A Japanese dating sim with pigeons which debuted earlier this year on PS4, Hatoful Boyfriend puts forward the romancing of pigeons as its central narrative concept. There is one caveat to this concept: the player, as the central character, is not actually a pigeon. This is a smart move on the part of the developers, as it would probably have made the game a little too far out for most. Instead, it’s merely everyone else who is a pigeon, so that’s totally fine.
With the precise nature of the pigeon presence in Hatoful Boyfriend firmly established, developer Mediatonic decided the time was right for Holiday Star; a festive-themed sequel.
Don’t pigeonhole me.
Hatoful Boyfriend: Holiday Star is an episodic journey, containing four main stories and six short stories. The episodes are relatively compact, clocking in at around thirty minutes each. The first episode, for example, tells the story of some renegade Christmas Thieves, who have been flying about stealing Christmas trees from all over town. The story follows the investigation into these thefts, an attempt to lure the thieves by planting a Christmas tree as bait, and the final showdown between the thieves and Holiday Star’s pigeon heroes.
All of this is essentially navigated by the player in the form of a visual novel; progressed via standard text-based gameplay in which the player clicks along with the images and makes decisions at certain points in the narrative.
Holiday Star does do a decent job of establishing characters that feel distinct through the game’s use of dialogue. However, with this positive comes a ‘but’, and that but is this: Holiday Star is extremely confusing for new players. Having not played the original title, my ability to understand each of these distinct characters and their interactions was a real struggle. The game simply assumes the player’s familiarity with each and every bird; a miscue that really undermines their characterisation as it relates to the stories being told and, indeed, the overall accessibility of an already-established narrative world.
Maybe partly because of this very reason, the stories struck me as being relatively boring. I found the episodes I played to be quite tedious, and they didn’t really capture my attention. Everything has a sense of absurdity about it, and not in a good way – especially given that the player’s prior experience with Hatoful Boyfriend is taken for granted. The festive theme isn’t as ‘fun’ as is probably intended, either. Instead, the plots and musical cues of each episode simply feel forced around this theme and as a result, seem poorly executed.
In addition, the interaction is so sparse that it is difficult to judge Hatoful Boyfriend: Holiday Star as a ‘game’. In the first episode, other than facing a mere two or three choices to push the narrative on, I spent thirty minutes simply clicking my mouse to progress through screen after screen of dialogue. Even these choices seemed entirely redundant: while at a department store investigating the whereabouts of the Christmas Thieves, I was prompted at the end of the dialogue sequence to choose whether I wanted to leave the store, go to the furniture section or go to another part of the shop. I simply found myself asking what, exactly, the point of this choice was, other than being a completely arbitrary placeholder with absolutely no meaningful impact on the story whatsoever.
Tarred and feathered.
To be fair, Hatoful Boyfriend doesn’t hide the fact that its emphasis is placed on visual storytelling. This is certainly evident in the original game and something my good friend Drew noted in his review, when he stated “if you’re not much of a reader, stay away.”
The problem I have with Holiday Star as a visual novel is the fact that the storytelling is, unfortunately, pretty weak. I did not feel remotely immersed in the stories and there was nothing to truly ingratiate me as a player – and I use that term literally in the sense of a person sitting down to play a game – in terms of my ability to interact with, influence, or even care about the narrative and its outcome. This, combined with Holiday Star’s inability to even attempt to welcome new players into this zany universe, is a pretty major shortcoming. If you enjoyed the original game, this sequel will probably hold a certain amount of interest. For everyone else, I’m not sure it’s worth the time.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.