This review has slight plot spoilers.
Freshman Nageki Fujishiro was a quiet individual who hid out in the library. Often, he would be unnoticed sitting in the corner by himself. Aomame did notice him though, and sparked up a conversation. It was awkward to begin with, but over the year they bonded to the point where he opened up about his past, revealing the fact that he is a ghost who cannot leave because he committed suicide years ago by jumping off the roof of the school.
That’s just one of the many strange and interesting stories of the Japanese pigeon dating simulator – Hatoful Boyfriend. Let’s get something clear upfront – this is not necessarily a game in the usual sense, it’s a visual choose-your-own-adventure novel, where you navigate what appears to be the only girl left in the world through a year at Pigeonation School, where she learns math, music, or sports, falling in love along the way. You are presented with two options at the beginning – create a name for your cave dwelling character (I chose Aomame – Japanese for snow pea or green bean) and also to decide whether the boys you interact with will be displayed as pigeons or as humans. Given this is a story about falling in love with pigeons, I chose to leave the pigeons as themselves rather than visualise them as humans.
A little background – before I started spending my time criticising people’s games and films, I was a Vet Nurse. In Australia, the majority of pigeons are pests, so at the hospital I worked at, their existence as ‘stray’ animals was short. It’s to Hatoful Boyfriend‘s credit then that the writing is good enough to help build your relationships with the pigeons, otherwise my bias against these ‘rats with wings’ may have hampered my enjoyment of the stories on offer.
And what stories they are! Yes, at its core this is a romance simulator, but it covers so many different areas as well. Hatoful Boyfriend is not trying to make a statement about anything at all; it’s simply providing an enjoyable and different story to follow along. There are some exceptionally basic game elements here that help with deciding which story line you’ll follow. You can boost up some very basic stats with three different classes – math, sports, or music – which boost intelligence, stamina, and charisma, respectively. Throughout the stories are questions that you can answer to follow a certain storyline, such as which pigeon to sit next to at lunchtime. It’s not challenging, just simply something to help navigate storylines.
This remake of the 2011 original supersedes initial impressions that the game was purely a pun-based dating simulator. Sure, there are jokes about birds – personal favourites include riffs on psittacosis and other bird-related diseases – but as I have learnt through years of marriage, jokes alone don’t make a relationship. With some (almost) fully realised characters, Hatoful Boyfriend is a worthwhile visual novel that delivers on many levels.
There are about fifteen possible endings to achieve. Each story takes anywhere from a half hour to an hour to complete. Throw in the ability to fast forward through parts you’ve already experienced and you could easily blast through each story in fifteen minutes. Fortunately, each tale varies off the expected path of just finding a pigeon to woo and romancing them.
There’s the aforementioned unexpected suicide, teachers who want to experiment on you, dead mothers, and runaway pigeons. Playing through each story helps provide interesting back stories to some of the characters. Take Ryouta, for example – he’s the first pigeon you meet up with, and played a huge role in Aomame’s life from when she found him after he fell from the nest. Each playthrough gave me another look into his difficult life. Whether it was about him having to work multiple jobs to support his ill mother or his frailty, I learned something new each time, adding greatly appreciated depth to these characters.
Why pigeons then? Why not just regular old humans? Well, creating these characters as pigeons allows the game to go to some truly odd places to explore this bizarre, semi-post-apocalyptic world where pigeons are the rulers. I would even go as far to say that if this were a simple dating simulator with super creepy storylines, it wouldn’t be getting the exposure it has been getting.
The bizarre nature of Hatoful Boyfriend has attracted an audience of gamers happy to play through it as somewhat of a joke, with some streaming the game like a romantic version of Five Nights at Freddy’s. But Hatoful Boyfriend is so much more than a ‘joke game’. I found myself able to complete stories – with thanks to the fast forwarding – on a bus ride home and often vocalised my feelings at some of the events (something I don’t often do on public transport).
If there’s one thing I would complain about though, it’s that the music is simply appalling at times. Maybe the designers opted to provide a soundtrack that simulates (possibly) what birds may hear, but the random beeps and irritating buzzes made me opt out of listening to the in-game soundtrack in favour of something else. The benefit to this, though, is that there is nothing within the game that requires you to listen to the audio at all – you can quite easily turn the volume off and treat it purely as the visual novel that it is.
Is Hatoful Boyfriend going to revolutionise the gaming industry? No, not at all. Instead, it’s going to provide a unique experience that is enjoyable and interesting. More visual novel than game, Hatoful Boyfriend is well worth a look for those who are willing to open themselves up to a different experience.