculousness. One pigeon-suitor can't speak English (or...human?), for instance, but the translation given underneath is written as if delivered by some kind of Medieval English Knight. One library-dwelling fowl will give you long, reasoned diatribes about the state of modern literature, complete with criticism and philosophical debate.
Hatoful Boyfriend has a huge range of new scenes and previously undiscovered characters to unlock, and it’s the eminent replayability that, for me, makes the game enjoyable. Don't get me wrong, it's probably the weirdest game I've ever played, but unlocking more and more secrets and tidbits in this strange, bird-dominant future is compelling, particularly since the majority of the plotlines are extremely well-written.
It probably goes without saying, but Hatoful Boyfriend is most definitely, 100% not for everyone. If you’re looking any kind of serious gaming experience, want a mechanics-heavy title full of action and adventure, or just Aren’t That Into Pigeons, Hatoful Boyfriend really won’t be your cup of tea. However, if you want to experience what might just be one of the most ridiculous, hilarious, and extremely well-written visual novels this year, Hatoful Boyfriend brings the funny in spades. You might not know what on earth you’re experiencing, but chances are you’ll be thoroughly entertained.