By William Haderlie / September 16th, 2016
|Title||Umineko When They Cry – Question Arcs|
|Release Date||July 8, 2016|
|Genre||Thriller, Murder Mystery|
|Age Rating||General Audience|
After you are involved in the video game press for long enough, most surprises will end up being of the negative variety. Once in a while, however, it is still possible to be pleasantly surprised. And in the case of Umineko When They Cry, it was all for the better. After three chapters of Higurashi When They Cry, I had a fairly good idea of what to expect on most fronts, and that was a very well written and developed story that would eventually lead to gruesome tragedy, combined with no voice acting and rather dated visuals. I did get those things, once again, but this time I felt that they achieved even more.
Umineko features many more central characters than Higurashi does, and while the latter focused on the friendships of the main characters, this title focuses more on filial relationships. Other than the servants, everyone in this story is all part of one large family. The family is fabulously wealthy, not only enough to own such a mansion, but also to own the entire island that it is built upon. In many ways the major other (mysterious) character in Higurashi was the town itself. Umineko changes this up by having the mysterious other character being in the semblance of one person, the Golden Witch. Depending on the episode, she will take more of a personal role in the story, but she is always a pervasive influence, just like the town in the previous series.
Speaking of things changing depending upon the episode, that was the largest surprise for me after playing through this game, and a pleasant one it was indeed. This release is basically four sound novel installments in one. Instead of having each alternate story chapter being released as its own standalone game (Higurashi), this game has them all combined into one. But that does not mean that they would not deserve to have their own separate release. There is no lost quality to be seen here, whether with the development or the translation. Each episode is as long as a standard sound or visual novel in length. So this ended up being one of the longest visual novels that I’ve ever played.
I’m not going to go too far into the characters for this game for a couple reasons. The first is that there is such a large list of major characters, this would be a 20-page review. The other reasons are that the character list does change depending on the episode you are in (slightly), and there would be massive spoilers if I went into too much detail. But the characters are all very well written, even with so many of them appearing. The story mostly focuses on the teenage (and child in one case) characters. The narrative perspective will frequently switch, unlike most visual novels which are told from a main character’s point of view. If you only played Episode One, you may think that Battler was the main character, but that proves not to be the case in the long run. Each episode has its own primary character, but overall it’s mostly just whoever will give the best perspective on the events of that moment.
You can once again see what the old character art looked like. And even though the original art was an upgrade from Higurashi, the new art is still a major upgrade. That is for the better and for the worse. The more realistic characters do make the story seem a lot more believable, but that also makes it much more scary (which can be the worse depending on how much horror you want in your fiction). Even though the characters themselves are very realistically written, there is a tough balance with this title because the story itself is much more fantastical. That is one more common feature of the When They Cry games; the reader’s determination of whether the events were supernatural or not. But this one leans much more into the supernatural than the previous series did.
As you have probably already noticed in this review, I have only made very oblique references to the story here, and that is very intentional. I am not going to go much more into it from here. The story is mostly about greed, family affection and history, witchcraft (European style), and some amount of human rights when it comes to perceived second class citizens. But those are the overarching themes. This is a horror murder mystery, and that is why I’m not going to get any more specific than that. The point is to be surprised in the first place. That does risk not having much replay value once you know the results of the mystery, but with a story this well written I think that concern is largely unfounded. Each episode in Umineko does not have quite as much silly fun as Higurashi (although Episode 2 did have more than the other three), but there is more mystery and investigation in each one as well.
One of my concerns with the Higurashi story was with how brutally horrific it ended each time. And, while this one does not end each episode pleasantly, I did not feel quite as disturbed with this title. I think part of it was the nature of each murder was a little more disturbing in the previous series, but also while I liked these characters, the young girls being tortured and murdered in the other series just affected me more because of what they represented. I do also have to frankly cop to the fact that I am notoriously bad with filial relationships and matricide/patricide and such has never disturbed me all that much. The horror is still there, and it can be gruesome, but for me this ended up feeling more like a supernatural mystery than a horror novel.
One of the longest lasting impressions for this title will end up being its music. Quite simply this has one of my favorite visual novel soundtracks of all time. The Higurashi series music has steadily gotten better with each release, after starting off fairly poor with the first release, and I’m really anticipating hearing how it will be in Chapter 4. It will be tough to follow up this one, as this music is a huge upgrade. This is a game that I will be keeping installed just so I can boot it up and listen to the music while I’m reading a book. Thankfully after finishing all four episodes of the game you can unlock a Music Box mode to be able to listen to all the tunes.
That isn’t the only bonus you gain for clearing the game, but that one only unlocks after everything is complete. After each episode completion you will also gain access to the Tea Party and the ????, and there are four episodes for each of those entries as well. I expected them to be similar to the Casting Call of Higurashi, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that instead of a fun little outtake, this is actually bonus story time that leads you into the next episode. As you can see from the above screen shot, ???? has something to do with those who are not Human, and I will not spoil it any further to explain what that means.
My one minor complaint is the sound effects. Compared to the music they sound a bit archaic. The laugh of the primary antagonist in particular sounds like something I heard during the SNES era of gaming. It would have been nice to have some voice acting, but that is not what this sound novel is about, so it’s not really a complaint. It does make it a bit more difficult to determine the length of this one, however. Depending on how quickly you read, this title will typically take 50-100 hours to complete. I would have been closer to the 50 hours if I didn’t frequently stop to listen to the music. Many other users that I’ve looked into their experiences were much closer to the 100 hours. That does make this a very massive undertaking.
The primary component of any visual novel, especially sound novels that don’t feature any choices or alternate routes, is the story. This story is extremely well written and the team at MangaGamer did a simply fantastic job of translating and editing. They are truly to be commended, and the $24.95 price tag is ridiculously reasonable. If you like mystery novels at all, you should be throwing your wallet at the screen for this one.
Review Copy Provided By Publisher
07th ExpansionMangaGamerPCSound NovelSteamUminekoUmineko When They Cryvisual novel