As you probably already know, I love dating sims. There’s something about pursuing a relationship with a fictional character who is actually a bunch of ones and zeroes that is just so…I don’t know the word, satisfying, maybe? I don’t think that’s the right word. The point is that I really like it when games give me a chance to set my character up with another character (or two) and there aren’t very many options if you’re looking to play a dating sim in English (well, Other Age is pretty cute).
Hatoful Boyfriend isn’t your average dating sim, and, well, just check out the logo:
In Hatoful Boyfriend, you are the only human student (default name Hiyoko Tosaka) at St. PigeoNation’s school for gifted birds. As Hiyoko, you’ll attend classes, meet new friends, and find romance.
You know, with sentient birds, you’re dating birds, you, the player. Birds.
If this sounds like complete WTFery, that’s because that’s exactly what it is. It knows its premise is absolutely out there and it runs with it, but it still manages to be a competent parody of dating sims. You have a range of personalities that you would expect from any dating sim: the boy next door/childhood friend, the jock, the snobbish aristocrat, the quiet and aloof one, the flirt, the bad boy, all present and accounted for with a few interesting twists (you know, besides the whole bird thing). From the get go, it’s apparent that all is not as it seems, whether it’s your homeroom teacher mysteriously smelling of bleach or disappearances connected to the infirmary.
The thing is, Hatoful Boyfriend isn’t a very good game.
Hiyoko only has three stats she can raise: vitality, charisma, and wisdom. Each guy has the one stat they prefer, and as long as you always attend a particular class, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get their ending provided you joined the right club at the beginning. The script is also full of grammatical errors. One of the most annoying things about this game for me was that they didn’t capitalize titles, so you’ll see a lot of “miss Tosaka”, I don’t know if this is due to translating honourifics literally or if they just didn’t care but in any case it was really annoying. The individual routes also generally lack substance and “subtlety” is definitely not in its dictionary, although, considering that this is an indie title that began as a joke, that’s not surprising. Another annoyance is the fast forward function, which does its job a little too well in that if you’re not careful it will fast forward through scenes you haven’t read yet. The graphics amount to stock images of birds, although the background images are nicely done (they were redone for the Steam version). The music is mostly Christmas tunes mixed in with some forgettable and some tracks that are just epic (my favourite has to be the “battle” theme, if you heard it you would understand). The new Azami route that was added to this version was amazing but it was more like a mini-route in that you don’t have an option to date her instead of the boys, which is disappointing. I would have liked to have an Azami Christmas event or a message from her during Tanabata.
In fact, arguably the real meat of the game is in the route you unlock after unlocking certain endings, with an extended epilogue if you complete all the routes. This route, the Bad Boys Love or Hurtful Boyfriend route, explains just what the heck is going on with the birds and the general state of the game’s world. It’s basically a visual novel, to say anything more would be spoiling things, but this route is much more substantial and a radical departure in tone. The wacky dating sim is really only the tip of the iceberg.
It’s almost sad that some people are going to look at the premise, raise an eyebrow, and miss a great story under all the weird, whereas others will probably play it for a bit, get bored with it, and, again, miss the entertaining story behind it.
In terms of triggering content, the game contains references to suicide and one of the dateable characters is a serial killer and, as you might expect, his route gets very, very dark very fast. Fortunately, he’s easy to identify. There is a little bit of blood but what gore there is in the game is purely text-based. While the Bad Boys Love route isn’t “scary” in the sense that it has jump scares, it definitely has elements of horror (which includes violence against children) and can get very creepy (and also very sad). One character is also racist towards Anghel, who is Filipino. Unfortunately, in order to get the very best ending in the BBL route (and you want to play it, trust me), you need to get all the endings.
So which love interest was my favourite? The first route I completed was Kazuaki’s route, but I also like Shuu, Yuuya, and Anghel. Anghel’s route in particular needs to be experienced to truly appreciate how epic it is. Even Okosan, a character type I usually hate, was a riot despite his obsession with pudding. The game’s script may lack subtlety but I found myself liking all the characters. The main character, Hiyoko, isn’t your typical dating sim protagonist, she’s a tough hunter-gatherer girl who can’t relax without red meat in the morning.
If you like dating sims, Hatoful Boyfriend is certainly an interesting addition to the small collection of dating sims that are available in English. It’s a game that is pretty much nothing but Narm Charm and to be honest as a game it’s really not that great. However, if you’re willing to put up with the lackluster writing and overall bizarreness, there’s an entertaining story beneath it all. Steam indicates I’ve played it for ten hours, and at the current price of $9.88 I’d probably recommend waiting for a sale.
Hatoful Boyfriend is a weird game that somehow manages to be terrible and awesome at the same time. It’s terrible in the sense that it is very simplistic, but awesome in the way that it deconstructs common dating sim tropes hides a really interesting story under what is just, well, absurd. There’s just no other way to describe it.