Higurashi: When They Cry has had a sordid history that nearly matches the game itself in terms of story. It’s a visual novel, a managa, an animation, and it’s seen releases on more consoles and handhelds in Japan than I care to list. It saw localization and release worldwide some years ago and, recently, has been re-released with a cleaner interface and severely updated character sprites. It’s been slowly rolling out onto Steam for easier access and is now up to chapter five of the (official) eight main storylines. Today I’d like to introduce you to Meakashi, the latest release and the first of the “answer” arc.
To clear up a little of the jargon that may have lost some of you unfamiliar with the series, let’s get down to some details and nuances. Many people interpret visual novels as choose-your-own-adventure books with pictures and, usually, sexy encounters. It’s the style of visual novel that has taken off strongest on Steam/MangaGamer and tends to be the stereotype when people think of the genre. The Higurashi series is very, very literal in the game type. It’s a book that you read through the computer in the disguise of a game. You have no choices other than how fast the text comes in and if you want to read the extra details that come at the end of each “day” (chapter) and there isn’t any gameplay other than being literate. The series itself is almost its own universe, with each story containing the same setting and the same characters, but at different points in time and, oddly enough, within different realities. The simplest way to describe Higurashi is a horror mystery with skin-crawling descriptions of crimes that unfold before you and no way to stop them from happening. The first four games are what get referred to as the “Question” arc: that is, those four stories all have open-ended endings and leave out some details that allow the readers to speculate and make assumptions and guesses as to motives and outcomes of the characters’ actions. The second arc (which Meakashi falls into) are “answers,” or retellings of the first four stories but with changed perspectives that close questions and shine light onto the reasons why and the how of some actions. This by no means answers everything, and those who are fully invested in the story will need to buckle down for three more chapter releases in order to encapsulate and experience everything the writer intended. Interestingly, this fifth chapter (first of the second half) answers the original second chapter, whereas the upcoming sixth chapter answers the first. If that seems convoluted, I deeply apologize, but there is a method to the madness if you can follow along till the end.
Reviewing Meakashi is a strange situation, because it’s self-contained but very much an integral part to a much, much larger story. For the sake of everyone, I’ll be reviewing Meakashi as a standalone in the series, because someone is bound to pick this up in a vacuum and try it out without knowing anything that the previous chapters bring or the future will tell. Believe it or not, it completely works and, without being connected to the previous stories, a person can fully and totally enjoy Meakashi in and of itself.
The story begins from the perspective of Shion Sonozaki, a twin sister who’s been cast out of her family and sent to an all-girls boarding school by her grandmother, who is the matron of their crime syndicate family. Shion escapes with the help of her father’s associate/mother’s former lover and proceeds to work and live under the constant fear that her grandmother will find her and send her back to the school. Shion eventually gets to have a semi-normal life, including friends and even potential love interests, when a small act makes everything go straight to hell and terrible, horrifying events fall like dominoes. I can’t reveal too much, but the fact that Shion is part of a yakuza family is a clue as to how bad things get. Also, there is a curse that many believe reside over the town which plays a huge part in the full, complete story of Higurashi, and Meakashi is the first story that begins to show how the different chapters are all related. Again, not imperative to appreciating this story by itself, but still a fascinating curiosity that compels you to find out what happens next.
What makes Higurashi: When They Cry so well-loved and respected is that it’s a story that manages to convey perfectly in the medium of a visual novel. Very verbose VNs tend to do better just as straight novelizations, and the games that rely on too many choices and relationships just become dating sims and you forget about the world around you entirely in the quest to get laid/find love. Meakashi uses the pacing of how the lines appear on the screen along with aural cues to properly build suspense, atmosphere and even break tension. You may not even realize the music has dropped out until you feel the full weight of what a character is saying fall upon you, and you suddenly feel like the words are being spoken to you, slowly and deliberately, as if what comes next needs to be heard and appreciated with all the gravity of a courtroom sentencing. Despite there potentially being a lot to read at any given time, Meakashi never overwhelms you with walls of text or just drops them at your feet like an errand textbook. Everything is proportionate, and you can take it in and analyze it in a cadence that flows well with the story itself.
Speaking of audio cues, I love the soundscape of Meakashi in ways that maybe others couldn’t. If you’ve ever spent any time in Japan, the bang on sounds that permeate throughout the story really are polarizing and draw you in deeper than you could imagine. The chirp of the birds, the hum of the cicadas (which is where the series gets its name), even the ring of the doorbell makes you feel at home in rural Japan. The music has a very broad range, from jaunty, child-like tunes to ominous piano chords and even a strange mix of classical Japanese sounds with modern dance grooves. The games are set in the 1980s, and you never doubt for a moment that something anachronistic will interrupt the immersion that you give into so that you can experience the game.
Players who may have grabbed the original releases from MangaGamer years ago will be relieved to see that the good details remain while the poor ones were removed. The backgrounds in Meakashi are gorgeous blurred scenes around Japan, giving the feeling of a warped memory as you look back on where things may have gone wrong. The character sprites, on the other hand, have been updated and polished and given definition and quality that don’t look like they were jotted hastily with a box of crayons. The original sprites are available to see if you toggle between them in the settings, but be warned: it totally ruins the seriousness and weight of the story. I cannot believe that anyone took Higurashi to heart when I see how Mion used to look with a comically huge gun under her arm, and I’m grateful that diehard fans made sure this game saw the light of day with a fresh coat of paint.
Meakashi isn’t going to be a quick afternoon read, either. Mirroring the Watanagashi chapter, you’re looking at a good 10 hours or so of reading before you. You can save, of course, at any time, and quick load back to a particular moment that you wish to re-visit. The game also comes with the “OMAKE” option from the menu, which allows you to jump ahead to any chapter as soon as you’d like, though I highly advise against that. Besides making the story incomprehensible and ruining certain things, it also prevents you from naturally unlocking TIPS, which are side story items that pertain to both Meakashi and the Higurashi story as a whole. They’re fascinating pieces that start to make sense and will have you going back to re-read something as the main story develops.
As a huge fan of visual novels, Meakashi comes with a huge recommendation to anyone who’s interested in the genre even a little. Although it feels like a strange place to start, I argue that it’s one of the more well-written chapters, although it will spoil you being able to have an open interpretation of Watanagashi should you go back and check it out. Then again, if you read this as a standalone, the development of relationships between Shion, Mion and the others is complex and enjoyable all by itself. I would be insane not to recommend reading Onikakushi first, but I firmly believe Meakashi is the strongest entry to date and really helps set the scene for the coming climax (which probably won’t be released till 2018). All I can say for certain is that this is a haunting and engaging tale that captures Japan and terror in ways that you rarely see, and will leave you full of questions and theories that may compel you to read some other chapters…
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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