Hatoful Boyfriend E3 Preview: It’s a Pigeon Dating Sim
There’s a genre/subgenre of games out of Japan that is referred to as the “visual novel,” and it’s likely you’ve been exposed to it, even unintentionally, at some point. It’s an outgrowth of JRPGs, and today many of them are embracing that format as primary gameplay, like Persona, or Hyperdimension Neptunia. Though it may be hard to believe now, years ago I wrote about Persona 3 Portable on this very website, and my chief complaint was that the more traditional “gameplay” (dungeon crawling, in this case) was getting in the way of my enjoyment of the more passive parts of the game.
Thankfully, there are games that do eschew that grind and just let me enjoy the good stuff. The new Hyperdimension Neptunia game on Vita is one, and Hatoful Boyfriend is another. Hatoful Boyfriend is a free cult visual novel out of Japan that Mediatonic is rebuilding in Unity for the sake of modern compatibility — apparently it can be hard to even get Hatoful Boyfriend to run on some modern computers. So Mediatonic and Devolver are fixing that, working from fan translations to make a better English version and providing the game with some visual upgrades.
Oh, and did I mention that Hatoful Boyfriend is a pigeon dating sim?
The game adopts what has become the Persona formula, i.e. you participate in one Japanese school year, going day to day doing school things that can increase your attributes, while you also find a nice boy pigeon to date. The twist is that you are not a pigeon yourself, adding a touch of darkness to the proceedings if you want to look at it that way. But either way the novelty factor is enormous, and that’s obviously why Hatoful Boyfriend has developed a following. It helps that it works as a diversion, because without “gameplay” you can get through it in an hour or two.
But that’s just one play. It’s a dating sim at heart, and that means you have many choices and there are many pigeons to date and many endings for each of your possible boyfriends. This is why I’m a fan of shorter games, at least when there are branches in the narrative; most folks aren’t going to find it too much of a struggle to play Hatoful Boyfriend a bunch of times if they enjoy it. Or, rather, they won’t have to sacrifice time with all other games to do it.
So this updated, modernly compatible version of the game that Devolver is putting out this year has a few reasons for existing. Mainly, as I said above, it’s about accessibility. To that end, Mediatonic is rebuilding Hatoful Boyfriend in Unity. Which means, of course, that after they complete work on the PC version they will look at porting it to dedicating game systems, and they have an eye on the Vita in particular as it has become a sort of breeding ground for very story-heavy Japanese games as of late (It’s certainly my preferred platform for such things, judging by the number of PS3 JRPGs I’ve gotten this year that remain unplayed next to the number of Vita JRPGs I have). Like a book, it’s not ideal to only be able to play a J-visual novel in only the one spot.
There are some visual enhancements as well; Hatoful Boyfriend was originally built entirely with stock photos, and Mediatonic is keeping the pigeon photos but dropping the background shots for hand-drawn recreations. It’s quite precious, indeed.
Whether the novelty of a pigeon dating sim will appeal to you is strictly for you to know and no one else to be concerned with, though. It’s never going to be for everyone, and that’s totally fine. It’s a cult hit, not a regular one. But regardless of your feelings on the game itself, Mediatonic is doing the Lord’s work here. Games have so often been very transient, and an embarrassing number have just been lost to time. Platform holders have been decent about preserving old games with online stores, but it’s a gargantuan task.
And dare I say a pigeon dating sim is probably worth that effort.