Being a young high school girl that’s just enrolled at the elite St. PigeoNation’s Academy, your heart is sent aflutter by all of the eligible male suitors in your student body. Whose heart do you chase? Do you go for the quiet library kid? The pampered transfer student? Perhaps you just go for the basics and pursue your childhood friend? Regardless of which path you choose in your quest for love, there’s an added wrinkle that you might want to be aware of in Hatoful Boyfriend; All of your would-be love interests are birds!
Yes, Hatoful Boyfriend is all about the fine art of being a human girl romancing birds, from rock doves to fantail pigeons to quails. Needless to say, the game doesn’t skimp on weirdness, and even being part of a rather widespread and lucrative Japanese market of dating simulations, Hatoful Boyfriend is quite unlike anything you’ve probably experienced before!
Hatoful Boyfriend is also among the small handful of Japanese dating simulations that was fully localized and released outside of Japan for a worldwide audience. Debuting as a Japanese freeware game for PC, originally conceived as an April Fool’s Day joke made in Flash by manga artist, Moa Hato, Hatoful Boyfriend quickly went viral even amongst English-speaking audiences, where it gained lots of attention from import reviewers, who quickly pointed out how strange and intriguing the game was. This led to a remake developed with the Unity Engine by Mediatonic, which saw a proper release on Steam for PC, Mac and Linux last year, and just recently expanded to PS4 and PS Vita, with the publishing of the remake outside of Japan overseen by Devolver Digital.
Priced at a modest $9.99, Hatoful Boyfriend makes for a fun, frequently shocking little curiosity for those who are fascinated by weird video games, especially with the PlayStation versions being cross-buy. Being a visual novel, it’s all about the surreal storyline, which takes a surprisingly deep and emotional turn when you properly see through every narrative path, and the game may surprise you with the kind of heart-wrenching territory it ultimately ends up exploring. The experience naturally isn’t for everyone, with Japanophiles and those with a rather potent sense of humour no doubt being the target audience for Hatoful Boyfriend, but if you fit into either of those categories, this strange little romantic odyssey will prove to be something frequently bizarre, but also strangely fulfilling to see through, if you don’t mind the rather simplistic gameplay.
Even being a snazzed-up remake of a freeware Flash game, Hatoful Boyfriend won’t exactly turn heads in the graphics department. In fact, the production values are pretty low, with the entire game being told through silent text blocks, and the various birds you can romance all simply being static images that are never altered, regardless of their current emotions. This is rounded off by hand-drawn anime backdrops that, again, almost never vary, and quickly become unimpressive to look at.
On the bright side, this means that the system requirements in the original PC download are extremely undemanding, with the game being able to be run on just about any OS or rig setup, even a computer not normally suited for gaming, with no issues. Bear in mind however that the PC version strangely doesn’t run on Windows Vista for some reason, even though Windows XP is fully supported, as is Windows 7, 8 and 10. Mac and Linux users don’t seem to have any restrictions in terms of the OS, with the game even being perfectly playable on SteamOS, so long as your OS is not woefully outdated. Running the game on any modern OS results in a stable and reliable, if unimpressive-looking experience.
As for the PlayStation versions, the PS4 version feels well put-together, standing pretty well equal to the experience of playing on a PC. Obviously, the game doesn’t look any better on PS4, where it’s still merely satisfactory and unremarkable, but at least effort was put into making the PS4 version perfectly emulate the experience of the original PC build, with the Light Bar on the controller changing colour depending on which bird you’re talking to, as a neat added touch for PS4 players.
Sadly, the PS Vita version didn’t turn out quite so well, being at least playable, and the same fundamental experience, but ultimately being a pretty shoddy port. The PS Vita version has framerate jitters and longer load times, which might not be too bad by themselves (even though they’re quite shocking for a technically undemanding visual novel game), but it also has a tendency to crash and hard freeze, forcing you to quit out of the game and restart it, or potentially even hard reboot your entire handheld. Making matters worse is that the PS Vita version of Hatoful Boyfriend is very poorly compressed, taking up almost 2 GB of the already mostly tiny PS Vita Memory Cards, which is virtually the same size as the PS4 download! Again, the experience is the same on PS Vita, but the widespread technical issues, namely with stability, performance and being a memory hog, make this version wholly unrecommendable if you have the option of playing on PS4 or PC, even with the portability to consider. Unless you bought the PS4 version and got the PS Vita version for free as a result, this version is sadly not at all worth owning, especially when you can run the PC version on just about any current computer without issue, unless of course it’s Vista-powered.
It’s baffling that Mediatonic seems to have had this much trouble programming a very simple visual novel game on the PS Vita, but fortunately, the PC and PS4 versions turned out just fine. The game still looks positively amateurish, even in remade form, but there is a quaint Japanese charm about the whole thing. Like I said though, don’t expect this dating sim to be in any way sexy in terms of how it presents itself.
Hatoful Boyfriend is scored entirely by royalty-free Kevin MacLeod music, which largely consists of a lot of piano tunes, with some occasional wide-eyed percussion, and every so often, a classical composition. There isn’t much to say about the music, which is as modest and unremarkable as the visual style, but it does get the job done.
Sound effects are also pretty simplistic, largely being typical text blurbs, though occasionally, Hatoful Boyfriend will mix things up with a few playful Japanese-style sound effects, from cheeky slaps to zippy dashes. There’s still absolutely no bells and whistles behind any of it, but it’s still good for a laugh every so often, even if some of the sounds related to certain characters are bound to get old quick.
Hatoful Boyfriend is entirely unvoiced as well, with its text boxes being completely silent. That’s genuinely disappointing, since the game’s perky, energetic personality probably would have been a hysterical delight to hear through voice acting, even if it were Japanese voice acting. Sadly, the game seems to have had a very restrictive budget, and that seems to translate to the audio as well, which is lovable, but, like the visuals, doesn’t really aim very high.
Hatoful Boyfriend places you in control of 15-year-old Hiyoko Tosaka, whom you can rename at the start of every playthrough, if you so desire. Hiyoko is a human girl, and the only human in attendance at St. PigeoNation’s Academy for Gifted Birds, which, as the name suggests, is a school entirely attended by intelligent birds, who are also fully capable of human speech.
Hatoful Boyfriend is part of a Japanese gaming subgenre called ‘Otome’, which is a word with no direct English translation, referencing video games that are primarily designed for women. Otome games tend to involve female-friendly themes like romance and companionship, and virtually always star female protagonists. A male player with a sense of humour can still enjoy Hatoful Boyfriend for what it is, mind you, even if it’s designed from the ground up to primarily appeal to a female audience, and is part of a genre that pretty much only exists to Japan.
Every time you start a playthrough of Hatoful Boyfriend, you proceed through the text boxes, and are eventually given choices to make. You can decide which classes to take, which birds to interact with, and make whichever decisions you see fit to progress Hiyoko along your chosen path. Depending on whether you opt to be brainy, athletic or charismatic with your studies, Hiyoko will start getting the attention of different bird suitors, most of which only respond to one of the three potential disciplines you can pursue. You can further push Hiyoko’s romantic affections down a certain path by paying attention to certain birds over others as well, which also necessitates that you keep up with the activities that your chosen bird mate opts to do in their spare time.
The ‘challenge’ of Hatoful Boyfriend comes from discovering how to earn the hearts of every one of the bird suitors, some of which even have a ‘partial’ ending and a ‘complete’ ending, which earn you separate achievements/trophies to boot. You can also gradually unlock more suitors to pursue as you attain different endings, and the PlayStation versions even contain one exclusive bird to date that isn’t at all featured in the original PC build. When you get enough of the required endings, you’ll then get the option to ‘fulfill a promise’, which will set you on the path of Hatoful Boyfriend’s true, more linear endgame, though you can put off fulfilling said promise in favour of normal school lives for as long as you wish, chasing more suitors, more endings, and thus, more achievements/trophies.
Hatoful Boyfriend does contain a couple of ‘bad ending’ scenarios, one of which is necessary to earn you a certain achievement/trophy, which are awarded to you for not forging a romance successfully. That’s surprisingly difficult to do however, unless you’re going out of your way not to romance any birds, since Hatoful Boyfriend is a very unchallenging game. Once you start learning what makes the characters tick, it’s very easy to attain their endings, so long as you don’t mind replaying the game constantly. Fortunately, playthroughs of the game can be completed in even less than an hour in many cases, and you can speed through text you’ve already read by holding the mouse over a fast-forward button on PC, or holding the Triangle Button in the PlayStation builds. On a slight side note, the PC build doesn’t support gamepads, and can only be played with a mouse and keyboard, with players either clicking the mouse or hitting the Enter key to proceed through text and pick options.
Most of Hatoful Boyfriend’s actual length comes from the endgame scenario, which can be accessed whenever you opt to fulfill your promise, after unlocking that scenario with a certain amount of endings. In order to see the fully complete ending of the game though, you do have to view every other ending at least once (only the PlayStation-exclusive bird is exempted from this requirement and fully optional, if you’re playing on PS4 or PS Vita, mostly existing as a quick bonus to earn an additional trophy), and that can take around 5-6 hours to do, if you know how to romance each bird correctly. The endgame scenario is around 3-4 hours by itself, leaving Hatoful Boyfriend clocking in around 9 or 10 hours long if you do everything, which isn’t too bad for a game that costs $9.99. Once you do see everything though, and earn every achievement/trophy, there’s no real reason to revisit Hatoful Boyfriend again unfortunately, which is a common issue with visual novel games in general.
This lack of replay value is hurt even further by the shoddy quality of the PS Vita port, which would be the quickest and easiest to revisit on a dime, and it’s also worth mentioning that the cross-play and cross-save functionality between the PlayStation builds is a tad faulty. The PS4 and PS Vita versions do share trophies earned, and you do have the option of either making a local save for just that platform, or making a cross-save that can be downloaded from online to play on the opposite platform. This is well and good, save for the fact that Hatoful Boyfriend requires you to play through all of the ending paths to fully complete it, and the archives and gallery images that are proof of attaining each ending don’t seem to pass between platforms, only the save states do. This means that, in order to 100% complete the game, you’ll have to do everything on just one platform, and not switch to the other, disappointingly negating the incentive of cross-buy in the PlayStation builds. Save yourself a lot of headaches and play through the game on PS4, in that case, since even streaming the PS4 version to your PS Vita via Remote Play is a far more stable and reliable solution than directly playing the dedicated PS Vita port of Hatoful Boyfriend.
Regardless, the simple nature of Hatoful Boyfriend feels pleasant and often playful on any platform, despite the rather shocking turn that the game takes when its true stakes are revealed. The game doesn’t have much depth, but there is heart here, if you don’t mind the fact that you’ll eventually run out of wacky scenarios to experience.
Hatoful Boyfriend is an undeniably strange game, and there is a potential creepy undertone to the idea of inter-species relations throughout the experience. That said however, the game is deceptively sweet-natured, and each ending has its own fulfilling conclusion that feels rewarding to strive for. Yes, this is a game about dating birds, but each bird is memorable and likable in their own ways, and each offers a different sense of satisfying resolution when you successfully romance them.
The only time the otherwise fluffy and light-hearted tone changes is when the hints of a sinister underlying plot are revealed to go somewhere surprisingly dark and chilling in the true ending path, which you won’t get to see until you’ve attained at least a handful of the possible game endings. This shift in tone feels a bit drastic and awkward, and it’s firmly at odds with the experience that Hatoful Boyfriend initially bills itself upon, but you’d be surprised at the amount of lore packed into the game.
There’s an astonishing amount of effort put into creating a world that is oddly effective at being deep and emotional. Sure, the game has its share of goofiness, and until that surprisingly grim true ending path, it’s mainly a comedy overall. The true nature of the story is satisfying to peel back though, since, as weird as the setup and twists are, they do make sense when the answers are laid out for the player, and seeing how everything eventually plays out for the true ending carries with it a lot more weight than you would initially imagine.
The mix of emotions in Hatoful Boyfriend doesn’t often feel natural or seamless, and the true ending path could have done with keeping the tone more consistent with the rest of the game, but the story does a surprisingly solid job of justifying the true workings of its bizarre premise. You’d be surprised at just how rich the crazy world of Hatoful Boyfriend actually is!
Hatoful Boyfriend is better than you would think, even if it’s still a bit middling in terms of its presentation and gameplay. The lack of depth and challenge, along with the very low-budget graphics and soundtrack, lead to a game that feels like a wacky student project, despite the fact that it’s supposed to be a remake of an even more primitively presented freeware Flash game.
Naturally, humourless gamers that are all about engaging gameplay and production values need not waste their time with Hatoful Boyfriend, a game that’s not meant for them anyway. Hatoful Boyfriend is a game meant for people who embrace the idea of playing something different, and discovering a gaming experience that doesn’t unfold exactly the way that you would expect it too. The game also lends to plenty of opportunities for laughs, even if the true climax is a little needlessly dark, and it’s definitely packing no shortage of charm.
Visual novel enthusiasts will find a story in Hatoful Boyfriend that’s more compelling than it has any right to be, and they’ll likely want to check it out. Likewise, if you enjoy games that largely sell themselves on charm above all else, Hatoful Boyfriend is equally recommendable. It’s more of a fluffy attempt at subversion than a serious video game experience, but it’s something that will leave you amused, and even surprisingly engaged when the true plot behind events is unearthed.
If nothing else, the game isn’t expensive either, being priced at a rather agreeable $9.99, which won’t be a large investment for those interested. The rather faulty and poorly-optimized PS Vita version of Hatoful Boyfriend is the only one you may want to steer clear of, though thanks to cross-buy, you will still net the perfectly acceptable PS4 version with it, and as I said, the PC version will run on pretty much anything if you’re outside of the PlayStation family, so long as it’s not powered by Windows Vista.
Hatoful Boyfriend is easy to fall in love with, even if, like its title heroine, it doesn’t outwardly stick out much beyond its initial weirdness. It just comes down to a question of whether you’re open to the possibility of falling in love with such an odd, but likable offering.
- Likable, endearing cast of bird suitors
- Each romance resolution is satisfying to attain
- Plot is surprisingly robust and engaging, when it's revealed
- Lacklustre presentation and simplistic gameplay
- Climactic act takes a needlessly dark direction
- PS Vita port is rife with technical issues