Bonus Rounds are short, 5-minute musings on quirky titles that either end up hidden down the back of the sofa, or lost among the endless pile of Steam games and Bundles you own, but have never got around to playing. These could be reviews of PC, iOS or console games, Early Access titles, games made as part of a Game Jam, and so on. They’ll predominantly be games made by indie developers, and usually (but not always) published on a Sunday.
Pigeon, dating, simulation: three words that when used separately are commonplace, generate no sense of controversy and look perfectly normal. However, put them together in the same sentence and what follows is nothing short of one of the most surreal video gaming concepts released to date.
To be fair, Hatoful Boyfriend is much more than “just” a pigeon dating simulation. It’s a visual novel which sees a 15-year-old schoolgirl attending an academy for pigeons, doves and other exotic birds whilst discovering the mysteries within. With 24 different endings, ranging from marrying various birds to falling victim of fowl play, there’s also a decent amount of replayability – even if the journey to them isn’t quite as multi-branched as you might hope.
Hatoful Boyfriend is very much a game of two halves. The first half is the lighthearted dating sim, which allows a good amount of player choice and consequence. The second part (spoiler-free) is the mystery side, which unfortunately is very hands-off, with little or no decisions given to the player until the very end. What Hatoful Boyfriend cleverly does though is make you play the dating side of the game first (repeatedly), which generates a good level of familiarity, depth and back story to each character and ensures you’re invested in them as and when the mystery starts to unfold.
As with many visual novels, there’s a lot of repetition and only by choosing different actions at key stages will you see the different endings and branching storylines. Fortunately there’s an option to auto-skip conversations allowing you to reach these junctures, but it does mean that after the first play and read-through, you’ll find yourself staring at blindingly fast flickering text in order to make those different decisions. This isn’t so much of an issue for the first half of the game as there are plenty of choices to make, so it’s not long until you can affect things. When the main storyline kicks in however, it does suffer, as there are so few decisions to take that you end up sitting through many minutes of flickering text before there is even a hint of interaction.
Technically, Hatoful Boyfriend is a bit of a mixed bag. The backgrounds are varied and well-drawn, looking sharp, bright and colourful. The birds however are clearly photos and when displayed full screen and at 1080p resolution – look a bit blurry and out of place. There’s an option which, when first met, displays a “human avatar” for each bird, and it’s a shame this wasn’t extended so that you could keep these instead of the bird photos. Ultimately, the game’s unique selling point proves a little gimmicky as a result; but there’s no denying that it’s a gimmick which makes you sit up and take notice.
Substituting the birds for actual human characters would have gone a long way to improve aesthetics and aid accessibility, even if it does go against the overall premise. The translated text is legible, however there are several typos along the way as well as missing words. Some phrases have been translated incorrectly, with some sentences making no sense at all. Instances of these are by no means frequent, but as visual novels rely a great deal on player immersion, they unfortunately occurred just enough to unduly ruffle my feathers.
Visual novels by their very nature have limited replay value and often hinge upon that first read-through, the strength of their story and the believability of their characters. While the muiltiple endings certain add to the replayability factor, it’s unlikely that you’ll stick with the game long enough to see them all; but it’s certainly worth experiencing in full once or twice. Hatoful Boyfriend’s premise is no doubt bizarre, but don’t let it fool you: underneath its brightly-colored plumage lies an engaging tale worthy of your time and attention. The peculiar characters and situations soon become very real, and without giving away any spoilers, the overall concept is incredibly well thought out.
If you haven’t experienced a visual novel before, Hatoful Boyfriend may not be the best place to start due to its outlandish and slightly inaccessible nature – though I would strongly urge you to make the effort and bear with it. For fans of the genre, don’t be a bird-brain – add it to your collection now.