Hatoful Boyfriend review: The beak shall inherit the earth

Most pigeons reach sexual maturity in their first year of life.

This is something I know now, and it's one of the many revelations I had while playing Hatoful Boyfriend, the pigeon dating simulator. I also discovered what a rock dove is, I settled on the type of plumage I'm most attracted to (in a *mostly* hypothetical sense), and I found out how long it takes me to become numb to the idea of dating a bird. Spoiler: It's about 20 minutes.

And then there's the story behind the beaks – touches of structural oddity and hints at a wider, broken society – that keep Hatoful Boyfriend interesting. Well. More interesting.

Hatoful Boyfriend delivers on its promises. Everything you think a pigeon dating sim would be – or should be – it is. However, it is not everything it could be, only in that the game doesn't delve into bestiality of any sort. You play as a human girl attending the prestigious all-bird school of St. Pigeonation's, where you encounter all manner of feathered male suitors, all with their own personality hang-ups. There's the posh noblebird, a boy-next-door best friend bird, the teacher and narcoleptic math genius, the ladies' man, and the crazy bird who's crazy only because he acts more like a bird than the other birds.

Let's set the scene: At the beginning of the game, you can choose whether you want to turn on human portraits of characters the first time you encounter them. Say yes, and whenever you run into a new potential suitor, the game shows a real photograph of the type of bird he is and also an anime-style depiction of what he would look like as a human. I honestly don't know if it's better to turn on the human portraits, or if it's simply confusing. This is a personal choice, as is most of the game.

After naming your character – I'm Chenault Malfoy, because the only way to make a pigeon dating sim weirder is to turn it into a Harry Potter RPG, too – you begin classes at St. Pigeonation's as a sophomore and the only human in attendance. Everybirdie (yes, that is a term in the game and it's adorable) accepts you as a human and treats you as they would any other feathered student. The game progresses in static environment screens and pop-up characters, and there's no mechanic that allows players to explore the scenery, though dialogue decisions do alter the narrative in a meaningful way, upping stats in charisma, wisdom and vitality, and offering diverging paths for romance and discovery. You can join clubs, compete in sports festivals, roam the city and enjoy summer break, all with the intention of attracting the attention of whichever bird you want.

You have to attract the attention of a male bird. If you don't by the end of the semester, you're assassinated. Your romantic avian path is a life-or-death situation.

Yes, this is where it gets weird. Not when you started school at a bird academy, not when you met your best bird friend, not when you had to start thinking about which bird you found most romantically compatible. Now – when you realize you live alone in a literal cave on the edge of a grassy field; when the game offers a quick glimpse of a city in ruins, skyscrapers gutted and falling against each other; when you realize that everything in the game – chairs, cups, swimming pools, buildings – is still built for humans but has been co-opted by the birds.

It's a weird Adventure Time kind of moment: The larger narrative kicks in and everything is suddenly colored with an awareness that something has gone horribly awry. Humans are not even second-class citizens in this universe, ruled over by birds – they're systematically experimented on by a shadowy bird organization. If you don't fit in enough to find a bird mate, you're eliminated.

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Hatoful Boyfriend doesn't explicitly state this background information, but it's explained in overheard dialogue moments and quick peeks at the larger society. It also becomes pretty clear if you're killed, without warning and without anyone to mourn you. You didn't find a bird boyfriend, after all.

The game is otherwise cheery and moves rapidly through your days as a student, and if you play your cards right, you may never encounter the bleak truth of Hatoful Boyfriend's setting. Players may simply pick a bird early on, focus on him, gain his affection and discard the destroyed cityscape as a weird quirk in a truly odd game. Cue happy ending, roll credits.

That's a far less entertaining way to play Hatoful Boyfriend, from my experience. Getting to know the birds is fine, but the game's narrative isn't rich enough to sustain the truly curious or those who want to get to know each of the potential boyfriends more intimately before deciding to focus on one. The school days fly by, with a handful of tests, classes and conversations before the term ends. And then summer rolls around, and soon enough, you're assassinated because you haven't decided on a bird to woo yet. It's much more enjoyable to carry this knowledge of an alternate reality in your back pocket, keep searching for clues as to its origins, and pick up a nice bird boyfriend on the side.

Perhaps the birds had been plotting this world domination trick since the dawn of man; perhaps they got sick of the term "bird brain" and rose up to conquer all humans who ever uttered it; perhaps Alfred Hitchcock was onto something. Don't expect many answers – only hints. Hatoful Boyfriend is great at setting a tone and building a strange bird universe pockmarked with bits of broken, human-constructed items. These objects are eerie in such a happy-go-lucky world, though the creep factor is welcome in a game as ridiculous as a pigeon dating simulator. We'll call it the peep factor.

This review is based on a pre-release Steam download of Hatoful Boyfriend, provided by Devolver Digital. Images: Devolver Digital.

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