A few weeks ago I finished what I’ve been calling “that visual novel”:「うみねこのなく頃に」, or “When the Seagulls Cry”. I was reading it in sync with a friend (a chapter at a time) so it took about a year and a half for us to actually get through all eight episodes.
And…wow. Totally worth it.
The first time I tried to describe Umineko on this blog, I had little more than
a somewhat violent combination of mystery, fantasy, and horror. I’ve finished the first in the series and am planning on reading (watching? playing?) the rest; a friend-of-friend recommended it very highly.
But I did a little better for last year’s NaNoWriMo story, which was heavily inspired by Umineko:
Umineko is the story of a family conference on a private island that turns into supernatural murder; the first episode ends with all eighteen characters dead or missing. Both Umineko and its predecessor Higurashi: When They Cry have a clever device where the story then restarts, but things play out differently, and you use the commonalities between the stories to figure out what must have happened in each one.
What makes Umineko so great? Part of it is that there are multiple things going on: besides the murder mystery, there’s also a mysterious epitaph that is said to reveal the location of the family treasure, and then a power struggle of sorts on the supernatural plane. Like Higurashi, the characters also all have deep backstories that aren’t revealed at first, to the point where I end up sympathizing with a lot of them even after having wanted to write them off as being horrible people. (Oh, and they are horrible people. Even without the murder.)
Separately from the story itself is the medium: visual novel. It’s essentially like reading a book with pictures, sound effects, and a soundtrack—and seriously, it’s a great soundtrack. The “second credits” song for the first episode and the way it’s presented may even have been one of the top reasons I stuck around, the capstone on a series of memorable, inspirational tracks.
At that point I think I’d read at most the first five episodes of Umineko, but the last three still lived up to the hype…though in very different ways. In fact, every episode manages to do something surprising and new compared to the one before it, and each episode is a full book unto itself. Umineko is a murder mystery, and also a philosophical exploration of the nature of truth, and also a series of human tragedies, and a fantasy action story.
I will say that Umineko merits several content warnings for gory violence, child abuse, and coercive rape.
Umineko is by no means perfect. There are plenty of things that my reading partner and I complained about, both serious and trivial. (The costumes of most of the female characters in the fantasy world made me want to flip tables.) I could see people getting turned away by one of these things, or by the genre, or by the relatively slow pace, or by the medium, and I wouldn’t blame them for it. But for all three of us in the group it was an amazing series.
If I’ve convinced you, you can buy it on Steam…although if you want full voice acting to go with it you can patch your copy to match the PS3 release. I also recommend finding a friend to read and discuss with, as that was a huge part of the experience for us. (Unlike some other visual novels, Umineko has no choice points; you just read until the end.)
Finally, do not watch the anime; it reportedly loses all of the things that make the visual novel so great. The manga is okay but still misses some aspects of it. And if you do pick it up, let me know!
P.S. original sprites all the way.