"It's a testament to author Moa's skill as a writer that she's able provoke an emotional response in her pun-laden narrative about pigeon high-schoolers on an interstellar field trip."
Back in the wild, woolly days of 2011, bizarre pigeon-dating sim Hatoful Boyfriend took social media by storm as fan communities popped up worldwide in tribute. Over the next few years the game's popularity only grew as the folks at Mediatonic and Devolver Digital gave it a fresh coat of paint and released it to Steam and PSN, garnering wider attention and critical acclaim. At the tail end of December 2015, Mediatonic and Devolver gave the same treatment to its sequel/fan disc Holiday Star, making both parts of this beloved series more accessible than ever before.
Holiday Star is a seasonal midquel that takes place during Hatoful Boyfriend's winter break period. Spread across four main episodes, players once again step into the shoes of Hiyoko Tosaka — the sole human pupil of St Pigeonation's Academy — as she handles a number of bizarre incidents alongside the eligible avians she calls her classmates, teachers and friends. The first two chapters are independent side stories concerned with capturing Christmas Tree thieves and a visit to Comiket respectively, while the latter two episodes are a duology about the cast's trip on the Galactic Railroad to visit the eponymous Holiday Star. This story arc begins as jocundly as the chapters that preceded it, though all is not as it seems as the plot takes an unanticipated swerve into cosmic horror territory. Fans of classic Japanese literature will find these latter portions a treat, as episode 3 functions as a fine-feathered homage to the works of Yokomizo Seishi and especially Miyazawa Kenji, while astute readers will be sure to pick out a Joris-Karl Huysmans reference in episode 4.
In contrast to Hatoful Boyfriend's dating sim mechanics, Holiday Star is a visual novel through and through, and quite a linear one. Player choices are few and far between this time around: Each episode only contains one or two choices at most, which either change one line of dialogue or lead to a quick game over. There are no diverging routes to be found here, but fortunately the overarching narrative happens to be engrossing and well-written. Episode 4 in particular gets into some surprisingly heavy territory with stark (but respectful) depictions of depression, suicidal tendencies and abuse. I would be lying if I said this episode didn't get to me, and it's a testament to author Moa's skill as a writer that she's able provoke an emotional response in her pun-laden narrative about pigeon high-schoolers on an interstellar field trip.
Each main episode lasts about an hour or two, and each completed episode unlocks a smattering of smaller bonus skits. These skits include, among other things, a birdwatching trip to Kyoto, Legumintine's Day (think Valentine's Day, but with legumes instead of chocolate) and a series of "radio" shows where the character Ryouta reads fan mail. The bonus skits aren't particularly deep, but their short duration and comical nature make them worth a look.
Many of the graphics contained in Holiday Star are reused assets from Hatoful Boyfriend, with a few new characters and backgrounds for the story's original settings. Episodes 3 and 4 get the most new art to illustrate the picturebook world of the Holiday Star, drawn in a naive colored pencil style that happens to be thematically appropriate as well as pleasing to the eye. The game is meant to boast an extended soundtrack to compliment pieces carried over from the prequel, but many of these pieces are currently missing from the PSN version due to a glitch. This is particularly noticeable in the second episode, which was almost completely sans music during my playthrough. I reached out to Devolver who informed me that the music was recently patched back into the Steam version, and a PSN patch is due out before the end of January 2016. This patch will also enable cross-save between PS4 and Vita, which at the time of writing is not functioning.
Holiday Star is a joyous affair for Hatoful fanatics but a terrible place for newcomers to start. Effectively dumping players into an alternative midpoint to the first game, the narrative expects familiarity with the world and characters and wastes no time to bring the uninitiated up to speed. References to previously established story beats and endless in-jokes are more likely to leave neophytes confused rather than delighted. That's not to say that Holiday Star isn't worth your time; it absolutely is, but know going in that this is a supplementary game for the fans rather than a fully-fledged sequel. And if you haven't played the original Hatoful Boyfriend? Well, there's no time like the present.