Title: Higurashi: When They Cry
Developer: 07th Expansion
Release Date: August 10, 2002
Reviewed On: PC
Genre: Visual Novel
Higurashi: When They Cry is an iconic piece of visual novel history that was finally fully released in English this past year. It’s a substantial visual novel epic across multiple chapters that we have only reviewed two of, chapter 7 and chapter 8, upon their English release, which concludes the series. So, I thought it would be worth going back to take a look at the series as a whole in one review. This way, we can break down the odyssey from start to finish, without being confined to reviewing a single fragment. Yes, it’s been a long time coming, but I’ve been distracted by a few things (like Umineko: When They Cry).
Higurashi: When they cry is a series of kinetic light novels about the fictional rural Japanese town of Hinamizawa that takes place in the summer of June 1983. The game initially stars Keiichi Maebara, a transfer student who only recently moved to town, which is so small it runs mixed grades. It’s here where Keiichi hangs out with his friends in as part of a club, and they spend their days playing all sorts of games with each other, complete with silly punishment games so they can play with some real stakes. That’s not why we’re here, though.
You see, for the last four years, a bizarre series of incidents have been occurring after the Watanagashi festival, the biggest yearly celebration in the village. During this event, one person ends up dead, and another ends up missing, and is referred to as being “Demoned away.” This becomes known as the curse of Oyashiro-sama, as the Watanagashi festival is supposed to be performed to give thanks and praise to the aforementioned god, the guardian deity of the town. This year marks the fifth year since the curse began. So, how should you respond to the curse that is being ignored by the townspeople, and the sounds of an extra set of footsteps trotting ever so slightly behind you?
On the surface, Higurashi: When They Cry looks incredibly bare-bones. Just to round everything up, the most basic of UI, one pose for each character with questionable art at best, everyone goes unvoiced, the first half of it uses almost exclusively license-free music, the backgrounds are just bitcrushed photos, there’s one CG throughout the entire 80-hour story, and it’s for all intents and purposes totally linear with no player interaction. And yet this is lauded as one of the most significant visual novels of all time. So how do we get from bare-bones to the best?
Well, it’s mostly this way because it was developed by one guy, Ryukishi07, who started the series back in the early 2000s. Nowadays, there are more than a few ways you can modify a game to be more aesthetically pleasing, but I don’t think HD visuals are what players were looking for back when Ryukishi07 was selling the first chapter at Comiket as a $2 disc.
The first four chapters make up what is called “question arcs”,” these arcs function as almost standalone stories and provide the essential information and background for you to construct an overarching narrative. This is before you’re given the knowledge to unquestionably resolve them in the “answer arcs,” chapters five through eight. However, just reading through the chapters one after the other as a passive reader will be doing yourself a disservice as the way these stories are written allows for some of the most enjoyable theory crafting you can experience.
The game taunts you with the information it provides, egging you on to solve the mysteries it puts before you. Is the curse a fabrication, or is it deathly real? If it’s fake, why? And if it’s real, how does it work? That’s just the tip of this narrative iceberg to explore. There’s something about searching for the truth on your own that makes you feel like a far more active participant in the story than simply having a viewpoint character to follow, especially when the narrative sometimes expects the player to be doing so and acts accordingly, which can leave you feeling like a madman arranging papers on a conspiracy wall—an enjoyable rush for myself.
Higurashi: When They Cry is a “sound novel,” a particular subset of visual novels that forgoes almost every element of a video game to focus on narrative. It’s more like a book with a soundtrack at this point.
Our first couple of chapters begin rather simplistically, with a more generic slice-of-life dating sim style of writing that slowly introduces characters. These events are lighthearted and are aimed to be somewhat comical, but I feel these scenes tend to drag a bit, and I’m not a fan of the way the author writes his comedy.
However, I am a big fan of how Ryukishi writes tension and mystery, and once you hit the Watanagashi festival, the plot really starts rolling. The author is fantastic at setting up an extremely chilling atmosphere with nothing more than words and a few royalty-free sound effects, pushing the story right into the horror genre. The kinks in the opening chapters are ironed out by chapter 3, the pacing improves, and some specially crafted cry-worthy songs are added.
This is also where the story begins to more openly explore its serious themes, such as loneliness, isolation, and child abuse, before moving into things like discrimination or mental illness. These issues don’t get glossed over either, simply shoved into a story surface deep to make you feel bad for a character’s tragic past. Instead, they are intertwined with the plot and become deeply emotional scenes that are confronting, uncomfortable, and distressingly real, for both characters and the player alike.
It’s unsurprising, then, to learn the author worked as a civil servant for a time and is merely writing about issues he saw up close. However, within the madness, something else seeps in. In a bizarre contrast to the oppressive atmosphere, this story has, hope, is what ultimately shines through. For each scene that puts your jaw over a curb, there’s a scene that fills you with warm fuzzy feelings (although they’re usually in the opposite order). Ultimately, this is a story about hope and communication amidst trials and tribulations.
Higurashi: When they cry is a series of visual novels that each show incredible heart. Across the chapters, you are provided with a set of scenarios that are easy to immerse yourself in through some excellent character writing and pacing. This is all then administered in a fashion that allows the player, or at least people like me, to have an absolutely incredible amount of fun, just theory-crafting what all these puzzle pieces mean. While the visuals and basic systems might put you off at first, this is a must-play visual novel for any fan of the genre.
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