It is once again April and the start of your second year of high school. Your first year was spent in the Go Home Club, not lending itself to either serious studying, extracurriculars, or... much of anything, really. But this year, things will be different. Like everyone else, you want to find and pursue your passions...
...And above all, try your hand at romance!
There is a rumor going around the school that if you share a kiss underneath the summer fireworks, your love will become eternal. Will you be able to realize this myth with your loved one this year?
Hatsukare☆Renai Debut Sengen
Age Rating: Cero B / 12+
Date of Release: April 4, 2013
Voice Cast: Morikawa Toshiyuki, Kimura Ryouhei, Shimono Hiro, Suzumura Kenichi, Kaji Yuuki, Yusa Kouji, Taniyama Kishou, Koizumi Yutaka, Okamoto Nobuhiko
A very fun, upbeat love simulation game that will serve as a good break amidst your other, more serious brand of otome games. Don't mistake Hatsukare as a shallow game, however. It deals with themes of belonging, pursuing one's passions, reinvention of oneself... themes that people from all walks of life can sympathize with. Throw in a healthy mix of unspoken crushes, forgotten promises and a pet Welsh Corgie, and you have yourself the high school life you always dreamed of!
The cast of Hatsukare is certainly colorful, if typical at first glance. You have your kind childhood friend, the handsome otaku, the enthusiastic underclassman, the popular idol, the delinquent (?) upperclassman, and the polite (?) homeroom teacher. Given that these tropes are rather common in otome games, some storylines go exactly the way you'd expect... while others manage to bring rather pleasant surprises. Regardless of the difference in depth between your expectations and what you take away from each route, though, each route has a lot of heart.
You also have three sub-characters that add even more color (literally) to your high school days. Your older brother is the school council president, and is always stirring up trouble with his grandiose personality. In class, you have an onee best friend who takes care that your hair and otomegokoro are both in tip-top shape. As for the third, you'll catch him out and about on weekends during the day. He shares Kariya-senpai's last name...!?
For up to three times a day, three days a week, you can talk to different characters around the school and view story events. On Saturday, you get one such chance out in the city. The type of event that is available to you is indicated by an icon over the corresponding character's head. A red heart indicates a main event; a pink heart a sub event; a happy smiley Dokkyun Talk; a yellow star a friend event; a green star a sub-character event; and finally, three smilies a group event. Main events are required for relationship progression with your character of choice. If you fail to view all the ones available for a given month by the time the month ends, that character will automatically be entered into the friendship route and stop offering hearts in lieu of stars. If you view enough friendship events, you will be given a friendship ending with them in July.
In addition, a number of NPCs are strewn about the school. Talking to them will unlock Dokkyun Talk topics, which you can use to ask the guys questions you might be curious about, such as their type. If you ask the right combination of questions and put them in a happy enough mood, you can start getting flirty with them. Once they hit Dokkyun on the heart meter, they'll invite you to a date afterwards which will be recorded in the route progression screen under sub events.
The calendar system of Hatsukare makes it so that your relationship with the guy you pursue follows a clearcut template. You get acquainted with him in April. In May, you become friends. Once it rolls over into June, you become more than friends but less than lovers, then finally in July, you officially start to date each other.
All the presentational elements of music, art and UI were extremely appropriate for a high school dating simulation game. The pastel, bubblegum color scheme, which the character designs echoed, complemented the upbeat BGM to create a fun-filled atmosphere. The BGM did tend to get repetitive over a period of time, but not to the point of annoyance.
Hatsukare has an all-star cast and the cast certainly is one of the noteworthy aspects of the game. It consists of a good mix of newly popular names like Kimura Ryouhei and Kaji Yuuki with veteran seiyuu like Suzumura Kenichi, Yusa Kouji and Morikawa Toshiyuki. All the voice actors carry their characters well and the amount of energy they bring to their roles adds a lot of enjoyment to the game. As I alluded to above, some characters had surprising depth in their individual stories and thus a good number of emotional displays. Each respective seiyuu hit these moments out of the ballpark.
The system is not too difficult. Moreover, the game takes care to hold your hand through the system by introducing one element at a time, and even implements tutorials so that you can fiddle with the interface and get comfortable with them before the real deal. Your main concern will be making sure to view all the events necessary to keep on course to your desired ending, though for the better or worse, the amount of love events available at any given time winds down after April and people start getting weeded out to friendship routes. My advice would be to keep your eye on heart events for the guy you want to pursue, and whenever those are unavailable, prioritize a friendship event, group event, or a sub-character event, in that order. You can capture a friendship ending at the same time as a love ending in one playthrough, so fully completing the game is not as cumbersome as it first seems.
One clumsy aspect of the system, however, is that once you pick an area of the school to explore, you cannot return to the main area menu. If you happen to pick a wrong area by mistake, you either have to reload an earlier save or skip to the next time period and try again. You can also offset this by using the "rewind to last Sunday" option, which you can access from your room and the main menu. There are ways to remedy minor mess ups in event selection, but the measures that are in place are rather roundabout.
Continuing on the critical note, some players may also feel that Hatsukare is too short. Those four months go by quickly, especially since April and July are half-months. There is a handful of story events sprinkled in along with the events that you personally activate, but after the first playthrough, players will most likely skip them and therefore the cumulative playtime is limited even further. On the other hand, one could argue that this set length keeps each route short and sweet, without any filler or drawn-out drama. The question of payoff in quality is certainly up to subjective judgment.
One aspect that I personally want to praise about the game is how the friend system provides you with truly platonic relationships. A lot of otome games prefer to explore the tension that the best, non-boyfriend may feel towards the heroine, but in Hatsukare, the guys never overstep the bounds of friendship once they are locked into the friendship route. The content of these friendship routes is not as personally in-depth as the love route, but it nevertheless feels quite refreshing to just enjoy some time with them in a no strings attached sort of a setting. Since every guy does have a love route available, the friendship option provides a nice look into how their individual personalities mesh within a different set of relational dynamics.7.5 The presentation of this game is cutesy and appropriate for the high school setting of the game. Moreover, the characters are wonderfully fleshed out and the luxurious voice cast will definitely add to your enjoyment of the game. Each route spans about three months in-game during which you experience a gradual deepening of your bond with the guy you are pursuing.
While I thoroughly enjoyed Hatsukare and would recommend it in a heartbeat, it doesn't seriously challenge the genre, character types, or story conventions. I would still consider it an above average game and very much worth your time, especially if a certain character or voice actor has caught your eye.