Hatoful Boyfriend is very similar to a horrible B-level science fiction movie. It’s a hilariously absurd, and often best experienced with others.
In fact, the best time I’ve had playing it was alongside a friend. After explaining to her that it was a dating game about romancing pigeons, she shared my enthusiasm. And when it started, the novel strangeness of it was exciting. But like a high-concept sci-fi film, Hatoful Boyfriend’s shtick starts to quickly wear thin.
This became painfully apparent when I played it alone for this review. Much like watching a film like Sharknado alone, I didn’t laugh as much, didn’t take as much joy from the experience, and didn’t love the fact that it felt utterly meaningless. The longer it went on, the more weary I became of it, and despite its cult status as a quirky dating simulation, I quickly realized Hatoful Boyfriend is really not that good of a game.
The premise is simple but bizarre, with the narrator of this dating sim/visual novel attending a school populated by birds, the ultimate goal being to get into a relationship with one. It does lay its promised quirk on thick and heavy throughout. From athlete pigeons to narcoleptic math teachers, each of the characters in the story have their own unique characteristics that come into play nearly every scene. The game is self-aware about its goofiness, often using the player’s perspective to comment on the uncanny, and there’s a healthy amount of word play scattered throughout that I can easily appreciate.
But that doesn’t make up for the fact that it’s a poorly-written experience that places too much of a priority on delivering the absurdity as often as possible, resulting in a disjointed story who exists only on uncomfortably prodding you in the ribs with something strange like an attention-deprived child.
The story’s construction itself is a problem. Broken up into small chapters, there is little to no connective tissue in between them, creating a very choppy and disconnected feeling. Asking an audience to stay on board while you go from a dramatic reunion scene between two characters to a silly moment in math class is a very jarring tonal shift that breaks continuity in the worst way.
Characters themselves aren’t very well written. There are several male birds available to romance, but none of them feel particularly three-dimensional, instead relying on one specific personality trait that ultimately renders them shallow. The track star is a crazy bird obsessed with pudding, the stuck up nobleman will put everyone below his station down, and the awkward one will always be… well, awkward. A multi-dimensional character would have multiple traits, strengths and weaknesses that would make them feel much more cohesive and alive. In Hatoful Boyfriend, the characters don’t merely have traits; they are their traits.
Much of the gameplay is built around making decisions and living with the consequences. But, like a poor binary morality system, it’s pretty easy to figure out how to romance the bird of your choice. It’s not the delicate and actually semi-meaningful relationship system of Mass Effect; rather, it’s a series of right and wrong choices whose results are very predictable. Insult characters to distance yourself from them; take their side in a fight to win their affections. So long as you have a functional amount of moral logic, it’s not difficult to figure out.
That’s perhaps the biggest flaw of Hatoful Boyfriend; it’s incredibly crude and rudimentary in its construction. There’s little to no complexity to it, thanks to the game all but dragging you by the hand through information to the point that logic is no longer needed. It’s a quirky game that can dish out some level of joy when experienced with others, but ultimately is not much more than a goofy concept often more fun to discuss than play.