While author Ryukishi07 is best known in the West for his gory murder/mystery visual novel Higurashi, many of his other works have been relegated to Japan for years, available only to readers only via fan translations and less than legal channels. That changed recently when the second of RO7's "When they Cry" series made its American debut on Steam.
This tale of murder, magic, and mystery plays upon many of the same tropes as the author's earlier works but has far more depth and heart than Higurashi ever had. Though the visual novel doesn't cast any single character as its protagonist, instead relying on a cast of well over twenty characters to spin a story of murder and lost love, the reader is most often placed in the role of Battler Ushiromiya, one of the youngest among the well-off Ushiromiya family as he attends a family conference on October 4th and 5th. While the visit would normally see Battler playing with his cousins and his parents bickering over money and inheritance, the small island of Rokkenjima, where the conference takes place each year, is thrown into chaos when a mysterious figure known as the Golden and Endless Witch Beatrice threatens to kill everyone on the island if they cannot solve her riddle and find the family head's massive stash of ten tons of gold.
Since this is a visual novel, there is no actual gameplay to Umineko, nor any choices to be made either. This places the game squarely in the Kinetic Novel sub-genre, meaning that the player simply reads the story all the way through without any breaks for gameplay or other distractions. This allows the reader to focus squarely on the text and story themselves without worrying that they might make a bad choice or have to aim for a particular girl, as you must in so many dating sims that populate the visual novel market. The text itself is displayed in a NVL style, where text is overlaid on the background and character sprites instead of being placed in a box at the bottom of the screen. While this can be annoying at times, as text sometimes obscures the characters to a degree that they cannot be seen or the text read, it isn't a deal breaker in the least and is something you quickly become used to.
The technical aspects of the story aside, Umineko is easily the best of Ryukishi07's work and carries a greater amount of heart and depth than his earlier works, such as Higurashi. We see this mostly in the characters, who are all written in as realistic a manner as one can in a story about murderous witches and an endlessly looping game board. Since there is so much text in the game, collectively all eight episodes of Umineko combined consist of around 1 million words, you really get to know the novel's main cast in a level of depth not usually seen in this genre. Despite its large cast, each member of the Ushiromiya family is given their own character arc, though a few must wait for the novel's second half to be fully explained, which really allows the reader to get into the head and mindset of each character.
Umineko's length is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness as well. Though the titanic length of its text allows for some of the positives I mentioned above, it also causes some episodes to drag on forever as the Ushiriomiya family bickers over gold and the various witches that inhabit the world of the night cackle on for what seems like hours on end. In particular, Episode 1 takes quite a while to introduce all of the key players in the plot, which may turn off some readers who expect to get to the meat of the plot at a more rapid pace. While Episode 3 is simply too long for its own good and drones on endlessly at times, making it a grueling slog at times, which is unfortunate, as Episode 4 is the best part of the first half of Umineko.
But really, if you can get past its sheer length and occasional bad pacing, Umineko is a wonderful story that mixes equal parts love story and gore fest that is sure to please fans of either.
Moving on from the plot, Umineko's art is.... special, to say the least. This is because author Ryukishi07, who is by no means a professional artist, drew the original art for Umineko and it shows as each character looks either odd, ugly, or strangely proportioned . Thankfully, Mangagamer had included a new set of sprites to replace the original that originate from an Umineko-themed Pachinko game. These sprites are colorful and well drawn and are close in quality to those found in the Japan-only home console version of the game. The only problem I have with these new sprites is the fact that nearly every female character, save for Maria, who is 9 years old, has had their bust size massively increased for no real reason -as you can see in the comparison between the PS3 and Mangagamer sprites below- This detracts little from the art itself, but seems like an odd choice to make.
Also odd is the backgrounds that hang behind Umineko's sprites. Rather than being drawn, they are simply photos that had been taken and filtered many times over in an image editing program. This lends a very strange and otherworldly look to Umineko that, while it fits the themes of the game and isn't terribly distracting, the new sprites stand out in a bizarre way against the filtered photos. While this isn't a negative, I personally prefer the clean background art used in the console version of the game to the PC version's photos.
Finally, we come to Umineko's crowning achievement, its music. Ryukishi07 calls his visual novels "Sound Novels," which means that music and sound effects are more important in his work than in most. Music in Umineko is often used to set a scene or call attention to the mood of a given moment, for example, Battler's Theme "Dread of the Grave" is a song of frustration and action that plays whenever he attempts to fight back against the twisted machinations of the witches who are his primary foes. Other standouts include "Mortal Stampede" an upbeat battle theme used during a fight in episode four, "Dreamend Discharger" from the same, and "World End Dominator" from episode 2. This version of the game is missing the excellent vocal themes that open each chapter of the PS3 version of the game, though, like the artful backdrops from the same release, there is little chance that MangaGamer could have acquired them for the Steam release.
So all together, Umineko is one of the best visual novels currently on Steam. If you enjoy a good mystery, love Higurashi, or are just looking for a solid visual novel I highly recommend Umineko.
Umineko: When the Seagulls Cry was reviewed on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the publisher.
Umineko is a strong story backed by fleshed out characters, wonderful music, and some much needed new sprites. However, its slow pacing and wordiness may turn off some readers.(Review Policy)