Let's just get this out of the way: Hatoful Boyfriend is a bird dating simulator.
If you're not familiar with dating simulators, these are interactive, choose-your-own-adventure stories with a particular emphasis on romance. In the case of Hatoful Boyfriend, that romance is with several different birds.
What's really impressive about Hatoful Boyfriend is that being the only human in a school for birds isn't the strangest part of the plot. You get the hang of that pretty quickly - this takes place in a future where birds are as intelligent as humans and each one has its own distinct personality. You can choose to pursue the strange and mysterious Nageki, the friendly and flirtatious Yuuya, the creepy school doctor, Shuu, or any of the game's six other romance options. The game features a "powerful visualization module" that presents the player with a human version of each bird in anime style.
A Complex Simulator That's Not Just for the Birds
It's far too easy to write Hatoful Boyfriend off as a weird gimmick not worth playing for more than an hour or two. The game tends to encourage that idea—not all romance options are available on the first playthrough, and unlocking the full plot requires the player to romance every possible bird with all possible endings. That's more difficult than it sounds, as one small change can, surprisingly, end in the player's death.
Yes, death. Hatoful Boyfriend isn't as cute and romantic as the first hour or so of play would have you believe. There are several light-hearted paths to choose from at first—romancing Ryouta is a sad but sweet story, and San's plot is a completely ridiculous quest for pudding. Pursuing Yuuya—once his storyline is available—reveals a secondary plot that calls into question the politics of the in-game world, and attempting to romance Shuu quickly shows the player that not all is right at St. PigeoNation's Institute. Things get worse when the player has the option to "wish for the mad love of a fallen angel," opening up another potential romance option and a final boss battle straight out of a JRPG.
The game was originally intended as an April Fool's parody of the otome genre, a specific subset of dating simulators that typically include voice acting, archetypal romantic options, and minigames to raise stats like intelligence and attractiveness. There's a lot of humor at work in the game, from the concept itself to references to media like Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Dark Souls. The creator, Moa Hato, also uses references to Greek philosophers, real-world epidemics, and real people to flesh out Hatoful Boyfriend's world. For a game that starts off with a human dating birds, it's a surprisingly complex world.
Surface Simplicity Unfolds into Great Depths
Gameplay wise, there's not much happening. There are choices to make, but much of the gameplay is the same regardless of which path the player chooses. You'll go to the sports festival, visit the maid café, and go on a school hike with pretty much every path you choose, and conversation options are usually limited to two choices. When you're grinding achievements to get to the game's second mode you'll likely find yourself fast-forwarding through dialog because you've already read it several times.
But it's worth it. Once the player has explored the majority of the romance options, a second option appears when starting a new game: the option to fulfill a promise made long ago. This is where the narrative really takes shape, connecting all of the characters together in one large plot that explains the hyperintelligent birds, the player's role at St. PigeoNation's, and the strange absence of any other humans from the game's story.
Until this option appears, the game is a straightforward dating sim. Attend classes, boost stats, and choose the right option for a hopefully happy ending with the bird of your choice. Once the player unlocks Bad Boys Love, the second mode, the game becomes a murder mystery, allowing the player to connect the dots to learn of a conspiracy that changes everything they've experience so far. It's a huge twist, and, because it requires so much of the game be unlocked already, it's something players that are just in it for a few laughs probably miss.
Unfortunately, it's also where the already minimal gameplay suffers. While Hatoful Boyfriend allows for a variety of choices, the choices made while playing through the Bad Boys Love plotline don't seem to make any difference on the ultimate outcome. Though you're finding out all of the complexities of the world you've already sunk ten or so hours into, you're doing so by clicking and reading without any noticeable change. The effect is made worse when you play through for the full ending a second time, and you have to click and read through the same lengthy text a second time to spot the differences in the complete version.
Is it worth it? Absolutely, if you're a fan of absurd stories, off-the-wall humor, and dating simulators. Playing Hatoful Boyfriend isn't really playing so much as it is reading and making a few decisions on what you think your date might like you to say. If you enjoy things like Goat Simulator for the mere absurdity of their existence, there's enjoyment to be had in Hatoful Boyfriend's bird puns, but it's certainly not for everybirdie.
Hatoful Boyfriend is available via Steam for $9.99.