Every once in a while, you run into something that challenges your expectations in ways you couldn’t have possibly expected. It wears the surface layer like a wolf in pigeon’s clothing, promising a few quick laughs through the trappings of a dolled up Visual Novel featuring an all-bird cast. And if you were to think of it as nothing more, what with all of the pink upholstery and hearts surrounding every element of the game’s outward presentation, then no one could blame you. But it also counts on this charade to drag the player into something beneath its skin. Hatoful Boyfriend is indeed a game about attending an all-bird high school as the only human in the academy. Yet, if one cares to look above, they’ll see a murder of crows circling overhead.
Hatoful Boyfriend will appear familiar to anyone who has played a Visual Novel or two. Once you’ve started a new game, it will ask for your name, introduce you to the majority of characters in a warm and friendly environment, and generally settle you into daily life at St. PigeoNation. Navigation works similarly to the thousands which have come before it. You progress forward by clicking or hitting enter as a dialog box completes to display the next one and advance the story, occasionally make a selection to build your stats or guide which bird you will chase for their affection. There’s also the option to save and load, as well as alter some basic settings, and a convenient fast-forward button in the upper corner, should you wish to skip over dialog you’ve already seen. And of course, branching paths which all lead to their own endings, all depending on choices you make.
The first trick Hatoful Boyfriend pulls out of its hat is how short a single run can last. The very first run I completed took me about an hour in total, which draws the player in, promising quick trips down alternative paths to collect all of the pigeon husbando~ hearts. This is exactly what it wants you to do. Only going through the game once wouldn’t allow for the seams in the feathered costume begin to show, so it pushes you towards seeking every han- er, wing, you possibly can. With every successful unique ending, you’re rewarded with curious snippets in the “archive” section in the main menu. Between the diary entries and newspaper clippings, it’s trying to warn you. Only, we’re too occupied as players staring at the plumes of tail feathers to see the forest for the trees.
And it’s hard not to. The game’s use of standard visual novel/anime characterizations intelligently manipulates the player into wanting to chase down the Tsundere French transfer student, the plucky best friend you’ve known since you were both younger, the goth kid who speaks a language all his own, and even the creepy one who mutters statements under his breath that would be admissible evidence in court. Down each path, there’s plenty of humorous dialog and heart-tugging character development. The fact that they are all birds instead of humans or anime portraits just pulls the covers over your eyes when the real drama finally hits. They’re all entertainingly written, even if they stay extremely close to the tropes that birthed them. Let’s not allow the down comforter to be pulled over our eyes though. Several of the paths lean heavily into exposing Hatoful Boyfriend’s big secret, which is given to the player after certain endings have been cleared.
BBL mode, known as “Bad Boys Love”, is what Hatoful Boyfriend is really building towards. All of the characters you meet, all of the interactions you have, they all lead down the path towards BBL mode’s story. To explain what exactly BBL is would be to spoil the true meat and potatoes of the game, and thus I can’t in good conscience actually explain it to you. Even if I did tell you, in great detail, what it is and what happens during it, there’s no way you’d actually believe me. It is a much bigger bird than the others, with secrets tucked between every feather. I’ve seen many reviews not even mention it in fear of spoiling it but I feel as though that isn’t enough to truly entice someone into playing the game. Much like Hatoful Boyfriend’s tricks, I have spent most of this review building up to BBL mode simply to get you interested in what lies beyond that cage door. In order for you to discover the truth, however, you’ll have to spread your wings on your own.
It might just be because I let my guard down from the pigeon-centric cast but Hatoful Boyfriend left me feeling shaken. What I’d gone through was both hilarious and frightening at the same time. Just keep your wits about you, reinforce your constitution, and carve it into your soul. Hatoful Boyfriend is not just a dating sim where your boyfriends all have winged limbs and beaks. It’s an example of playing to the strengths and comforts of a genre while turning convention on its head to have the stork deliver a story so full of twists that it took me 3 sheets of paper and small handwriting to keep track of it all.
Did you enjoy this review? If so, be sure to stop by at RGZ.CA to see all of my reviews, as well as the work of the other writers! http://rgz.ca/gaming/hatoful-boyfriend-review-this-bird-has-flown/