When a game is described as a visual novel with dating simulation elements involving pigeons, how can you not get excited? Devolver Digital always picks unique and fun games to publish and Hatoful Boyfriend (a play on the word hurtful, as “hato” actually means “dove” in Japanese), by Mediatonic, is a great experience. It’s an HD remake of the original game with a few notable additions, like an all new ending and more choices and interactions.
Visual novels are not too common in the west, since very few are localized. One of my favourites, Stein’s Gate, wasn’t even available in English officially until earlier this year. An otome game, or one targeted towards a female audience like Hatoful Boyfriend, is even rarer in this genre. All I had seen prior to playing were screenshots on the Steam page, and so I didn’t really know what to expect when I launched the game, marketed as a “pigeon dating simulator”.
You play as a female protagonist, Hiyoko Tosaka (the name can be changed) who joins St. PigeoNation’s Institute as the sole human student in an all-bird academy. Since this is a visual novel in the purest sense, there are no character animations. Each character is represented by a portrait with dialogue in a box below, and it includes an option to display human male portraits for the birds as well.
Hatoful Boyfriend is full of charm that extends from the art design to the dialogue and descriptions of the various characters you interact with. Even the understated menu music is catchy. You start the story by meeting your friend Ryouta, who is a rock dove. As the story progresses new characters are introduced with a brief description, and you are presented with choices to make that affect your stats – displayed in the top right of the screen – and bring you closer to a specific character ending.
The gameplay branches as you make various decisions throughout, aiming for one of 14 endings (the true ending is only unlocked after completing a few of the normal short endings.) Most of the game paths involve you getting to a know a character better and usually falling in love with them. These short endings sometimes result in many unanswered questions and involve a lot of repetition. Decisions like which elective class to pick for a day or which fortune to wish for affect your story. The normal “campaign” is quite short, and it can become a little tedious if you try to get all the endings for the achievements.
The birds you meet and interact with in your story are all unique; there’s even a female love interest for a female protagonist for the first time. The normal routes in the game are accompanied by a blue theme in the game interface with the dialogue background text being HATOFUL BOYFRIEND. After completing certain endings, the game presents you with a choice before beginning a new game which lets you either play a normal game or fulfil a promise. Selecting the promise option will result in the game playing out differently. This is the Bad Boys Love route. These sections have purple interface colours for the dialogue boxes and say HURTFUL BOYFRIEND. This route is much longer than any other route in the game and is the real deal.
After I finished 7 endings, the game presented me with the Promise or Normal option and this is where I truly experienced the awesome story. The BBL route is full of plot twists and strong emotions. I never thought I’d get emotionally attached to birds until I completed this route. The normal routes are great for learning more about characters but BBL is where you understand everything. There’s also a bonus epilogue you unlock after BBL if you have completed all the other endings. As you unlock more endings in the game, the title screen’s archive is filled with snippets of information about the true BBL path the game offers.
The presentation is good but not great, and I noticed a few typos and spacing issues in the text. There’s also a weird bug that blacks out the complete game barring the text when you get a Steam notification. The bird portraits and images are good, and the background environments are nice, and there’s a really decent soundtrack to top it all off.
VERDICT: Overall, Hatoful Boyfriend gets most things right. The true BBL story is gripping and an absolute must-play for anyone with an open mind who is a fan of visual novels. The game doesn’t make things obvious, though. I had no idea this route existed until I actually put in the effort to do more endings, and I’d recommend you do the same. If nothing else, it’s nice to see Devolver and Mediatonic bringing something so new and unusual to Steam.
No birds were harmed in the writing of this review.
VERY GOOD. An 8/10 is only awarded to a game we consider truly worthy of your hard-earned cash. This game is only held back by a smattering of minor or middling issues and comes highly recommended.
Review code provided by publisher.