When you sit down with the a novel from Tom Clancy, Dan Brown, or even J.K. Rowling, you have an idea of what you’re getting into, even if you haven’t read a synopsis of this new book. Writers have their tropes, and, whether its ridiculous exposition about someone’s outfit or vaguely erotic undertones regarding artwork, you see patterns and get a feeling for what you’ll be reading. But you don’t always have that luxury with visual novels, due to the medium itself. The same exact team, with the same exact writing staff, can deliver something totally different thanks to the addition of sound and graphics, and you really need to squint to see the similarities with previous works.
Umineko: When They Cry, comes to us from 07th Expansion, the same team as the Higurashi series (which you may have inferred from sharing the same subheading). However, its important to note that this story is vastly, wildly different in terms of setting, characters and storyline. There is no connection whatsoever, and if you decide to try Umineko without any previous contact with other 07th Expansion titles, you may even be better off for it. Because, as I mentioned before, this is a totally different piece of art, and that may rub fans of the Higurashi series weirdly. I know it did for me.
Story is the most important aspect to any visual novel, so let’s dive right in. Set on the fictitious isle of Rokkenjima, Umineko centers around eighteen characters, the Ushiromiya family and the various servants that take care of their massive estate. Everyone has come back to the island for a family gathering, and, surprise, a murder happens. There is a legend on the island of a Golden Witch, who is definitely not a legend, and everything quickly falls to compete and utter chaos. The main thread of everything starts with finding out who the murderer is, but that isn’t even the main story for long. In fact, it’s hard to say what exactly is the main story, and the execution of Umineko is why this becomes a foggy question.
When I reviewed Meakashi some time ago, I commented on how it’s part of a larger story and, as such, made it difficult to review individually. At the time, it had been quite a while since I played the last leg of the game arc, so I don’t think I fully appreciated why it’s so important that Higurashi was separated by chapters. Umineko, for whatever reason, is a full collection of the first four stories that make up the “Question Arc.” This makes for a tricky sort of review, as I look at not one but four different yet equal stories all set inside the same game. This is also why it’s taken so long to write a review after completing Meakashi, because of the sheer amount of text that is required to have gotten through to reach this point. I’ll try and boil things down as best I can.
Across all four games, the graphics and sound design remain the same peak quality that I’ve come to expect from 07th Expansion. The backgrounds of each setting remain blurred, watercolor inspired paintings that give a feeling of trying to remember something, whether it be a beautiful banquet hall, a lonely cliff-side view or a dark and foreboding underground tunnel. The character sprites are also the updated version, which I recommend time and again over the originals. While the originals of Umineko are significantly less cartoony than those of Higurashi, the new art better captures the emotions and feelings of what is being conveyed through another marvelous script. The audio cues and tones that come in Umineko also add to the four dimensional storytelling, though I noticed a lot more music being utilized than I saw in Meakashi. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: the tone and atmosphere are significantly different, and I’d like to delve a bit into that now.
Umineko is decidedly a more mature read, but not in the sense of material. I feel like the murders that occur in Umineko are actually less suspenseful and feel more “Western” in their gradual reveal and process. The characters, by and large, are either adults or nearing adulthood and the range of feelings seem to match. There are points of mania and violent rage, absolutely, and bouts of hysteria are bound to occur when everyone is dying and you can’t make peace with whatever is happening. But the tone and the way everything is handled feels more tempered, more levelheaded overall. There’s plenty of drama and even a good amount of humor mixed in, but the emotional pendulum that is so common in visual novels that focus more on teenagers is removed, and, honestly, good riddance. Nothing takes me out of a story more than getting neck deep in someone’s angst when it feels totally unfounded and worthless.
You are able to unlock the different episodes of Umineko out the gate, but the game strongly warns that you’ll be lost if you skip ahead without first completing a previous episode. It’s not wrong, and that’s why the developers chose to bake all four together instead of doing individual chapters. Whereas the start points of the Higurashi series allow for you to jump in at any time (but are so much more satisfying with some background), starting episode two without reading episode one is a jolting, confusing mess which makes ZERO sense. The whole of Umineko requires absolute dedication to reading the story as a whole in order to understand and appreciate what’s going on, and I’m deeply, deeply torn about it. On the one hand, the layers that get pulled back as you move between perspectives, reality and time is seriously fascinating, and there isn’t another medium that could have told this story like a video game. I tried to imagine reading this as a book and, while I know it exists, I would not have gotten the same level of excitement and absorption from plain text on paper. Seeing characters react, hearing cues and ominous sounds and drinking in the text as its doled out to me drives the narrative better than anyone could have imagined. I’m already making plans to revisit the game in later years so I can enjoy it again.
That being said, it’s awful that you NEED to read everything in order to gain the full story, because episode one, arguably the most important, is awful. Compared to how the rest of the story unfolds, episode one is neutered of any mystical elements or deeper mystery and feels almost pulpy with how the slaughter of the Ushiromiya family unfolds. It almost feels intentionally horrifying and mundane so that the rest of the episodes stand out and, if that was 07th Expansion’s plan, then bravo, I have to applaud you for it. Having said that, episode one is something that I wouldn’t go back and re-play unless I completely forget some of the important details of the plot. Later episodes hold so much more intrigue and interest, but you simply can’t appreciate it without getting the groundwork.
I’m really impressed with Umineko overall. I’m a reader, always have been, and I never thought that I’d let the world of video games and compelling novels overlap. Even now, I’m not entirely convinced I’ll ever find a game that will tell a better story than a book, but Umineko is a goddamn contender. It’s a bit older, sure, and this isn’t a beach read: you’re looking at 40-50 hours of reading with even more if you delve into the tips and additional chapters (YOU MUST). But if you have time for it, and you can get past the first part, then this is a massively enthralling tale that explores the dynamics of secrets, family and salvation. I can’t wait for the Answer Arc to come at a later date, because I will be calling in sick to work and grabbing a bowl of popcorn, eager to sacrifice a weekend and sleep to read it entirely.
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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