'Hatoful Boyfriend: Holiday Star'
Console: PC, Mac, Linux, PlayStation 4 and Vita
The original "Hatoful Boyfriend" was unlike anything I had seen. Frankly, it's still hard to fathom the game's concept. It's a human girl attending a school of anthropomorphic birds, with a large part of the goal to find one worth dating. And yet in a crazy kind of way, the dialogue options and the branching story paths actually made it work.
But while the video game world has become accustomed to lightning striking twice, it doesn't quite work with "Hatoful Boyfriend: Holiday Star." While this story has its moments, it mostly feels like a series of uninspired tales with wacky moments that don't quite hit.
The central mechanic of the previous "Hatoful Boyfriend" game is still at play throughout "Holiday Star." The story unfolds more like an interactive novel, with players watching a narrative unfold. The draw, of course, is that the narrative happens to feature a high school of actual birds. "Holiday Star" removes the single overarching story that takes place over years and replaces it with four episodic holiday tales. And while that's great for the season, it removes a lot of what made the original "Hatoful Boyfriend" so interesting.
As gimmicky as it felt, the reason that the original game worked so well was that it was a genuine high school drama that actually had a surprising amount of heart. The birds could have easily been replaced by humans and it would have been just as gripping a story. The characters were still well-defined that it was easy to get invested in them. In changing its style, "Holiday Star" rushes through its standalone stories, taking little (if any) time to define its characters. Instead, it attempts to mask its brevity by spotlighting the game's gimmick. Hey, those birds are driving a tank! Isn't that wacky? And without spoiling the major twists of the four stories, there's a major tonal shift over the course of the game that feels jarring.
"Holiday Star" is less about a coherent, heartwarming story and more about fractured ones that don't lead to anything substantial. Even the dialogue choices (as few of them as there are) feel far more inconsequential here. Much of "Hatoful Boyfriend's" charm was in dialogue choices affecting the ultimate outcome and in getting the school's denizens to like you, but "Holiday Star" is strictly about going from one point to the next. There are no real consequences to any of these choices, with the exception of a fail state that will actually end your story and force you to start the story completely over, which is the infuriating kind of consequence. (Although I will admit that the cheeky reference on one of the actual fail messages was good for a laugh.)
"Hatoful Boyfriend" was such a pleasant surprise when it first released, but that same joy just isn't present in "Holiday Star." The art style is the game's biggest highlight, particularly in the latter episodes when it transitions to a beautiful storybook style. And while "Holiday Star" acts like a collection of unreleased "Hatoful Boyfriend" stories, it loses something in its compiled presentation. It loses a great sense of agency and, as a consequence, most of its appeal.
"Hatoful Boyfriend: Holiday Star" isn't a lump of coal by any means. Rather, it feels more like unwrapping a present and getting socks.