Hatoful Boyfriend is one of those weird games that seems like more myth than reality. Made as an April Fool’s joke, this dating sim has the player pursuing relationships with…birds, who are portrayed as photos over illustrated backgrounds. Like many before me, I bought this game out of sheer curiosity (it was on sale for $2, after all), hoping that the absurdity of it all would be good for a few laughs. It turns out…I had no idea what I was getting into.
On the surface, this game seems like no more than a silly diversion. Your character is the only human accepted into a prestigious high school for intelligent birds, St. Pigeonation’s. In addition to your rock dove friend Ryouta, you meet other classmates and faculty…who are, as expected, all of the avian variety. There’s your narcoleptic quail teacher Mr. Nanaki, pigeon classmates like the pudding-loving Okosan and the snobby Sakuya, and also the super not sketchy at all partridge Dr. Iwamine. The game takes about an hour to complete initially, but as you repeat it in order to pursue different storylines, you can fast forward to get to the new dialogue quicker. (Don’t worry, the game automatically stops fast forwarding once you reach a place where you can pick an option.)
My playthrough began innocently enough. Your birdy boyfriends have interesting and distinct personalities, and even your own character (default name Hiyoko) has enough characterization of her own that I couldn’t help but grow attached to her, as well, even though we never actually see what she looks like. Although some storylines can get a bit serious, it was not enough to prepare me for what came next. There is one character in particular (whom you can likely guess as soon as you meet him) whose story actually gets quite gruesome. (Oh, there were multiple moments that were truly awful!) Furthermore, once you complete at least one ending (some characters have two) for every main character, you unlock the second half of the game, called Bad Boys’ Love, which is a three-hour visual novel. At this point, your choices no longer have any real impact, and the story becomes even more…disturbing.
As you can clearly tell by now, there is far more to Hatoful Boyfriend than meets the eye. I actually went into this game planning to record the whole thing for YouTube, but I couldn’t bring myself to because certain aspects of the story became too much for me to want to read aloud. But…don’t take this as a negative thing. The story is…actually really good. It gets quite gruesome, but the world-building and characterization made for a thoroughly interesting experience, like a crime novel that is both morbid and enthralling at the same time. I never expected to care so much for a bunch of still photos of birds, but by the end, the story had become truly heartbreaking and the reasoning behind how birds became so intelligent, and what came next, was surprisingly well-thought out.
To summarize, if you’re going into Hatoful Boyfriend expecting a silly and lighthearted little game, think again. This game is really two different things. The first portion is the (mostly) humorous dating sim, where your choices change the storyline and which ending you will ultimately receive. The second half is more like a visual novel, where your only interaction is pressing a button to cycle through dialogue and to make a few choices that don’t ultimately matter. This part of the story gets really gruesome, and I think it’s important that anyone choosing to experience this “game” know about this drastic change in tone beforehand.
In some ways, it feels more like I’m reviewing a bizarre novel rather than a video game. And that is kind of true. I mean, if you’re considering buying a dating sim/visual novel, then you surely already understand that you’re paying for a lot of reading and minimal interactivity. And if you’re okay with that, and you don’t think you’ll mind when the game suddenly becomes dark and ominous, then by all means, give Hatoful Boyfriend a try. It’s weird, it’s silly, and it’s one of the most unexpectedly brilliant things you’ll ever experience!