A little known fact about me is that I’ve eaten pigeon. It was always in a red wine soup, with a touch of sadness and a lot of questioning those actions. After playing Hatoful Boyfriend, I really don’t regret feasting on those foul birds.

To say that my relationships with the pigeons and birds in both real life, and with those of Hatoful Boyfriend’s St. PigeoNation Institute are strange ones, is an understatement.

I’ve spent a lot of days bird watching. A sign once politely instructed me to not feed the pigeons at Asakusa for they could feed themselves. The pigeons in London are thin as their streets are so clean. I know a bird in Ireland.

But I’m most knowledgeable when it comes to observing the rats of the sky try to deftly weave their way through the human citizens of NYC. Mostly I avoided them like the plague, as they did me. Until one day, the grey shimmering feathers of a filthy, fat pigeon made close contact with my head. He was flying too low when he cut in front of me, and as most born and bred NYC pigeons have come to understand, disrespecting personal space is a sometimes tradition when navigating the streets of our fine city. You’re not a New Yorker unless you’ve bumped into another and shot the evil eye in exasperation at your bumping cohort.

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In Hatoful Boyfriend, the closeness in relationships with pigeons and birds reaches new levels, and the encounters breach personal space in ways I’m not sure I’m comfortable divulging. There was the heartfelt outpouring of true emotions from the aristocratic dove with the pretty tail feathers at the school’s music room, as he struggled to be perfect in the eyes of his high-society father… then that moment shared with his mongrel bird of a half-brother and his sweet talking. Oh for the sweet longings of confessing love to my narcoleptic Homeroom and Math teacher. Or furtively glancing and then crazily inviting the school’s distinguished doctor to a fireworks laden Summer Festival.

Did I mention in this text-based visual novel by Moa Hato you play the role of the only human female—described as a hunter-gatherer—at the prestigious school for birds? Through a series of prompts and dialogue options, your choices determine which of your bird classmates and superiors you’ll be romantically linked to. Have no fear though as the writing is all tasteful but Hatoful Boyfriend treads some interesting ground that gets under your skin. Though not entirely for the reasons you’d think a pigeon dating sim would be designed to do.

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All The Jokes That My Tiny Bird Brain Can Handle

You don’t know just how ridiculous Hatoful Boyfriend is until you explain its premise to a friend. Initially, I didn’t care for the obvious roles in which each of the male birds were pigeonholed. Some of the direct routes to wooing your male counterparts are mostly dull ones for being so rote. The characterizations of each of its players are snippets of the ordinary for anyone who has a knowledge of any sort of media, including usage of certain tropes. As examples, there’s the sickly childhood friend, the wise elder who carries around a picture in his wallet and is unable to let go of a ghost of his past and move forward with his life.

It’s part of the joke and Hatoful Boyfriend is well-aware of just how silly and common those scenarios already are. Instead of human avatars, the novel stuck pigeons and birds in place of humans to fulfill those roles. Hatoful knows its audience and parodies what makes a romantic visual novel work. And so, you are prompted at the beginning of a playthrough if to display human avatars of your avian love interests. You’ll only get to see these avatars upon introduction and not throughout because we follow our hearts with our eyes first and foremost, and by doing so it teases the player to be a little more accepting if we dive in under the guise of having pretty human boys to court.

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There’s no mistaking that this is a story about birds and it’s something Hatoful never lets you forget, which makes just about everything it does a stab at the expected knowledge of the visual novel genre.

The jokes and puns that can be made from birds and humans’ interactions with them are vast. The descriptive narratives are equally as funny as the visuals—pigeons with mohawks, biker jackets and sunglasses; the lead character acknowledging she can’t tell one pigeon apart from the next (with an 80% accuracy when it comes to picking her childhood friend out of a crowd). Hatoful has its share of puns and jokes at the expense of birds but not so overbearing. It’s subtle at times, preferring to use clever text to describe funny imagery. It’s also bizarre, and the writing knows it, which makes your objective of falling in love with these flock of birds all the more insane.

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Are you really supposed to feel any real attachment to these relatively inane stories attributed to each of the 8 main characters you can pursue? Well if you did, none are here to judge. But I’m going to perch myself on a ledge and say: No, not particularly. Especially when each route could be done within 20 minutes give or take with a speed-up function. Of course, some birds are funnier than others and some with heartbreaking stories. It’s definitely a hilarious, weird little ride on its own if taken at face value.

But these silly routes are diversions to the actual reality of Hatoful Boyfriend. And the real kicker comes by all the underlying clues that something sinister is afoot with hints scattered throughout each path which encourage the thirst to discover what’s really going on—culminating in one intense tale that is rather disturbing.

The Real Story with Real Character

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The truth is: Hatoful Boyfriend is messed up, more so than by virtue of it being a pigeon-dating sim. As a visual novel, it wouldn’t have the staying power if it relied solely on the artificial presentation of a human courting birds, as funny as that is on its own. When the real plot is revealed (through a hidden story mode that can easily be unlocked when pursuing regular story routes), it’s depraved on a twisted level that’s full of dark humour and so much more.

I couldn’t possibly spoil the plot for anyone interested in discovering the terrible secrets of St. PigeoNation Institute (and it’s one well-beyond the world being engulfed in pudding). I will say though that it gets gritty, and plenty bloody with violence inflicted on birds by birds and human alike. There’s violence on humans by birds, too. And there’s an actual explanation as to why birds are running a school, are as intelligent as they are, and why you’re there.

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This plot has global implications and conspiracies with all the main characters integral to its execution. By unraveling this secret mode, it’s then that the writing is strongest. Backgrounds to each of the birds become fleshed out—something their individual routes aren’t able to address and only hint at. This in turn means that there’s much more to care about as the birds’ true purposes are revealed, and their intertwined stories make for some good characterizations. It’s not hard to feel a little bit emotional as to their plight as they make the transition from tools used solely for comedy to more serious characters of a tragic design.

But the greatest achievement is that when Hatoful moves from its lighthearted fare as a visual dating sim novel to a horror induced, murder mystery novel—you may be engrossed enough in the story to momentarily forget that the initial premise of using birds is a bold, comical move. It’s not until little jokes are strewn in amidst all the darkness of the abyss thrown your way that you are reminded that your characters are still birds, and bird humour balances that depth of story.

There’s a point to the birds as to an overall context of that true, secret story. And as the actual origins tale is revealed, it’s as fabulous, humorous, horrendous, heartfelt, emotional and intriguing as you’d think or couldn’t even fathom.

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The Music is Like Christmas in July in to My Ears

While Hatoful Boyfriend may not always seem to have an outstanding, memorable soundtrack—it’s well-equipped otherwise to be as clownish as the novel it represents, with a surprising amount of beauty too.

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Most are expected songs. For instance, there’s a Summer Festival song with taiko drums and an upbeat aura, or the song that plays when the tough biker sparrow dukes it out with the Punkgeons (delinquent pigeons) set to a roaring rock anthem. The songs range from serviceable—characterizing scenes and emotions of a certain expectation which does not necessarily make them unique all the time—to those jazzy numbers and piano compositions that are just wonderful. There’s also some modern mixed in for great pieces like the following song that plays during tense scenes:

But then the novel just goes right ahead and mangles the use of “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, a ballet that has traditionally become associated with Christmas. It’s not a misuse per se but as the theme song to the mysterious, intentionally malicious characterization of the school’s doctor, Shuu, the composition takes on this whole other life. Its use in this context is very weird and terribly funny while just being really uneasy given the nature of Shuu’s presence. It’s perfectly diabolical.

I’m fairly certain I heard an instrumental version of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” in the middle of the school’s Summer portion too during a certain route.

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It’s these things that make the soundtrack pretty deranged. It sets up a familiarity for these themes, characters and situations and then without warning, it tosses normality away. That’s pretty impressive for an already abnormal visual novel to keep on surprising in that manner.

The Awkward Pauses In Between Tapping to Go Next

I don’t know why this was so strange for me, but sometimes I almost felt as though my pressing of buttons to go next didn’t always register so smoothly. I can only describe it as an awkward pause where you know you pressed the button to continue to the next bit of dialogue but the game was still stuck on an empty dialogue box. Maybe I was so enthralled by the fine feathers that I forgot my senses for a moment which resulted in my staring a screen for a few seconds before my brain told me to hit the “x” button to go along with my bird hunting life.

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No Need to Peck Your Eyes Out Trying to Sort Everything Out

The dialogue choices to unlocking some of the endings of Hatoful Boyfriend are not always immediately obvious. But generally, it’s fairly easy to figure out just how to attain most routes. As mentioned, it’s a text-based visual novel in which you are given a series of choices to determine which birds you will end up with. These choices are all relatively direct in context to the bird’s personality you’re going after, keeping in mind that boosting your stats for wisdom, vitality and charisma are keys to getting good endings for some of your bird crushes. Most choices are cut and dry, which isn’t a bad thing when all you want to do is see every ending for the bird love interests.

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This certainly isn’t true of every bird, and it can get a little tricky particularly when you’re trying to get the secondary ending for some of the birds. Not all birds have two endings, and it’s not easy in all cases to figure out which ones do. By the time you get to your 8th or so route, things can end up getting a bit muddled if you’re not paying close attention. I can see this happening easily as at times, all it takes is one changed answer that isn’t too clear to alter that ending.

It Doesn’t Quite Roost For Too Long to Overstay Its Welcome But...

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The fast forward button is a wonderful thing but I sometimes felt the opening sequence could benefit from a skip button. The introductory section takes a little bit to get through, and with nothing in there impacting your decisions to choose a bird (other than the optional human avatar gallery...in case you forgot) after my third playthrough, I was familiar enough with each character that the option to skip that first bit would have been welcome. The stories are easy to get through but with 16 endings to attain (not the mention the super secret story line which is much longer than any of the dating routes), Hatoful can wear on you a smidgen.

I managed to unlock a secret story path without seeing the end result of courting all the birds. Unlocking the complete ending to that hinges on finishing all the other routes. As the dating routes are so short, it’s designed to replay through it multiple times with relative ease. It’s all up to you how much of this pigeon love you want to bird bathe in but unlocking the secret story is worth it.

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Sound

I played Hatoful on my PSVita. I’m certain my Vita’s speakers aren’t bad but I experienced extraordinarily loud, scratchy sounds and bad bass that marred some of my playthroughs. The noises were terrible and grating that interrupted and warped the music. Luckily I was not wearing headphones with the volume turned up when these moments occurred, as they’d surely be unkind on the ears. They still startled me, regardless. I’m not certain if this is a Vita only issue, but it’s there and it’s abnormal.

Unless this is some sort of bird call I’m not quite understanding. Hrrrm.

Little Typos Here and There

There are a few typos in the text in a few places. I could say the pigeons just don’t have a full grasp of the English language but that seems highly unlikely. These typos are not going to distract from the overall enjoyment but it happened a few times, enough for me to take notice and mention.

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As humans, we tend to get attached to things for sentimental reasons, or to pets because they have a wealth of personality. Sometimes we attribute those things to them. Other times they wow us with their antics. Hatoful Boyfriend takes this a step further by humanizing the birds for a feathery display in parody of romantic novels everywhere. By doing so, we’re likely to feel awful when something terrible happens to one of these beautiful birds—nevermind chickens, turkeys, ducks and quails are some common birds many of us have sampled.

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Beneath the showy, hilarious surface of a dating simulator full of bird jokes, lies multiple narratives that are touching and may have you shed a tear. Hatoful Boyfriend makes you feel a fondness for the pigeons, doves and birds your character gets to know and sympathize with—from their very ‘human’ problems involving sick mothers, and brotherly love to obsessions with pudding—and maybe even fall in love.

But not me though. I may have had some emotional moments at 11 p.m. for a few nights which you cannot prove. But I won’t be tricked! I probably will never eat a pigeon again but not because of this novel. In fact, I’m kinda glad I did in my past life. Hatoful Boyfriend opened up a vision of a dystopian, alternative post-apocalyptic future of Earth that has scarred me. Intelligent birds can only mean a hostile takeover and this pigeon dating simulator is just a cover up for things to come.

I’ll continue doing my part to keep some of the bird population under control.

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