It's been months since I first wrote about the initial announcement for a U.S. version of Hatoful Boyfriend. I'm no less baffled by the concept now than I was then. It remains one of the most bizarre premises I've ever come across for a video game. With that in mind, I ventured into the latest from Mediatonic and Devolver Digital with an open mind and was pleased to see that there's more depth to the story structure than I expected. While the same novelty factor that makes Hatoful Boyfriend such a curiosity can sometimes detract from its narrative impact, that's often balanced out by a dose of zany over-the-top silliness.
The premise for Hatoful Boyfriend is that you're a human girl attending St. Pigeonations Institute, a high school made up entirely of talking birds. Indeed, the idea is to attend classes and socialize, just as in an everyday high school… except the entire population is made up of birds. Days unfold over the course of several dialogue trees, with occasional choices tossed in over the course of each day. Selection can affect the main character's stats and her relationships with her peers that she encounters on a day-to-day basis.
Relationships evolve in a very real way in Hatoful Boyfriend. Just like in any school, you talk to others and make friends by listening to their stories and attending classes with them. The more you gravitate towards a particular character, the more you'll dive deeper into their backstory, leading to some surprisingly nuanced relationships. This was the main aspect of Hatoful Boyfriend that genuinely surprised me. Behind the silliness, there are some interesting stories to be told.
Here's where Hatoful Boyfriend starts to hit some bumps. The stories can indeed be engaging. The problem is that because the characters are all birds, there's no sense of emotion attached to the dialogue. If a character talks about being sick, struggling to fit in, or encountering a personal tragedy, it's hard to gain any sort of gravitas from that moment, because the birds all have that same blank stare on their faces at all times. While I admire Mediatonic for sticking with the visual novel approach, anything that deviated from the standard bird drawing would have made for a major improvement and could have led to stronger imagery and a greater emotional connection. As it is, the stories work well, but don't hit quite as hard as they could have.
Of course, Hatoful Boyfriend can also get unapologetically silly. This doesn't just apply to some of the cringe-inducing dialogue, much of which includes words like "everybirdie" and "nobirdie." While there are some emotional tales to be found, there are also some that are either utterly absurd or freakishly strange. Some story paths will veer down supernatural roads, while others will venture towards far creepier territory. This is the instance where the game's gimmick works in its favor. While I would have dismissed these twists as nonsensical in a standard story, the fact that they were happening to birds simply made me laugh over their sheer insanity.
Hatoful Boyfriend is very much a mixed bag, in terms of story quality, but also proves to be a quaint curiosity. If nothing else, the anime art style is a pleasure to behold, with some bright and engaging set pieces on display. Those that enjoy visual novels and text-based adventures could do far worse than Hatoful Boyfriend. Its a game that relies heavily on its novelty factor, so bird haters need not apply.
Final Score: 7 out of 10.
This review is based on a digital PC copy, provided by the publisher. Hatoful Boyfriend is available now on PC. The game is not rated by the ESRB.