The barmy visual novel Hatoful Boyfriend came to PS4 and Vita earlier this year and I have to say it has continued to grow on me ever since. The daft premise (teen pigeons try to woo the only teen human girl in a prestigious school for birds) ever-so-slightly overshadows a rather sweet and endearing story of teenage dreams that has stuck with me in the past few months. So imagine my joy when I discovered there is a festive spin-off that Devolver are publishing on PS4 and Vita in time for Christmas. I can think of few finer ways to end the year than with a return to the students of Saint Pigeonation with a holiday twist. But, is Holiday Star the equivalent of getting a pair of socks for Christmas?
This semi-sequel tells four different holiday-based tales and six shorter stories. The first port of call is the mystery of a stolen Christmas tree and it is, of course, as suitably offbeat as it is heartwarming, the only real issue being how lacking in choice it is compared to the original game. The manner in which a simple theft gets blown up into some huge conspiracy is hilarious and pokes a bit of fun at other, slightly more po-faced, visual novels in the process. It isn’t your traditional holiday special, but it does offer something a bit different, a tinge of silliness among the joy and depression of the season. This segment proves to be the game’s Christmas Eve, with the rest unfortunately feeling like a New Year’s Day hangover.
You could forgive the first tale for being too straightforward as a one off, as it remains a fun time throughout. The rest of the game’s stories not only lack any of those meaningful choices, they also never reach the heights of that initial tree-napping adventure either. When compared to anything found in the original Hatoful Boyfriend, these story snippets come across as lacklustre afterthoughts, all seem like interesting ideas scribbled on paper, but none appear to have been fleshed out sufficiently anywhere near enough. Perhaps the concept of having a collection of festive tales is too laser-focused for a game as scatterbrained and teenage angst-ridden as Hatoful Boyfriend. It isn’t awful by any stretch, no, it still remains enjoyable enough, just quite disappointing when you know how well this series has told a story before.
Holiday Star mixes the wonderful original cast with some new faces (beaks?), but doesn’t give enough time for either to do much of note. Original characters often feel as if they’ve been dragged into this by a contractual loophole, such is the lazy, half-hearted attempt at recapturing the magic of their personalities. The newer characters on the other hand simply do not get the time to become fully-fledged. Resulting in dull, shallow one-note parodies of the established cast. This is something not helped by the various stories failing to be inclusive for newcomers, meaning Holiday Star ends up burrowing itself further into its niche rather than take the opportunity to make new friends. This is obviously less of an issue for existing fans, but as I mentioned before, you are likely to feel a bit short-changed by much of Holiday Star after seeing how fun and clever the original is. There just seems to be an aura of average emanating from Holiday Star, a proper missed opportunity to make a cult Christmas classic.
Perhaps I’m being too down on Holiday Star. It isn’t like it has no redeeming qualities of its own. As fan service it does give you some pleasingly silly moments, and while much of the game is tired and boring by Hatoful Boyfriend’s standards, it does still have some great little moments that many other visual novels would find it a challenge to compete with. It just never seems like there is enough to it. My major criticism of the original was to do with how little interactivity there was, with no puzzles to speak of. Here, with Holiday Star, that still poses a problem, and taking away even more interactivity by removing the branching choices in favour of telling short stories leaves Holiday Star looking painfully thin. As a DLC expansion pack for a few pounds, there would be far less to complain about here, it isn’t that though, Holiday Star is more of a spin-off than a true sequel but remains priced as a full entry. As a result, this is a riskier purchase than it needed to be. On Vita it sits a bit better, given the forgotten handheld’s comfort in handling the visual novel genre, whereas it feels like a bit of a slog to sit through on PS4. With no alternate paths to take the already limited replay value dwindles even further, meaning Holiday Star serves as a one-off Christmas experience no matter how much you may enjoy it. The solution for most fans seems to be to sit it out this year, wait for it to go really cheap at some point in the new year and play it next Christmas. With slightly-lowered expectations, there could be a more enjoyable avian holiday for you in 2016.