Hatoful Boyfriend Review: Exactly What You Think It Is, Yet So Much More.
Some of you have already heard of Hatoful Boyfriend. First released back in 2011, everybody knows it as “the pigeon dating sim.”
Beyond that simple description, there is both so much more to this game and nothing more to it. Confused? You should be. Hatoful Boyfriend is a clear representation of the internet culture that birthed it: seemingly random and inane, it obeys no logic but its own.
Yet at the same time, it’s not consciously trying to provoke a reaction out of you. It still gets a reaction, but nevertheless, Hatoful Boyfriend just accepts what it does as perfectly normal. In a culture as suspicious and as cynical as ours, it’s refreshing to see a game so genuine about what it is.
The basic (weird) premise:
It is perplexing. For some unknown reason, humans no longer populate the Earth, and intelligent avians have taken their place. As one of the only remaining humans (indeed, you are the only human character in the narrative), it is your job to attend St. Pigeonation’s, a prestigious school for birds of all species. And then, you date them all.
If you are looking for Hatoful Boyfriend to deliver something outside this set-up, you will be sorely disappointed. The characters, for instance, never become more than the words used to describe them. Okosan obsesses over pudding; Sakuya believes he is better than everybody else; Shuu is a creepy doctor; this is all we ever learn about these birds.
Likewise, the plot is barely existent. True, there are events in this story, but no real relation between them. Scenes end too early for such relations to develop, resulting in a patchwork of barely related incidents lined sequentially. Even the graphics are barebones, each pigeon having one expression plastered above a perfectly generic background. It is as though Hatoful Boyfriend forcefully smothers any possibility of developing into something more.
It is precisely that quality that makes Hatoful Boyfriend so endearing. If the game did try to justify any of these ridiculous premises, it would quickly lose its charm. Better that it never engages them. Better that it fully embraces every ounce of insanity as though it’s perfectly normal; as though there’s nothing here to explain. It feels great to see a game so heartfelt about its premise, with barely a hint of irony to be found. It’s that much easier to laugh along with the game as it finds new ways to stretch its definitions of normal.
Then again, its constant one-upmanship is also part of what makes the game so consistently enjoyable. Just when you think the narrative has settled into something resembling normality, it introduces some other weird element to keep you on your toes. (I’m not going to spoil them. It’s better to go in fresh.) This provides great motivation to play through the game repeatedly, and, knowing what it offers, the payoff is more than worth the effort. Who knew that a game could take “dating pigeons” so far?
What to watch out for...
This isn’t to say the game is perfect, however. Once you move past the surreal premise, it becomes clear how much the game relies on its surreal characters. On this front, the game wavers slightly. Hatoful Boyfriend sports a wide cast of characters, and if my previous descriptions are anything to go by, many of them are twelve varieties of deranged. Even the human protagonist has enough loopy moments to completely decenter the narrative. These types of characters bring out the game’s better qualities.
By contrast, there are a scant few characters in the game who feel too seriously portrayed for something like this. They contribute little humor value and drag the game down with their presence. Kazuaki is perhaps the worst. His initial premise is weak (he’s constantly falling asleep), and the payoff for dating him is remarkably weak.
Yet even worse than Hatoful Boyfriend’s serious characters are its self-aware moments. These are generally moments when the game either goes so over the top that nobody could acknowledge this as even remotely normal; or when the game bluntly points out that it made a stupid joke. Both strategies impart a sense of irony and self-awareness that make it very difficult to laugh at the game’s efforts. This isn’t to say that the previous laughter was spiteful or mocking; everything was in good fun before.
But then, Hatoful Boyfriend feels cold and manufactured. The game is trying too hard specifically because it’s trying at all, thus contradicting that partially unaware charm that before made the game so great.
This is to say nothing of the repeated jokes that simply don’t work, like the constant “hunter-gatherer” non-sequiturs, or the My Little Pony-esque “anybirdie” lexicon the game spews out. Both these jokes and the shoulder-nudging moments might diminish the game’s quality in some people’s eyes. Personally, I thought the game maintained a decent balance, yet I can understand if other people exercise more caution.
BBL: Where it all falls apart.
So far, the fault I have mentioned have only been minor blemishes that, while certainly bad, don’t significantly harm the game’s quality. Unfortunately, a fault like that exists in the game, and it even has a name: Bad Boys Love. (That it begins with the word “bad” should be a general indication of its quality.) Bad Boys Love (BBL for short) is an alternate storyline unlocked by completing a certain amount of endings. Yet for something the game frames as the cherry atop the sundae, BBL has no understanding of what makes Hatoful Boyfriend work. In fact, it feels like a completely unrelated game altogether.
Instead of a wacky plot populated with one-dimensional stock figures, BBL offers a recognizable mystery novel plot filled with relatively sane characters. In fact, this story’s protagonist is not the off-kilter human we’ve come to love so far, but her straight-laced companion, Ryouta. How am I to have fun with a story like this? All the charm has been forcibly sucked out, and in its place is a vanilla mystery story. Granted, not all the charm has disappeared. Some of the humor is still there, but only in very small portions. It’s enough to remind you of what you’re missing by playing BBL.
Nor can we enjoy BBL’s narrative on its own serious merits. True, the story is technically competent. It hits all the basic notes that a story like this should hit. But we must remember that this is still a world populated entirely with avian characters. How a person can genuinely emotionally engage with a story like this is beyond me. Perhaps if we were dealing with anthropomorphic birds or vaguely human characters, the premise could work. But with birds we’ve been trained to view as ridiculous, it simply refuses to work. It is almost like BBL wants to be a different story altogether, yet the vague imprints of Hatoful Boyfriend continually hold it back.
Of course, BBL shouldn’t entirely spoil you on Hatoful Boyfriend. This epilogue story doesn’t entirely negate the game’s other merits. What could possibly negate a world exactly like our own, but with bird gangsters and divine pudding? Even amid a culture that thrives on constantly out-weirding itself, Hatoful Boyfriend stands out not only because it out-weirds everything else, but also because it’s not even aware that it’s participating in this arms race. If you can ignore the horrible epilogue, this game is certainly worth a look.