Higurashi When They Cry is a game described by 07th Expansion, the developers of the game, as a “sound novel.” Where a visual novel relies on the visual aspects, such as character design and background art, the sound novel relies on music and background noise to set the atmosphere and the tone of the story. The series dates back to 2002, when the first chapter, Onikakushi, was released in Japan, with an English release back in 2009 by MangaGamer themselves. Since then, another seven chapters have been created, with various spin offs and fan created chapters developed for various platforms such as PC, Playstation 3 and even the Playstation Vita. The series also has a PSP fighting game. In this remastered release on Steam, filled with updated sprites, achievements and updates, the story starts off with Onikakushi. Served as the introduction to the series, Onikakushi does have an interesting plot, it suffers from terrible pacing, juxtaposition that goes for way too long and music that is way too generic. With that said, sticking around does reward the player with an interesting middle and climax.
The story of centres around Keiichi Maebara, who, with his family, has recently moved to the fictional town of Hinamizawa. He and his family have returned from the city from a funeral and resumes his new life. His school days are spent in a one class school filled with students of all ages. They study hard, play different games during club time and just enjoy life. However, as the Watanagashi festival draws closer, something sinister is brewing underneath this quiet village. Keiichi discovers a murder took place in the village and wants to know more about it, but his friends, Rena and Mion, avoid talking about it, raising Keiichi’s suspicions about this town and its people.
The biggest issue with the first chapter is the pacing. While it does well to serve as an introduction to the characters and the setting, the slow pacing of the chapter drags the story at a snail’s pace. It becomes quite boring and tedious to sit through, especially if all one sees is text, sprites and hears various background music. It takes too long to actually get to the more exciting parts of the story and it will turn off some of the more hardcore fans off the sound novel. There is a certain appreciation when it comes to establishing plot, setting and character, especially with promising elements presented in this first chapter, but it needed to be established at a quicker pace. It felt like finding out the plot after reading ten chapters of nothing but background juxtaposition that barely hooks the player in.
The first moments are like that. While the beginning is quite interesting, where one hears the crunching of bones and reads of a person committing a murder, once it settles, it becomes quite mundane. Yes, it’s important to learn about the characters and the setting of the story, but there isn’t anything to hook the player in. The characters, at first, seemed to be stereotypical teenages. There’s Rena Ryugu, one who is easily teased and a bit odd. She seems to enjoy travelling to the rubbish tip. She also loves cute things. Mion Sonozaki, who is the same age as Rena and Keiichi, is the opposite; confident, sociable and extremely competitive, as shown throughout the various card and board games they play during club activities. At first, they weren’t that interesting. However, as the story progress, just like the plot, these two characters suddenly got more intriguing. There are other classmates as well in this all ages class, but they too are characterised by one particular quirk about them. Again, this is boring and dull.
Since the visual novel is considered a sound novel by its developer, the music and background ambience plays a significant role in developing the right atmosphere. Well, it does create the appropriate mood and tone. When there is an emotional scene, emotional music plays out. When there is a scene involving the classmates playing a game during club activities, cheerful music plays. There’s not fault in that. With that said, the music selection could have been better as it sounds way too generic for those scenes. Variety would have been nice as well. The looping of the music tracks needs to be fixed as well. They would suddenly stop and reset back to the beginning like a broken record.
As for the visual aspect, the visual novel can be played with updated sprites, new for this release. It’s recommended to use the new sprites, selected by default, as they blow the old ones out of the water. They cleaner, sharper and the character designs are better. There could have been more motion poses rather than a few facial expressions and static bodies. Also, purely preference, but the blurry picture backgrounds don’t work. Hand drawn backgrounds would have been better.
Since this is a re-release for Steam, there are new bells and whistles to enjoy. One of the biggest additions are Achievements. These are secret Achievements which are unlocked throughout the game. Some of these Achievements are unlocked through progression of the main story. Steam trading cards can also be earned as well as saving to the Steam Cloud. Also added in are updated sprites and the ability to switch between the original and the updated sprites. MangaGamer are also constantly updating the game as there are a few glitches here and there, such as typos in the text. Most of them seemed to be fixed, however.
Despite a very slow start, Higurashi When They Cry Chapter 1 Onikakushi can be an enjoyable experience, but only to the few hardcore visual/sound novel fans. The slow start is at a snail’s pace with no real hook other than a murder happening in the beginning. The characters are dull and boring at first and the music is too generic. However, once the introduction is out of the way and the plot starts showing itself, it cranks up to a world of mindblowing revelations, with the horror aspects making this an interesting experience. If not for the weak beginning, this would have been an excellent visual/sound novel. But, as part of the series, this was a weak start. But it can only get better from here.
MangaGamer, publishers of the title in 2009 and this Steam release, provided us with a Steam Key for the purpose of review. MangaGamer also requested the reviewer to talk about various topics within the review The critique and the rating is of the reviewer’s own opinion. Please see our section on PR edits for full details.