Proving birds are just as difficult to understand as men and women are in matters of love.
Some of you may have noticed I've been absent from the site as of late. It's true. My focus has been elsewhere… namely on a delightful young
man bird named San Oko. San is a fantail pigeon, and though he may not have the cognitive… capabilities as other birds who attend St. PigeoNation's, he makes up for it in charm and agility, being captain of the track team and all. He and I are going to embark on a quest to find the one “true pudding,” which has been cleverly hidden by the great Lord Pudi so that San Oko may discover it and finally live his true pudding destiny, with yours truly faithfully at his side.
Such is the way of true love in the game/visual novel Hatoful Boyfriend, and like this visual novel, the way of true love is just plain weird.
Hatoful Boyfriend is a port of a 2011 PC/Mac game which the Japanese categorize as otome, which describes games primarily targeted toward a female audience, usually with one of the goals being to wind up in a romantic relationship with one of the male protagonists. It's at this juncture that I should point out that Hatoful Boyfriend is not your average otome game. Your player-character is, indeed, female, and yes, you need to romance one of several males in the game. The males, however, are all birds.
So it goes to figure that you, as the female player-character, are also a bird, right? Not so fast. You, as Hiyoko Tosaka, are a human. In fact, you are the only human at St. PigeoNation's. Why would a human choose a high school filled with sapient birds? Well… they are gifted birds, if that helps at all… okay, it doesn't really help at all.
This is just one of the many “What the hell is going on here?” moments players will experience in Hatoful Boyfriend. The first part of the game takes no mercy in throwing a ton of characters at you right away, many of which will serve as your romantic marks throughout the visual novel. The game, originally designed as a April Fool's joke, sets up the love interests to spear high-school stereotypes in bird form: the loyal best friend, the rock dove Ryouta Kawara, the snobby French transfer student, the fantail pigeon Sakuya Le Bel Shirogane, and his half-brother, the ladies' man (as it were) Yuuya Sakazaki, also a fantail pigeon, the shy kid, the mourning dove Nageki Fujishiro, the jock and star of the track team, the aforementioned San Oko (so dreamy!), the narcoleptic math professor and button quail Kazuaki Nanaki, and the creepy staff doctor, the chukar partridge Shuu Iwamine. Got all that? No? Too bad! The game moves ahead.
The game roughly goes on about three semesters, or “terms,” in which the player will have opportunities to woo the romantic interest of their choice, while still navigating basic high-school issues, such as which club to join, scoring well on midterms and finals, and, of course, who to give those special beans to on Legumentine's Day. (I personally avoid Legumentine's Day at all costs. I mean, the holiday has gone so commercial.)
Elective days throughout the term allow for Hiyoko to improve one of her stats in either Wisdom (by attending math class), Vitality (by attending gym), or Charisma (by attending Music Appreciation). Each stat will come in handy in one romantic track, though players will largely have to figure this out themselves—there's really no indication beyond common sense. In a game that involves a human romancing birds, it's probably safe to say that common sense isn't exactly one of the foremost elements of the game.
With the three extended endings based on stats, it gives this latest 2014 release fourteen endings for the player to achieve. That includes one for each romantic possibility, three based on stats, one if the player follows the Torimi Cafe side-route, and one if the player fails to start a relationship with anyone, in which a Shadowgate reference is adorably made, so guess what that means for Hiyoko. If it seems grisly for a dating sim, you're right. But you also haven't begun to see the half of it.
The gameplay is simple in the fact that there barely is any: like most visual novels for the PC, interaction is limited to choices that Hiyoko can make. Players click on their choice and the story continues. Hatoful Boyfriend doesn't even need a mouse, as I played my first playthrough starting on my laptop's touchpad and finishing using the keyboard, simply using arrow keys to highlight a selection and enter to “click.” Gameplay registers as probably the only element about the game that could be seen as “simple.”
Throughout the game, as relationships are formed with various characters, hints and details serve as foreshadowing to something more ominous inside the halls of St. PigeoNation's. Players learn through incidental talk and documents, some of which can only be obtained after completing certain objectives or romance pathways, that St. PigeoNation's is more than just a school for aviary geniuses. It's also an experimental facility for biological warfare against Humans by the war-mongering Hawk Party (what else?). This detailed backstory can all be found in the Bad Boys Love track of the game, turning the dating sim into a psychological thriller and murder mystery, because reasons. Nothing says love like dismemberment, grotesque scarecrow-looking robots, and arson, right?
For a game that not only bathes in weirdness but swims happily in it, my major gripe about the Bad Boys Love track isn't that it turns the entire game on its head, going from happy-sappy to borderline-disturbing. It's not even that the track amounts for the vast majority of the game, taking a 20-30 minute dating sim and turning it into an episode of Law & Order: Special Aviary Unit. I'm okay with both of those. But the bothersome part is that to unlock this track, which admittedly made the game for me, a number of different romantic tracks must be successfully completed. Yet nowhere was I able to find any information on how to unlock Bad Boys Love, unless I checked Wikipedia.
Unfortunately, I found this game insufferable as simply a dating sim. Now I love absurd, bizarre humor as much as the next Family Guy cutaway, but at certain points I just looked at the computer with a confounded “Did I just really break up a fight between two pigeons over pudding?” kind of look. I say points because, yes, something so absurd really did happen multiple times, as well as other things like the protagonist living in a cave, despite being a human, and dropping out of high school to find magical pudding. In true anime stylings, my forehead must have switched frequently between a giant sweat drop or two and a swarm of question marks.
The gameplay during the dating sim portion of the game, as mentioned, clocks in about twenty to thirty minutes; this becomes a problem after the third or fourth playthrough, as I found most of what happened in every plot track repeats itself, causing me to look forward to each playthrough with a little bit less anticipation – and there wasn't a whole lot to begin with. Every track features an athletic competition between two characters, every track forces Hiyoko at some point to make a choice between the sleepy-yet-savvy Professor Nanaki or the creepy-yet-crazy Doctor Iwamine.
And don't screw up Legumentine's Day. Holy crap, don't screw it up. It's like their Valentine's Day at St. PigeoNation's. Relationships live or die based on Legumentine's Day. But around the fourth, fifth, sixth iteration of Legumentine's Day, or the other numerous events that occur during every single track, it becomes monotonous, down to being just tedious. The repetition of each track directly could be correlated to the sense of dread I felt when I learned I would have to play through three more tracks to see this Bad Boys Love track that was (allegedly) worth my time.
For all the pain and suffering Hatoful Boyfriend caused, the Bad Boys Love track somewhat made up for it. Some of the absurdities were given sensible, if not… logical explanations. The game shifts from “How can I get the boy birds to like me?” to “Who committed this atrocious crime?” And though the gameplay remains primarily the same, it felt like it was almost a whole new game with familiar characters, of whom I had spent at least five or more tracks getting to know on an intimate basis. Really, if the whole game had just been Bad Boys Love, I would have been calling this a worthwhile title. I just don't think it's worth the slog through the dating simulation to get to the whodunnit portion.
Maybe it's because I'm not Japanese or familiar with Japanese culture, but these otome games, I'm sure they have a place in Western society, but I don't quite know where to put them. What I do know is that writing something like “getting to know birds on an intimate basis” used to be something akin to a red alert, warning all bystanders that Ryan is quickly losing sanity. Instead, I eagerly await my beloved pigeon San Oko, as we cleanse this world of evil by dousing it in pudding… glorious pudding!
Also, I'm still figuring out how all these anatomical parts all link together between human and bird…
Digital download provided by publisher. Review based on PC/Steam version. Also available for Apple/OSX and Linux.