Pigeon Dating Simulator.
The description is likely to illicit responses ranging from “What?” to “Dammit, Japan!”, and considering the bizarre and somewhat obscure nature of dating simulation games such reactions should definitely be expected. I find myself instinctively dodging many of them while navigating game catalogs due to the frequent lack of effort or blatant fetish pandering found within the genre. To add the concept of interspecies romance (yes, you do play a human and your love interests are in fact birds) to the pile of unfortunate expectations of these visual novels would cause your average person to attempt to forget about it ASAP.
In spite of even my own kneejerk reaction to dating games, however, I admit I have enjoyed quite a few. Hatoful Boyfriend is among those games. In fact, I would go so far as to say Hatoful Boyfriend not only surpassed my expectation (so ridiculous that it has to be worth playing), but placed itself comfortably in my list of favorite games of any genre. Let me be clear, I’m no connoisseur—I don’t claim that my taste in games is so great that to be considered a favorite of mine makes a game high art. However Hatoful Boyfriend cleverly hid an intriguing story and sympathetic characters amongst its gimmicky premise, and for that I think it deserves praise.
Hatoful Boyfriend introduces itself with a bright title card featuring all of the potential bird boyfriends (covered in pink hearts and sparkles) in front of Saint Pigeonation’s, the world famous bird education institute. You are Hiyoko Tosaka, the sole human enrolled at the school, a brave and active girl ready to start her second year at the school. As with most visual novels, you play from the perspective of your character and scroll through text with occasional choices to lead the conversations in one direction or another. Because Hatoful Boyfriend has multiple endings, you are given the option to speed through the dialogue until a decision comes up in order to make consecutive playthroughs less tedious. The save function in the game can also be used at any time to better review the story. Among the choices to be made are special free periods at school in which you can go to Math class, Music class or Gym class to improve your Intelligence, Charisma and Vitality respectively. Certain romances require high levels of one stat or another, so consider that special “somebirdie” you’re pursuing while playing. You also have the opportunity to join a club, which allows you access to location-bound birds in the game (such as the doctor in the Infirmary).
As the game progresses you encounter plenty of witty humor and references, from Tosaka’s hunter-gatherer instincts aiding her as she lives life from her home in a cave to lines from a They Might Be Giants song being slipped into dialogue. The game does well at tone and timing, with humor never seeming out of place. The game’s soundtrack is very well arranged, even making renditions of songs such as Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy feel appropriate for the setting. The music and story both surprise the player by leading into more and more drama and emotion as the game goes on, each romance starting out as light and casual and eventually revealing an interesting piece of intrigue surrounding Saint Pigeonation’s. Yes, the whimsical school for talking birds in fact does contain a dark secret or two, which become more clear through more playthroughs. The game gives you the opportunity to pursue the true ending, a story that winds up spanning several chapters and takes much longer to complete than any one of the standalone romance options, after unlocking only a few of the endings, so those who want to go straight for the hidden meat of the game can do so if savvy enough.
The romanceable birds encompass a rather standard range of personalities: your funny but weak childhood friend, the narcoleptic teacher, the standoffish bird who sits alone in the library, the flirtatious school heartthrob, the pompous bird from a foreign land, the loud and obsessive jock, the off-putting doctor and a couple more hidden characters round out the selection of bachelor birdies. Though each character starts off as rather humorously stock, you find yourself digging deeper into their pasts and ultimately becoming very close to them. If you decide to go it alone or perhaps just mess things up with your bird pals, you will find your game end rather abruptly as the ominous Hawk Party decides to tie up loose ends.
Though I’m doing my best to avoid any huge spoilers, because my favorite part of this game is how it sort of tricks you into its hidden depths, there is one part of the game I want to include here to perhaps further intrigue the reader. One romance ends, not with a heartfelt declaration or a quiet shared secret, but with a full-out, turn-based final boss battle complete with final boss music. I won’t say how you get there or why it happens, but I really want to send home that this game is far more than it lets on.
Hatoful Boyfriend certainly got noticed because of its premise, but anyone who plays the game all the way through will be glad they did. The writing, the music and the unlockable secrets compose a very unique charm that will leave anyone remotely interested in the concept satisfied (except maybe those looking for a more explicit bird romance, as the game never becomes overtly sexual). The game was originally available for about $4 at halfmoon.jp and gumroad.com and can now be found with bonus content on Steam. (Oddly enough, the original unofficial translation had fewer typos.) So, what else can I say? Take wing and soar into the quirky and deceptively wacky secret of Saint Pigeonation’s!