The culprit: Hatoful Boyfriend (PC, Mac, download only)
There are moments in life when you’re left wondering “what the hell did I just see?” Things that baffle you beyond reason. Hatoful Boyfriend is one of those things. It’s no secret that some cultural peculiarities of the Asian world will always puzzle us Westerners (and vice-versa), particularly in the entertainment sector. But this…
First things first: Hatoful Boyfriend, as the name indicates, is a dating sim. This is not a genre I would normally touch with a 10-foot pole, but this game was brought to my attention by an utterly fearless forum acquaintance, who pointed out that, not only was it completely insane, but also surprisingly well-thought out (how’s that for a paradox?). My curiosity was piqued and, since it only cost $5, and since I’m always up for unusual experiences, after some deliberation, I decided to take the plunge. For the record, there is a free demo version available, but trust me, you WANT to get the full version. That is, provided you want the game at all. Not only does it include a secret character, but a substantial extra storyline as well. The latter basically explains the entire backstory of the game (you’re in for some shocks, let me tell you), but also puts you in control of a different character and is very different in tone.
The first thought that comes to my mind in association with dating sims is “dirty little secret”. It’s not the kind of game you’d normally go trumpeting around the rooftops about. I’m fairly sure, however, that you’ve never experienced anything quite like this UFO before. I certainly haven’t. Let’s start with the premise: in the not-too-distant future, a particularly virulent mutation of the avian flu wipes out most of humanity and simultaneously makes birds sapient. Not exactly your usual sappy romance setting. Be that as it may, the consequence is that birds take over society, and a human girl (that’s your protagonist) finds herself enrolled in a high-school for gifted birds. All the while living in a cave and hunting for her meals. I’ll just let all that sink in for a moment.
Obviously, since there are no humans around at the school, her only romantic prospects lie with birds. And before you start backing off in dubitative disgust, I assure you that nothing sexual ever happens. There isn’t even any PDA to speak of. Thankfully, might I add. That’s not to say that nothing dodgy ever happens, because one of the potential romantic subplots is steeped in textual gore (and some innuendo). And two others are so WEIRD that no description could ever do them justice. That aside, this premise is also what explains the title of the game; “hatoful” is a play on the word “heartful”: “hato” means “pigeon” in Japanese. Not that “heartful boyfriend” makes very much sense in English, but we’ll just let that slide. The actual translation of the game is fun and well-executed, barring some rare, bizarre cultural references and the odd typo/spelling mistake.
The first part of the game is devoted to establishing the setting and introducing the potential romantic interests (except the secret character, whom you’ll have to go digging for). For starters, you can pick your character’s name at the beginning of the game. You can also opt to have a ‘humanised portrait’ of each of the eight romance options displayed. Whenever a potential prince charming is first introduced, a title screen with his name and portrait appears. If you pick the humanised option, there will also be a picture of what he would look like if he were human (well, except one of them…he just looks like a bird in both). This greatly helps to make them more relatable. Otherwise, you’re stuck with a pigeon, three fantails, a quail, a partridge, a mourning dove and a bleeding-heart. Sexy (not). They are, respectively, the protagonist’s best friend, two aristocratic fellow-student brothers and a wacky sports enthusiast, the narcoleptic math teacher, the creepy school doctor, a quiet bookworm and a…well, I guess anime-freak will have to do as a description. Yeah, that’s the secret character.
Anyway, the concept is simple: once you decide which birdie makes your character’s heart flutter (ho ho ho), you then proceed to win their affection by choosing specific actions or lines of dialogue in conversation or at certain events (there’s a sports event, a school festival, fireworks, etc.). You can save at any time, which is helpful if you’re at all unsure of what to do. Every once in a while, you’ll also have an electives day, where the heroine can choose between attending math, music or gym class, which will raise one of her stats: wisdom, charisma or vitality, respectively. This will affect her chances with some of the options. Some of them even have slightly different outcomes, depending on which stat you choose to boost. Finally, you can also buy some beans to gift to the bird of your choice for the in-game equivalent of Valentine’s Day. Each has their preference, so this affects the protagonist’s chances as well.
This is all rather straightforward, and the game, additionally, never overstays its welcome, by making each storyline manageably short (about 30 mins). Moreover, you can fast-forward through parts you’ve already seen by clicking on the arrow in the upper right corner of the screen. Each ending grants you an image in the Gallery, as well as some mysterious notes in the Archive section of the main menu, which add a disquieting undercurrent to things. Once you’ve seen them all, including a side-storyline which involves pairing up two other birds who have nothing to do with the school, and a ‘bad ending’ where the heroine fails to romance anybody–or “anybirdie”, as the game humorously puts it–and, startlingly, gets killed by a group of hawks for it (these two endings can be achieved in one go, by the way), you’ll have access to the aforementioned extra storyline. This takes longer than the usual playthrough, restricts saving to certain key moments, involves all potential romantic interests, with you in control of the best friend, and…let’s just say that it’s a mix of crime, thriller, horror, melodrama, comedy, romance, RPG and sci-fi. And that it will blow your mind.
You wouldn’t expect talking birds to make for particularly relatable characters, and, while I’m not familiar with the conventions of the dating sim genre, I don’t suppose that character development is a priority. Surprisingly enough, though, these birds do get their own backstories (most are substantially padded out in the extra storyline), and, after a while, they just start feeling like ‘normal’ characters, and you end up empathising with some of them. Not all romances end well, and not all of them are equally successful in their execution: there is, for example, a definite bias towards the best friend, who easily gets the most–rather moving, might I add–content and makes the most sense as a partner. Two of the other romances are also very predictable.
Still, for a game which I had zero expectations for prior to playing, Hatoful Boyfriend turned out to be a pleasant, thoroughly entertaining surprise. This isn’t an all-time-great, by any means, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to everyone (definitely not to male players), but it you’re curious and would like to experience something completely different, original and utterly cuckoo (see what I did there?), go right ahead.