Being probably the biggest wuss on the planet, there's quite a few things that have scared us over the years - heights, spiders, rollercoasters, deep water, flying and particularly creepy episodes of Goosebumps have all given us the jitters. But there's one event that sticks in our head more than others - a seemingly emotionally distressing encounter with a turkey as a child. Ordered by a well-meaning grandparent to stand near the beast while they took a photo, the thing made a sudden move towards us and sent us running, screaming, to the other side of the farmyard. Then, after being laughed at, chastised for ruining the picture and dragged back for a second attempt, the infamous photo of a six year old me, standing several paces away from a turkey and eyeing it rather suspiciously was born. Never liked birds since.
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But hey, I'm always willing to give things a second try - at least in a digital, non-threatening form. Given our love of story-driven games, bird-themed dating sim (yes, you read that right) Hatoful Boyfriend has been up there on our list of wants ever since it was announced. And, as a downloadable game from the Playstation Store, priced at £7.99 (which nets you both the Playstation 4 and PS Vita versions), it's also a bargainiferous little title for those of you in need of a little romance and randomness.
Now, before we get started, it's worth noting that Hatoful Boyfriend is a visual novel - and a dating sim one at that. In English, that means it's essentially a choose-your-own-adventure-book, but in game form, with the only gameplay to speak of being a heck of a lot of reading and picking the occasional conversation option. They're not the sort of games for everybody, but if you're the sort of person who appreciates slower-paced, more story-driven games, then Hatoful Boyfriend is likely to be right up your street. Particularly if you've always wanted to get into the pants of a particularly fit pigeon (not literally of course - pigeons don't wear pants).
The game opens at the beginning of your second year at St. Pigeonation's school for gifted birds, the most prestigious academy of it's kind - but unlike your contemporaries, you're the school's one and only human student. What follows is essentially a rather hectic and unusual three terms, cramming lessons, festivals and extra-curricular activities into a twisting and turning tale, full of surprises - and of course, a healthy dose of avian-flavoured romance.
Along the way you'll achieve pudding-related enlightenment, befriend a cross-dressing dove and reunite two members of a traffic safety-conscious biker gang - along with solving a murder, uncovering the sinister truth behind the avian supremacy, and discovering precisely why you're the only human in a school for gifted birds. It's a strange juxtaposition of the silly and the sinister, particularly in the case of the darker alternate 'Bad Boys Love' ending, which delves more into how and why St. Pigeonation's exists, rather than the more light-hearted, character-specific endings.
But, as with most games of this ilk, it's these characters that really shine, with their myriad of different personalities, quirks and interests - there's the quiet shy guy who lives in the library, a suave and sophisticated ladies man and the stereotypical childhood friend, as well as a class nutcase or two. New-for-the-Playstation-versions pheasant Tohri is likewise entertaining, with a pathological hatred for the school doctor, Shuu, plotting revenge on the guy with all kinds of outrageous death rays. The game's protagonist is likewise interesting, as the only self-proclaimed hunter-gatherer of the school, and learning about her likes, interests and past are similarly engrossing, as you attempt to romance your way to your favourite bird's heart. And, we assure you, a human-avian romance isn't as awkward as it initially sounds - nowhere near as awkward as the dove-and-human pair in the sports day's three-legged race, anyway.
Generally speaking, most of your time is spent reading the story, and pressing the X button to move on to the next page of dialogue. From time to time, particularly in the case of the romance-able birds, you'll have to pick from a list of conversational options or actions, whether it's joining the track team to get closer to pudding-obsessive OkoSan, not making fun of Ryouta too much for his uniform for the transvestite cafe or picking an attack from the list for a boss battle (yes - you read that right, too). There may not be much to do besides read, but that doesn't make Hatoful Boyfriend a dull game in the slightest - far from it.
But Hatoful Boyfriend does have a few problems, particularly if you prefer to play your games on the go, on the PS Vita. Occasional stuttering during certain transitions causes the game to hang for a second or so in some sections, while some of the music turns into a rather distort-y crackle-y mess, particularly in the case of Yuuya's theme. Typos also crop up from time to time, although if we're honest, we've yet to play a similarly text-heavy game that doesn't have at least a few mistakes - and we play a lot of visual novels and role-playing games. However, none of these problems are game-breaking, nor do they really mar the experience too much - although they can be a little annoying at times.
Dating birds may seem silly on the surface - and indeed, Hatoful Boyfriend's premise is one of the strangest we've encountered - but it works surprisingly well. With the help of its well-written, fully-feathered characters, witty dialogue and randomness, countered by a surprisingly dark and sinister undertone, it's another great addition to the Vita's growing library of visual novel-type games. It's not Danganronpa, but it's well worth picking up nonetheless - just a shame about the slight technical hiccups.
Format Reviewed: Playstation 4