Over the past few days I’ve been playing an interactive novel of school-day politics, conspiratorial tension, espionage, murder and overly cautious scooter-based road safety. Characters from flouncing aristocrats to lonesome bookworms have captured my affections, just as I tried to capture theirs. Oh, and everybody in the story is a bird. Pigeons, mostly.
Everybody except the player, that is. Hatoful Boyfriend casts you as the lone human girl at St PigeoNation’s school for gifted avians. You regularly refer to yourself as a hunter-gatherer and your glorious abode is a literal cave. It’s … an unusual game. And, a lot of the time, unusually funny.
Hatoful Boyfriend is one of those joyful parodies which has such an obvious love and knowledge for the workings of its subject that it also manages to exemplify the genre. Rather like Barkley: Shut Up & Jam: Gaiden, which was a terrific RPG as well as terrific piss-take of RPG conventions and melodramatic plots. I’m not saying I enjoyed Hatoful Boyfriend as much as Barkley, because that level of human enjoyment can only be achieved with a deft blend of basketball, Ghost Dad references and Shrekmonos. But the two games share a serious tonal approach to the utterly absurd.
It has it’s share of outlandish moments, but Hatoful Boyfriend’s premise of a woman pursuing bird romance during an extraordinary school year is played almost entirely straight. It allows the game to pass off both over-the-top situations and crazy plot twists as part of an overall campy charm, while also sneaking in several genuine, sweet moments of storytelling.
It’s a smart game too, making off-hand jokes about Kulaks within minutes of the opening scenes. The prospect of a (nearly) all-pigeon dating game got me interested, but those gags about agrarian social strata in Marxist-Leninist Russia really sealed the relationship. Not that Hatoful Boyfriend is afraid to play smartly-dumb when necessary. There’s a character with an all-consuming obsession with pudding (amusingly, the only bird whose ‘human version’ portrait is still a bird) and liberal use of the term “everybirdie.” Yeah.
It should be noted that this isn’t the first time Hatoful Boyfriend has left the coop. The game already has quite a dedicated cult following for both the original Japanese version and prior English translation. Devolver Digital’s re-release makes the title available on Steam (where it will hopefully find more devotees,) and adds a new scenario by author Moa Hato with its own unique ending. Some form of ‘remastering’ has taken place with the visuals too. Though since I didn’t play the original release I’m not entirely sure what this entails. Higher resolution feather textures, maybe.
Structurally, Hatoful Boyfriend follows the fairly standard visual novel dating sim format. It’s mostly clicking to advance text dialogue up to the next branching choice, with a spot of stat building (wisdom, vigor and charisma) during elective classes. Stats can impact the story if you do or don’t have the required amount at certain points, but it’s the decision branches that make by far the most difference. A single play through will take you about an hour and a half (depending on how fast you read, I suppose,) but that’ll only give you a glimpse of the full St. PigeoNation’s tale.
Replaying the game in pursuit of a different avian amore will uncover additional aspects of the overall story and eventually send you down the path of the “true” plot. What begins as a somewhat ridiculous and whimsical premise actually unfolds to be something far more complex, and sinister. Getting to that point means going through the game multiple times and, despite a handy fast-forward button, this can become a little tiresome. It may partially be a consequence of the reviewer’s curse (having to concentrate exclusively on a game for a short period of time,) but even though the new segments in each run are well worth seeing you do have to trundle through a fair few familiar scenes to get there.
In case all this crowing about parody bird dating has left you confused, Hatoful Boyfriend sticks to romantic love and avoids any explicit nest-rocking action. It’s sweet, not sweaty. Amusing instead of arousing. I’m saying the birds want to get nest-y, not … nasty. That’s hopefully clear enough.
Each character in the game has their own theme, which means some of your encounters with the creepy (yet adorably plump) Doctor Shuu are accompanied by Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Just in case you hadn’t already figured out he was a bit on the strange side from his immediate offer to stuff you full of mysterious drugs. Likewise, the suave noir-ish pigeon has a slow, jazzy number and scooter-riding, biker sparrow Azami always appears with the wail of synthesised guitars. I much prefer these to the “main” St. PigeoNations theme, which is a bit plodding.
It all helps to define and differentiate some properly interesting characters who, despite their unusual appearance, are actually pretty well written. There are some broad personality types (the trusty hard-working friend, the haughty upper-class posho and so on,) but there’s more depth here than their 2D portraits would suggest.
Hatoful Boyfriend rewards the persistent player, gradually evolving from a quirky romance novel in a surreal pigeon world to a kind of offbeat psychological thriller. It’s an egg with a cheerful, bright surface of curious design, but instead of the shell housing an equally colourful yolk there’s only gloom and speculative science-fiction inside. Except, you know, with bird jokes.
Look, the main thing to take away from these thousand words about a pigeon dating sim is that it’s a deft, clever parody of the genre that occasionally manages to be quite sincere at the same time. It also sticks fairly rigidly to the visual novel format, so don’t be surprised when your interactivity is restricted to clicking on text every now and again. Devolver’s ‘remastered’ version doesn’t exactly seem to add vast amounts to the previous releases, but by securing it’s place on Steam and GOG the company has probably ensured an expansion of Hatoful Boyfriend’s deserved cult audience.