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2011-10-18

Umineko no Naku Koro ni Review


Title: Umineko no Naku Koro ni (うみねこのなく頃に)
Release date: 2008-12-29 (2009-06-07 in English)
Developer: 07th Expansion
English publisher: Witch Hunt (as a fan-patch)

"Umineko no Naku Koro ni" or "When the Seagulls Cry" is the second visual novel in eight chapters (this game contains four of them) created by Ryuukishi07 of "07th Expansion" fame (counting Higurashi saga as a single work). Both Higurashi and Umineko have garnered huge following both in Japan and in the other countries and despite being made by a doujin group have already become franchise names with manga, anime, live movies and other crazy shit based on them ruling the wallets of impressionable masses. Can I say "Moooo"? I have already reviewed the Higurashi series earlier on this blog and can honestly say those were some of the best VNs I have ever played. Can Umineko hold up to that achievement? One way or the other, comparisons to Higurashi are unavoidable.

The infamous witch's portrait.
Let me check the statistics first: as of the writing of this review Umineko holds the 6th highest position on VNDB by Bayesian rating and 12th by popularity with way over 300 perfect votes. What a trooper!

Umineko is an all ages kinetic novel in mystery/horror genre. Note that all ages is used sort of loosely here - "Braindead" was also an all ages movie as it had no explicit sex :-P It follows the same narrative structure as Higurashi. There are four chapters in the game following the same "sixes and ones" logic. Humans are fickle creatures and repeatedly put in the same conditions they will not necessarily act the same. Thus time rewinds after the end of each chapter and we get to witness the same characters spin four completely different tales.

Legend of the Golden Witch

This is an introductory chapter to the game and the shortest of the four. It basically introduces the characters and the setting and let us familiarize ourselves with the game world and its rules (not all of them though).

And the plot itself is this. The aged head of Ushiromiya family, Kinzo, is counting his last breaths until being invited to the great beyond and his children and grandchildren arrive to the secluded island of Rokkenjima to discuss the inheritance matters. Discuss is a bit of a tame word here as they are basically squabbling like vultures over the smallest pieces of Ushiromiya legacy. Everyone is in a dire financial situation and in a dire need for money, thus a perfect motive for murder. And murder does happen... A raging typhoon cuts off the island from the mainland, phones stop working and 18 people are completely isolated in a foreboding mansion on a solitary rock in the middle of the ocean.
The philosophy of a bottle.
What happens next is closely reminiscent of one of the most famous detective stories of all times "Ten Little Niggers" (or "And Then There Were None" for the sensitively inclined folks). The book is actually mentioned in the fourth chapter of the game itself, thus it is an acknowledged influence on the plot. Kinzo, his personal doctor Nanjo, five servants, four children of Kinzo's, three spouses of theirs and four grandchildren are picked and brutally murdered one by one by a malevolent force that may or may not be the fabled Golden Witch Beatrice.
Battler's parents are cheery folks.
Here we see the first difference in comparison with Higurashi. Where that novel employed a single first person POW for every chapter (only variating in the answer arcs), here the POW shifts left and right and the story is told either from a third person position or from a first person one. Despite this, Kinzo's grandchild Ushiromiya Battler is an undeniable protagonist of the first three chapters. Battler himself is a hotblooded and thickheaded protagonist that sometimes plows forward like a tank with little regard to common sense and sometimes shows an unexpected tactician's insight into the mysteries of Rokkenjima. Here, in the first chapter, Battler takes up the role of a detective trying to piece together how the increasingly bizarre murders could have happened. As a counterposition he has to fight a viewepoint of others (mainly servants) that states that everything happening on the island is work of a witch.

Battler absolutely refuses to believe in magic and thinks that every trick can be explained by human ingeniousness. Magic or human villainy? I wonder if there is an answer in this bizarre tale. Higurashi had a definitive answer, but Umineko has a very different mood. Despite my misgivings about the direction the next chapter might go into, I enjoyed it a lot. "Legend of the Golden Witch" was a solid detective mystery story that manages to create suspense and doesn't show us too much, inciting certain expectations for the next chapters.

Turn of the Golden Witch

Certain expectations I said? Well, the second chapter shoots them, sets them on fire and steps on their nads and after that they explode in a fantastic fireball Chinese style. "Turn"... erm... turns in a complete different direction.
Shannon, dear, you have a perfect grasp of what marriage is.
First of all, in this chapter lots of attention is paid to younger guests of the mansion and their romantic exploits. The previous chapter didn't have a particular person whom the plot revolved around. This time it's George and Shannon and to a certain extent Jessica and Kanon. This unexpected delving in their backstories and feelings was quite interesting and had my attention for the first third part of the chapter. However I was less than impressed with the remaining parts.

Unlike the "Legend", "Turn" shows all the murders to the reader in the mystical light and even introduces the fabled Golden Witch in the flesh. Now here is what clashed with me: if we are to take the shown events as the truth, then all the murders are the work of the witch. If we are to doubt them, then what we are shown is but a trolling on Ryuukishi07's part and we must take every single thing with a lorry of salt. In Higurashi truth was mixed with fiction in such a highly advanced way, that until the very end you couldn't tell them apart (like the needle in ohagi). Here everything is either a fact or a fiction. If it's a fact, then the story loses it's mystery aspect, if a fiction, then everything is a needle in ohagi and we are being royally trolled. And I'm not fucking buying that Schrödinger's cat explanation as it doesn't work here at all!

Also, starting with this chapter a narrative structure was introduced that will be prevalent until the end of the game. While the trapped people are trying to evade the killers and stay alive, Battler of the first game is engaged in a battle of wits with the witch and trying to explain every mystery without magic (yes, you read that right...). If he manages to do that, the witch will be defeated. Thus from now on we are constantly immersed in two different worlds: The Chessboard where all the 18 pieces are making their moves and The Sidelines where all the witches and demons and Battler of the first game are observing the ongoing game.
Yeah, I like my MGS too.
Here is my main quibble. I am offended by the goal of the game! Battler can only win by fervently denying one of the two equally possible explanations and his defeat lies in accepting the existence of magic. I refuse to believe that a good detective can throw out the possible explanation (even though it's unlikely) out because of the petty principles. And even more I am irked that the game states that acceptance of magic is a basis for loss. I don't believe that arriving to one of the two possible conclusions should be treated as inferior to the other conclusion (human theory). Battler thus comes out as a close minded constipated fool and the game as a rigged mafia horse betting with no chance of winning. By the end of this chapter I had already lost my interest in Umineko and the main reason was that this episode and the whole game at that point appeared to lack a goal, a suitable direction and the storytelling seamed convoluted and unnecessary confusing. However I managed to overcome may dislike and went onto the next chapter.

Banquet of the Golden Witch

This chapter can without a doubt be called Eva chapter as she is the single most important person here. At first everything goes into the same old direction with little interest on my part, but some time into the episode something happens that jolts me like a cattle prod to the balls and grabs my attention again. And to my huge surprise doesn't let me go... Telling more would be coming into the spoiler territory, but let's just say that alliances in this game might suddenly switch to any unexpected direction.
Beatrice, you're so cute, I'm gonna take you home!
Not only that, but this episode contains lots of backstory about the Golden Witch, a backstory which I found hugely entertaining. The game finally finds its goal and direction again and even if it may swerve sometimes, still, story continues towards the conclusion in an exciting rollercoaster like ride.

Alliance of the Golden Witch

The final and the longest chapter of the first game. Seriously, it's at least twice as long as the third chapter, which in turn was at least twice as long as the first one. It does many things differently than the previous ones and despite that or, maybe, because of that, it's my favourite episode.

The timeline switches between the usual 1986 where all the other chapters are set and both flashbacks and flashforwards. Battler also relinquishes position as the protagonist to his half sister Ange. It's not that Ange is a better character than Battler (after all, her backstory irritated me), but her general disposition toward finding out about what happened to her brother 12 years ago is really refreshing. Her approach to the mystery is also the one that I approved of, unlike that of Battler's. The speech about self-satisfaction that she delivers midpoint through the episode is in my opinion the pinnacle of the whole game.

The second most important (or maybe the most important) character here is Maria and she manages to be both pitiful and badass at the same time, which is not an easy feat when you are 9 years old. Her backstory is both tragic and bittersweet and I loved the little rascal to pieces. After all she is my second favourite character in the game after Beatrice.

The episode ends on a high note which is a non-annoying cliffhanger that instead invites us to warmly wait for continuation that is surely not so far away from being completely translated.

Characters

There are 18 characters trapped on the island not counting Beatrice and her entourage, and all of them are equally important to the story. I think that talking about all of them would be counterproductive, so only the few chosen ones will be described.

Yay for sexual innuendos!
I have already talked about Battler, but I'll add some more. I think that he is quite a likable and endearing protagonist mainly due to his proactive qualities that are so rare in visual novels, but I couldn't really connect with him. I felt that he was stubbornly and closed-mindedly floundering and beating around a bush and in many cases he came across as a whiny little bitch. He cannot in any way be compared with Keiichi from Higurashi, who was the epitome of awesomeness and badassery and was capable of inspiring others with his actions or words. Battler on the other hand either starts crying or grabs a bottle when faced with an obstacle he can't beat in a single strike. Still, he is better than many protagonists.

Beatrice, the Golden Witch is my favourite character which is quite an accomplishment, considering she is a complete monster. She is fickle, vain, cruel murderous bitch, who loves to torture others for her own amusement. The worst thing is, even the death won't protect you from her. I can completely understand Kinzo's infatuation with her. If I was in his place I would also yearn to lock her up in my house and make Endless love with her, even if it kills me (it would...).

We don't see much of Kinzo, as most of the time he is holed in his study, but he is the main catalyst for the events of the story and arguably the most important person on the island. He is a great magician and is half mad from love, grief and power.

Maria is a nine year old occult fanatic, who probably understands the most about the events of the game. The thing is, grown-ups never listen to children, do they? Her backstory is heart-wrenchingly cruel, but Maria never lost her smile and is a shining beacon for those who know her.

Your friendly neighbourhood occultist.
Rosa is Maria's mother and a most despicable, blackhearted, unsalvageable ruin of a human being. It's easy to hate her and wish all the evils of Pandora box onto her head. It's also one of the most cackling inducing entertaining things to watch her getting her comeuppance and she deserves every ounce of pain inflicted on her.

Eva is the main star of the third chapter. Her backstory is also quite cruel and sad, but she adopted a policy of burdening others with her pain and deriving a satisfaction from their suffering. It is also easy to hate her, but, unlike Rosa, she gets some sympathy from me.

The difference between Higuarshi and Umineko characters is that in the former they felt like real people, where in the latter all the character portrayals are larger than life, almost theatrical. It seems that Ryuukishi07 wanted to underline certain qualities of his characters and overexaggerated them on purpose. It's not a bad thing, but it certainly breaks immersion. You always remember that you are playing the game and can't get lost in the game world like in Higurashi.

Other stuff

Sing along.
Ryuukishi07 has a godly vision when he needs to chose the soundtracks for his games. Even in the first Higurashi game, where he used free internet resources, the music was very memorable and by Higurashi Kai it became unforgettable. Here is no difference. The whole Umineko score this time was composed specifically for the game and it fits in completely. Many tunes are unforgettable, and by just hearing them again you will always remember of Umineko. My favourite one, by the way, is "Happy Maria". It sounds only once in the whole game, but that moment is both hackle raising and forcing you to whistle along with it. Furthermore, unlike Higurashi Umineko has an opening video and both the video itself and the song really grew up to me, though I must admit that I didn't like them when I heard the first time. It's no wonder that 07th Expansion applied their kinetic novels a "Sound Novel" label.

Just like in his previous games Ryuukishi07 makes the art for his games himself. That is, he makes the sprites as all the backgrounds are blurred photographs. He may not be a very good artist as all his "paper dolls" are very simplistic with not many details, but they can rival anything with their expresivity. Seriously, they can portray so many emotions and nuances with their faces, that they rival the sprite making of many commercial companies. Also I don't think that his art is bad even in general. I adored Higurashi's art that was even more simplistic and Umineko, that is an improvement in that area looks very pretty to my eyes. Others might not share my sentiments, but I believe that this art style is just perfect for this kind of story as it adds additional creepiness to the atmosphere.

Summary

You can't argue with THAT statement.
While the first four chapters of Umineko game couldn't reach the heights of Higurashi for me, I feel that it is a very solid game. Good first chapter, below average second one and awesome third and forth chapters together form a very compelling horror/mystery story. Somewhere I read an opinion that Ryuukishi07 is a great horror writer that is quite lame in the mystery department and I partially share this sentiment, as those parts that are supposed to inspire uneasiness and dread in the reader are much stronger then their mystery counterparts.

Links of Interest

Visual Novel Database
Official Japanese site
Witch Hunt English translation group site
Download free demo of the first chapter
Buy the package edition at : AmiAmi, PaletWeb, Mandarake or Rakuten.
Buy the download edition at Hobibox (note that regional restrictions apply), Gameliner or MangaGamer.
Umineko PS3fication project (ports graphics and voices from PS3 to PC version; only Episode 1 currently done)

Final verdict: 81%

3 comments:

  1. Hi!

    "Rosa is Maria's mother and a most despicable, blackhearted, unsalvageable ruin of a human being."

    Naaah, don't be silly. Everyone knows Rosa is the best mom.

    Anyway, I just wanted to tell you it's fun and interesting to read your in depth reviews of visual novels, games and whatever else you play :).

    I never heard someone say anything nice about Umineko's sprites haha. Though I have to agree with them that things could be drawn better (for example the mitten hands), you make a good point by saying they're very expressive. People often underestimate how much an expressive character counts.

    Anyway, interesting! I'll subscribe to your page, so keep it up~

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  2. Thanks, Anna. I hope you will enjoy visiting again.
    P.S. Yes, of course Rosa is the best Mom. You just want to hug and squeeze her to death... painfully >;)

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  3. You reviewed the question arcs. Heh... Have you finished the Answer Arcs of the series? Witchhunt has translated and patched the remaining four 'episodes'.

    Goooood stuff.

    ReplyDelete