HuniePop (2015) takes place in a small university town in an industrialized nation. The player plays X, a nameless, youthful if grizzled veteran of the international war on terror, now an operative of a nonspecific state agency charged with protecting national security at all costs. X suffered a mental breakdown after his (or her) last assignment. For now, he’s been stationed at this town to sit tight while the agency decides what to do with him.
Calming his nerves at a local drinking establishment (or her nerves — the player chooses X’s sex), X encounters handler Kyu Sugardust who is assessing him prior to training for a new assignment.
Kyu’s specialty is social infiltration. She calls herself a love fairy. We see for the first time the toll exacted by the terror war on X: he perceives Kyu as a fairy in the literal sense.
A terror cell is believed to be connected to the local university. X and Kyu have been tasked with gathering enough intel to locate it and identify its members before the cell initiates another attack. As the cell contains high-ranking commanding officers who plan complex, coordinated attacks, secrecy is very tight. The cell will go to ground and vanish at any hint that it is being traced.
Furthermore, the town is the residence of clandestine relatives of high-order officials, and dynamic action could but them at physical risk. Therefore X must refrain from the more direct, brutal methods to which he’s accustomed. This is a covert operation.
As time is short, Kyu provides X with brief training and then coaching as each new target presents herself. X acquires targets via contacts of previous targets. His objective, then, is to sufficiently trail and debrief each person without her awareness that this is any more than common social interaction. It means gaining the trust of each the women to the extent that they are willing to divulge their entire lives and most intimate of secrets.
Target. Not woman. Not person. Target or suspect. It is actually a relief to X that he doesn’t have to kill anyone this time.
X’s approach to each target is almost indistinguishable from lighthearted social exchange, but it’s nothing short of cross-examination. Sometimes the target asks questions back. X has to provide the right answer. Not the truthful answer, but the the answer a good potential partner would give. X has to lie to prove he’s trustworthy.*
Where charm and basic attraction are not enough, X is allotted a small budget to provide food and gifts. This is where intelligence gathering pays off in part, since each target has preferences for certain kinds of food and gifts which augment the interrogation process. With each question X gets experience which he can spend on skill points which enhance the more intimate interaction process, called dates.
Exactly what takes place on dates is only alluded to by backdrops of the venues, but from X’s perspective, every date mechanically plays out the same. X disassociates enough from the actual exchange that he perceives it as an abstract tile matching game, playing romance, flirtation and sexuality as if they were draughts on a game board. From this interpretation, X has to score so many points with so many moves in order for the date to be successful. Targets become more positively responsive to X after successful dates. Also success of dates are the measure by which X’s budget is determined for future encounters.
Eventually, through verification via sexual intimacy, X confirms that the target completely trusts X and that all that all she has revealed is true and complete to the best of her knowledge. When she is completely in love with X, he knows that he has everything she can give.
Then, with a target thoroughly debriefed, X can focus on other targets.
X’s shadowy past, and his inability to reconcile what has transpired is never revealed in HuniePop, but X’s paranoia and uncertainty unfold as he resorts to further dehumanization of his later targets, seeing them instead as extraterrestrial, as anthropomorphic animals or even as agents of the divine. X even turns on his own handler Kyu, tracking and seducing her as if she was connected to this ever elusive terror cell. By the end of the ordeal, even she submits to his meticulous, calculated methods. Even Kyu loves X to an extent he can never reciprocate.
It’s a sobering afterthought that X never gets close to the terror cell. He never learns if lives were saved by the intel he gathers. There are even times it’s certain X doubts this terror cell exists at all.
Conspicuously absent, though, is any guilt of his deceptions. X’s mission concludes without debriefing. The agency remains silent. Exactly what was or wasn’t accomplished is beyond X’s need to know. Instead X is left to consider the twelve broken hearts in its wake. Thirteen if he includes his own.
At least no-one had to die this time.
Postscript Some people didn’t understand the complete context of this review, which is better understood after glancing at the game. Wikipedia explains it pretty well.
Maybe at some point I’ll have to provide a more proper critique than this one.
* My own failures early in my playthrough came from choosing the least untruthful answer from the multiple-choice options, which put in sharp relief that X is not trying to get a girlfriend, but to seduce someone as a means of extracting and validating data. That X must lie to and betray innocent people is a small price to pay to preserve national security.