Hatoful Boyfriend made me buy into its pigeon-driven world
|Platform Win, Mac|
|Publisher Devolver Digital|
Hatoful Boyfriend isn't the deepest dating simulator I've played, but it is the most cringe-worthy and probably the funniest.
The original Hatoful Boyfriend was created by manga artist Hato Moa and released for free in 2011. Mediatonic's remake of the text-based avian romance game overhauls the artwork and display text, presenting a more polished visual experience and smoother play-through.
Other than a new look and a few additional scenes penned by Moa specifically for this new version, 2014's Hatoful Boyfriend retains the core ideals and charm of the original. It crosses the line from strange to bizarre to uncomfortable, but never into the realm of self-awareness. It's one of the most eccentric and incoherent dating simulators of all time — and that's what makes it entertaining.
In the world of Hatoful Boyfriend, birds have become the dominant lifeform on a post-apocalyptic earth. Humans have dwindled in numbers and are forced to live in the wilderness, reverting back to the hunter-gatherer ways of our Paleolithic ancestors. The main protagonist of Hatoful Boyfriend, an energetic young human girl, has chosen to enroll in the prestigious St. PigeoNation's high school — in which all of her classmates are birds. Players must form a romantic relationship with one of these birds in order to "win" the game.
From this point on, players have control over how the protagonist reacts to her surroundings and classmates. Each scene presents players with a set of choices with which to respond to dialogue or others' actions. The options you choose allow you to nurture romantic feelings with a bird and open new storyline branches. Winning the love of a bird allows you to complete the game and view a special story ending that changes depending on which bird you end up with.
Of the birds you encounter, there are a number of romance options, including your childhood best friend, an eccentric track star, your teacher and the school doctor. The story unfolds in dramatically different ways depending on which bird you attempt to romance. One of my favorite storylines involved courting a bird that lived as though he were a character in a role-playing game, complete with dragging me into a turn-based boss fight. Another brought me into the path of the aforementioned eccentric — and rather unhinged — track star, who inspired me to join his quest to find the one true pudding.
That's right. Pudding.
Different dialogue choices and scenes will become available as your relationship deepens with the birds. This can happen whether or not you focus on appealing only to one bird; in several playthroughs I made it a point to pursue two birds at once. In this way, I was able to view a handful of new scenes focused on both birds. But when the time came to commit to one bird or fail the game, I had to abandon one of my feathered friends. This choice was always difficult to make, because some of the individual birds' endings were weird and wonderful, while others were more tame and boring as far as game content goes and felt less rewarding.
Hatoful Boyfriend's handling of its fail state is, from a design perspective, one of the best things about the game. Without spoiling specifics, if players fail to make significant headway with any bird by the game's halfway mark, it all ends. You get a game over because you have failed to smooch any pigeons. I didn't see this coming, and at first I was irritated that I had put what I thought was so much work in only to fail and have to restart. But my annoyance soon dwindled when I realized why the game worked this way. Because Hatoful Boyfriend makes it so easy for you to fail, it prevents players from making random choices and passively participating in its avian romance.
During my first playthrough I thought I would tackle the challenge benignly, choosing what I felt best represented my own feelings and hoping to watch love bloom organically. But I didn't make choices that pushed me actively into the wings of any one bird, and the game shut me down. This is how Hatoful Boyfriend keeps its players engaged and ensures anyone who doesn't commit to romancing pigeons is locked out of progression. You have to want your birdie love.
After that first time, I made sure to aggressively pursue my bird of choice by making conversational and physical choices that reflected affection for him, thus allowing me to progress farther into the game without failing and open up new scenes. I got excited every time the game would reward me with a scenario I hadn't seen before.
Just a reminder that while all of the above is happening, my character was still the only human in the game. Everyone else is still a bird. The game introduces each new character with an anime portrait of what they would look like as a human male. But this doesn't change anything. They're still birds.
Hatoful Boyfriend dragged me so deeply into its world that at one point the illogical stupidity of the idea of dating pigeons started to totally make sense and not be weird at all. Not many games can provoke a verbal reaction from me, but Hatoful Boyfriend had me laughing and shouting out loud. As I carefully nurtured each relationship I pursued, and as each new scene I unlocked became more off-the-wall kooky, I found myself yelling across the apartment to my [real, human] boyfriend to come look at what was happening on screen. I became invested in my romances because I was excited to see what nonsense came next.
"My character was still the only human in the game. Everyone else is still a bird."
I was a little bummed because these loving interludes are on the short side. I was able to complete most romances in under an hour, although some storylines pushed more towards the 90-minute mark. Given how busy I am on a daily basis, it's great to have a game I can play in short sessions. At the same time, some storylines left me wanting in terms of my protagonist's character development, and some endings were plain uninteresting and flat.
Though a few endings lack drama, Hatoful Boyfriend's humor never failed to elicit the kind of laughter that made me accidentally snort. Most dialogue is campy in a late-80s anime sort of way, but nestled among all the cheese are some real gems. One character can't speak English but his subtitles make him sound like a heroic knight. Another character enters every scene with the sound of shattering glass as he crashes through a window.
The small details in the writing stand out when placed next to photos of birds staring blankly with their beady little eyes. It makes for an experience so absurd that it can't not be funny. The idea of having to form a romantic relationship with a bird to win a game is so dumb that it ended up feeling perfect to me.
Hatoful Boyfriend made me buy into its pigeon-driven world
Hatoful Boyfriend makes fun of the dating simulator genre by turning it on its head, making it weird and outrageous. The witty dialogue and absolutely bonkers scenarios are genuinely fun to discover, and the handful of different storylines make repeated playthroughs worthwhile. It's not groundbreaking material, but it's laughable — in a good, entertaining way.
Hatoful Boyfriend was reviewed using a pre-release Steam code provided by Mediatonic. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.About Polygon's Reviews