Being a relative newcomer to the dating sim genre, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Mediatonic’s HD remake of cult favourite Hatoful Boyfriend. At first glance I found the concept a bit hard to swallow – all it seemed to have to stand out from the crowd is the opportunity to romance pigeons, rather than beautiful anime boys. That’s right, pigeons.
But as flighty as it may first appear, there’s a lot more than meets the eye when it comes to this Steam newcomer. And while it’s still up for debate as to whether this is an under-appreciated work of complex fiction or a light-hearted romp capitalising on its novelty factor, one thing is for certain: you won’t have played a game quite like this ever before.
Each game starts off the same way, with your protagonist, a human girl, starting her second year at St PigeoNations, “a most splendid academy of the pigeon, by the pigeon and for the pigeon.” Being the only human attending a school literally for the birds, she hopes the novelty of her presence has worn off enough for her school year to produce new friendships and lasting memories.
A series of swift introductions to all of your potential mates are made and they appear to fit the usual standards; there is the childhood friend, the older teacher, the ladies’ man, the standoffish snob, the brooding stranger, even a foreboding doctor. Though there is an option to view human portraits of these characters the first time you meet them, make no mistake, they are birds and all of your conversations and interactions will be taking place with a series of stock photos of pigeons, doves and other feathered friends.
It takes some time before the game reaches a point where any actual action can be taken and then the options either have little perceived impact or are strictly related to which avian love interest you decide to pursue. While this one-track romance might be standard amongst dating sims, I personally felt a bit caged, opting to exercise some autonomy and pick choices that personally appealed, rather than those that corresponded with my preferred paramour.
However, this method of winging it and hoping for love to blossom organically wasn’t really a viable option, as if you haven’t successfully pursued a love interest by halfway through the school year, well, let’s just say the game ends rather abruptly.
But this is one of the many hints to a possible larger story. Each playthrough of Hatoful Boyfriend takes roughly an hour to complete, shorter if you skip familiar dialogue or utilise save points to your advantage, and by the time of my second or third attempt at love, small tit bits of information were beginning to pique my curiosity: an off-cuff mention of missing students, the fact my protagonist lives in a cave, a glimpse of a destroyed city skyline during a jog – not to mention the lack of explanation as to how the world apparently came to be inhabited by varyingly sapient birds!
At a glimpse, Hatoful Boyfriend feels somewhat haphazardly put together; a flock of peculiar jokes and ideas brought together under the vague notion of a larger plot. And, to be fair, this is not unlikely: the game first came into being as an April Fool’s joke back in 2011 (the title is a play on the Japanese words “hato”, meaning “pigeon”, and “hatofuru”, meaning “heartful”) and has been developed and built upon since then.
But probe a little deeper than its downy dating sim façade, with its somewhat confusing mechanics, apparent lack of meaningful plot development and frustrating linearity, and there may be more to be found.
One thing is for sure: this is a game that refuses to be pigeon-holed.
Hatoful Boyfriend is available on Steam via the developer’s website, a review copy of the game was supplied to ind1e.com by the publisher.