21 October 2014

Hatoful Boyfriend (Game Review)

So I'd never really played a 'visual novel' style game. Then I watched members of LoadingReadyRun stream some of Hatoful Boyfriend on Twitch. I watch a fair amount of LoadingReadyRun's streams and other online videos. They're a cool bunch, and they stream a wide variety of interesting games. In the past they've inspired me to play at least Dark Souls (which I love) and XCOM: Enemy Unknown (which I never actually got around to beating, but it was still an interesting experience). Hatoful Boyfriend looked like an... interesting and funny game, and it wasn't terribly expensive either, so I decided to give it a shot.

Like I said, Hatoful Boyfriend is a 'visual novel' game, meaning it's primarily presented through dialogue sequences, occasionally requiring you to make choices about your actions or replies, which in turn determine the storyline and ending you get. A little like the 'choose your own adventure' books of old, I guess... The game was originally release in Japan in 2011, but a new 'HD' remake was released this autumn, and is available on Steam and other online services.

The game puts you in the shoes of a Japanese high school girl, following her life through a school year. You'll have to choose what extracurricular activities you take, which boys you hang out with etc, as you'd expect in this kind of game, except... all the other characters in the game are birds. Mostly pigeons or doves of various kinds. Yes, you are the only human pupil at a school for intelligent birds! And there's other weird stuff going on, as well. Like, early on in the game, it's revealed you live in a cave, and you're apparently a 'hunter-gatherer'...

Some of the storylines the game takes you through are relatively mundane, romantic stories. That is, except for the fact that they're between a human and pigeons! Other stories go into... weird and sometimes dark places (don't worry, it's not a 'hentai' game, but it does have some horror elements). There's a lot of humour through the game (obviously, there'd have to be in), and a lot of references to Japanese culture, games etc.

Each playthrough only takes an hour or two (probably less once you've played through it a few times and can speed through repeated dialogue). There's more than a dozen different endings, though, so you'll be playing through it a bunch of times to see all of them. Which is also what, in my mind, makes this a 'game' and not merely a story. You'll want to unlock all those endings, and you need to find the right choices to get you to each of them. (Most of them were fairly easy to get, though I did look up hints for a few endings—most of which were simply alternate versions of endings I'd already gotten that hinged on relatively minor details.)

It sounds crazy and random, and I guess it is, but there is actually a surprisingly detailed backstory to it. However, through much of the game you'll only be given hints about what's going on and why the world is like it is. After you've unlocked the game's other endings, you unlock a special ending—a long (like, literally several hours) story sequence that explains a lot of what's actually going on and ties together loose ends. All in all it took me some 15 hours to complete Hatoful Boyfriend, which I think is a respectable amount of entertainment for the game's price.

Technologically speaking the game's hardly impressive. There's virtually no animation, just static character images superimposed on simple backgrounds. The character images are actual photographs of birds (though when you first meet major characters, you have the option to see a manga style representation of what they might look like if they were human)... There's no voice acting, and the music is, for the most part, quite generic (largely making use, I believe, of public domain tracks). There was also a fair amount of typos in the text, and occasionally the game would crash when trying to load a saved game. But none of this really matters, the game's real value is in its crazy story and concept.

So yeah. Hatoful Boyfriend is a weird, insane, sometimes silly, sometimes dark and even gruesome, often hilarious... thing. It's actually quite hard to explain its appeal, and I'm sure it isn't for everyone. It wouldn't necessarily be my first recommendation to people who aren't already into Japanese games and culture, at least. On the other hand, I don't think you need to be a fan of other visual novel or dating sim style games to get a kick out of it.

Also, pudding.

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