Also On: PS4, PC
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Humor is a tough thing for games to pull off. First and foremost, it's entirely subjective; what one person finds hilarious someone else may find irredeemably stupid. I mean, I think Portal is one of the wittiest things ever created, but I'm sure there are some people out there who think otherwise, just as I'm baffled by those who titter over Senran Kagura's boob-based humor. (Such people, of course, are totally wrong on both counts, but, as I said: it's subjective.) Not only that, sustaining a joke over the course of a game is hard work. Think of how many TV shows can barely string enough jokes together to last half an hour; now compare that to a game, that needs to sustain a comedic tone for several times as long. All in all, it's not hard to see why a lot of games don't even bother with it.
Which brings us to Hatoful Boyfriend.
Personally, I think the game's premise is hilarious: you're a human student at an all-bird school, and you're looking for love. On top of that, Hatoful Boyfriend is a parody of visual novels — and having played my fair share of those, I can attest to the fact it's a genre that's ripe for parody. At the same time, though, I can see how the premise may not tickle everyone's funny bone. This game relies on players to not just have a healthy appreciation for the absurd and a willingness to laugh at the inherent silliness of certain genres, but also a more-than-passing familiarity with visual novel conventions. While that may apply to me, let's be real here: people who really, really love visual novels may not like it being mocked.
The ironic thing is, it's that particular subset of people — ardent visual novel fans — who would probably enjoy Hatoful Boyfriend the most. Because once you get beyond the game's inherent absurdity, it quickly becomes apparent that it's really not all that different from most other visual novels. You go to school, you choose your electives to build up your stats, you interact with other teachers and students: if you've done that anywhere else, it will all feel pretty familiar here. Just because every character other than yours is a bird doesn't change any of that.
(And as a sidenote, one annoying side effect of the characters all being birds: it's kind of hard to tell them apart. Yes, their names are different, but unless you're ornithologically-inclined, the subtle differences between different types of white-coloured birds can be hard to grasp. Sure, there's the option of having the birds replaced with human portraits, but that kind of misses the whole point of the game.)
In the end, I think I have to defer to my colleague Tony Barrett, who reviewed this game on PC just under a year ago: in the end, Hatoful Boyfriend feels like one big in-joke gone a little too far. It's a game that will only appeal to hardcore visual novel fans with a love of the absurd — and that, unfortunately, just isn't a grouping that includes me.