There is twisted brilliance to the world laid out before you and it’s the games saving grace, because while i’m not here to argue about what is and isn’t a game, Hatoful Boyfriend doesn’t have any of the trappings you might expect from one, especially after it’s ended up on Sony’s plastic funbox. There’s no puzzles, no “gameplay”, you’re just reading text and looking at pictures of birds like a sexy pigeon book.
It’s a game designed to be replayed, but a lot of the core experience is built from the same basic structure. This means things can quickly get tired as you replay through the game multiple times: but if you don’t replay the game you can’t find out what exactly is wrong with the world. There’s no denying the game got its talons into me, but I found myself resenting it for the effort I was having to put in to get to the bottom of things.
My first play-through took a couple of hours with subsequent runs taking thirty to forty minutes. You follow a predetermined path which occasionally branch off to deliver you to different choices, a different ending.
These aren’t well signposted so my first play-through say me accidentally trying to date my teacher. I hadn’t seen the signs, hadn’t realised that being a helpful student had made me into a temptress for the authority figure.“Listen,” he said, letting me down gently “I'm no longer able to love another creature. It's not your fault Tucker... I'm sorry.”
You and me both mate.
But the good script often wasn’t enough. I was often bored, skipping most of the dialogue I’d seen before. The inclusion of this feature is a boon, but is it a good thing to skip through 80% of a game on repeated play-throughs? Once I'd read that part of the story once there was no reason to experience it again.
The problem for me is that there’s no real sense of agency. You’re not making any meaningful choices beyond the obtuse multiple choice questions, and a lot of the opening third doesn’t seem to care which choice you choose.
I feel like I should give it a pass because it so obviously exists in a niche game and has clear limitations. In line with other Japanese dating sims you’re getting a beautiful background with a still photo of a bird on it, and some text. It’s not so much a game as a piece of interaction fiction and looked at through that lens it’s an achievement.
But I just can’t bring myself to recommend it. I don’t see myself playing it again. Carve it into your soul: while I’m glad games like Hatoful Boyfriend can exist, the game itself left me feeling fowl. If the idea of chatting up pigeons in a Japanese high-school seems like your sort of thing, then it really is the best representation of that available, it's just that that's all it is. It's a fascinating jaunt, but may be just too weird for some.