Pop culture critic Hiroki Azuma once wrote that the archetypical visual novel is less concerned with telling a meaningful story than it is in favor of presenting a database of moe characteristics for audiences to choose their favorites from. These tropes can be abstract themes, such as tragedy or loneliness, or they can be tangible attributes and costumes, like glasses or maid outfits. Many of these works (and Japanese games, in general) are no stranger to attractive anthropomorphised beings; NekoPara has its cat girls, Neptunia has its console goddesses, even non-game entities like Wikipedia and Linux have found themselves signified by cute anime girls. But what if we subverted this database and took this anthropomorphism fetish to a satiric conclusion? Well, we’d most certainly end up with something akin to Hatoful Boyfriend, the infamous “weird pigeon dating game” that’s just crazy enough to work.
Set across the better part of a year, Hatoful Boyfriend situates players in the role of Hiyoko Tosaka, a not-so-everyday girl as she embarks on her first semester as the sole human pupil of the all-bird high school St. Pigeonation, perhaps finding some time for romance in between classes. Hiyoko’s got her work cut out for her, because this school is home to some of the hottest doves, quails and partridges to ever grace the screen. The basis of the story isn’t dissimilar from any number of contemporary dating sims, but the game makes its pointed satire apparent when we meet its eligible bachelors: There are no studly anthropomorphised bird men to be found in Hatoful Boyfriend; its characters are represented by high definition photographs of various birds. It’s cute, it’s charming and it’s hilarious to recontextualize an anatomically-correct avian as your schoolboy crush.
And what a gang of crushes they are! Hatoful Boyfriend follows in the footsteps of the dating sims it riffs on by making each datable member of its cast an exaggerated archetype. But whereas a straightlaced dating sim would be content with its characters settling into the familiar territories of the shy one, the nerd or the feisty tsundere, Hatoful Boyfriend‘s bachelors are each completely bizarre in their own unique ways. There’s narcoleptic teacher Nanaki; school doctor/homicidal mad scientist Shuu; or the endlessly-hooting Okosan, the star of the track team with a one-track mind for pudding. The characters just get weirder with the addition of Anghel, a delusional otaku who imagines his daily life as an esoteric JRPG. All in all, Hiyoko’s got her pick to pursue any of ten birds, one of whom happens to be a lady biker. The cast of love interests isn’t the exclusive source of the game’s off-beat comedy, as Hiyoko happens to be a very amusing protagonist to ride along with. Much more than a player cipher, Hiyoko’s inner monologue functions as the story’s narrator, and it’s easy to see she’s got a few screws loose herself. She also manages to be tough, confident and able, making her an excellent foil to her largely-incompetent love interests. Hiyoko’s got some of the best lines in the game, and you’re sure to find at least one that will bring a smile to your face.
Courting your bird of choice is as simple as choosing to spend time with him (or her) when given the chance, though winning the love of certain beaus will require some low-impact character management on your part. Hiyoko has three stats — wisdom, stamina and charisma — which can be improved every few school-days when you’re offered the choice to attend math, gym or music class respectively. A higher stat will score you points with its associated bird; elevated wisdom will make you hot for teacher Nanaki, whereas magnetic charisma will warm the cockles of the haughty Sakuya. A good portion of the birds don’t require stat maintenance to woo, choosing to spend time with them is enough. However, it’s important not to try and be an all-rounder, lest you impress no one and fall victim to a dreadful fate. An average playthrough takes between 30 minutes and an hour, so don’t feel discouraged if you don’t end up with your bird of choice the first go-around.
As you pursue different loves, you’ll occasionally see hints being dropped of a dark conspiracy at work behind the scenes. Sometimes they’re within the game itself, and other times they come in the form of documents accessible from the title menu. After finishing a certain number of number of routes, you’ll be presented with the choice to follow the hidden Bad Boys’ Love path. Doing so flips the script, discarding the dating sim elements to tell a brooding murder mystery in which secrets are uncovered and hidden agendas are exposed. It’s told in a very serious manner, which almost makes it funnier than the main game. Bad Boys’ Love is a weird and compelling tale, but perhaps too well-hidden, as only players prepared to devote a lot of time to Hatoful Boyfriend will ever see it.
Hatoful Boyfriend found its visual presentation retouched by Mediatonic for this release, with colorfully redrawn backgrounds, while its bird sprites have been up-resed and outlined in dark purple so they stand out more. Unfortunately, the game’s options are pretty basic and lack a number of standard visual novel features. There’s no backlog so you can’t review any text you may have skipped over, and there’s also no way to remove the message window to view scenes in their full glory. This is particularly egregious in a scene in which a feisty budgerigar displays his impressive wingspan, but half of the image is cut-off by an empty text-box. It’s a small complaint, but a disappointing one nonetheless.
A much larger complaint would be how poorly the game runs on Vita. Despite being a low-tech visual novel with very few moving parts, Hatoful Boyfriend occasionally stutters and chugs on the handheld device, somehow managing to drain the Vita’s battery faster than any other game I’ve played. Worst of all, the Vita release is filled with audio bugs: Occasionally the music will sound rough and staticky, while at other times the audio is replaced with loud, distorted buzzing that would feel more at home on a Merzbow album than at St Pigeonation. The game’s been out on Vita for over six months with no sign of this being addressed, which strikes me as unacceptable. Fortunately, these problems are nonexistent on Steam and PS4, and the Steam release is compatible with Windows, OSX and Linux, so potential players have plenty of options. The PSN release included a new route based around the Hatoful Boyfriend: Holiday Star character Tohri, but this route later found itself patched into the Steam release free of charge. No matter which platform you choose you won’t be missing any content.
It’s easy to write Hatoful Boyfriend off as just another weird game from Japan, but doing so would be a grave mistake. Underneath its goofy exterior, Hatoful Boyfriend shows its depths in being a fierce deconstruction as well as a tender celebration of dating sims, making it one of the most important games in the medium. A good man is hard to find, so why not leave romance for the birds?