Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, better known as Higurashi: When They Cry or just Higurashi, is a kinetic horror visual novel that hooks you early with lovable characters, drags you on a harrowing adventure, and at last leaves you equally creeped out and heartbroken. Though that holds true for all chapters, this review is only for the first chapter, Onikakushi, or the Abducted by Demons/Demoned Away chapter, since that is the only one released in the new version of Higurashi thus far. I will go ahead and say that for the Higurashi series, you essentially need to review each chapter on its own, since every chapter forms its own inclusive storyline. Each chapter features the same characters in the same setting, but always changes which character is the “villain” of that particular storyline.
I’ll also preface this review by saying that reading the Higurashi VN was not my first foray into the Higurashi series. I’d already seen most of the anime episodes and read the manga that had been produced after the original VN came out in 2002, but I wanted to read the source material, since everyone insists that although the manga and anime were done rather well, both failed to capture what really made the original VN so good. I had the perfect chance to explore the VN take on the story this summer, when Mangagamer released a new version of Higurashi with an updated translation and new sprites. Even though I knew what to expect going in, I was still incredibly pleased with what I got when I started to read it.
Higurashi tells the story of Keiichi Maebara, a high school boy who moved to the tiny rural Japanese village of Hinamizawa in 1983 and befriended four girls: Rena, Mion, Rika, and Satoko. They attend school together, play together, and tease each other mercilessly as only best friends can do. Because of the kindness of these four girls and the relaxing environment of the Japanese mountain village, eventually Keiichi grows to love his new life and is grateful to have left behind his old life in the city. But something sinister is afoot as the day of the cotton drifting festival creeps closer and closer, and a series of deaths and disappearances come to light that have all been linked to a curse by the village guardian; soon, Keiichi will regret ever having come to Hinamizawa.
I consider Higurashi to be one of the greatest horror VNs ever made
I consider Higurashi to be one of the greatest horror VNs ever made largely because it seems so innocent and light-hearted in the beginning. A lot of horror media nowadays sets up a situation that is clearly going to result in someone getting haunted or having an axe jammed through their skull, either because some dumb couple moved into a cursed house or a kid talked to that invisible friend living in the closet or someone burned a Ouija board. These shows or games aren’t scary because you know what to expect as soon as the main character walks into a house that looks like a cozy cabin getaway for Pyramid Head from Silent Hill 2. Higurashi isn’t like that. True, you’re treated to a brief prologue with a crunching sound playing in the background as someone voices a truly mournful lament, but after that it’s all about Keiichi and the girls trying to outwit each other in a variety of games and club activities. Your initial experience with their characters and their world is sweet, innocent, and incredibly enticing. Honestly, for the first hour or so the Higurashi VN could pass for a normal slice-of-life comedy about a perfectly average group of school children. But then, things start to go wrong.
The entire pretty picture of Keiichi’s new life comes crashing down from one seemingly innocuous comment made on the fly. One day after school, Keiichi and Rena go treasure hunting at a local dump, and while Rena digs through the mountains of trash to find cute things, Keiichi hangs back and eventually gets into a conversation with a visiting photographer who stumbles upon the two kids. Keiichi makes a joke to a photographer that his friend is digging through a trash pile to find a buried corpse, and instead of being weirded out or laughing it off, the reporter just says, “Oh, yeah, that was really terrible what happened here.” So now Keiichi knows that there’s something a little messed up in Hinamizawa’s past, but none of the girls will tell him what occurred and in fact insist that nothing happened at all. Keiichi’s search turns up increasingly unpleasant information, and by the day of the Cotton Drifting festival things can never return to normal for him. The final results are less than pleasant. And the worst part? Since this is a kinetic VN, no choices or dialogue options appear at any point. There’s no way for you to get out of town or try to argue your way out of this mess as the story progresses. You just have to sit back and let terrible things that are completely out of your control happen to Keiichi and destroy his whole world.
Just in case you can’t tell by now, the strong point of Higurashi is the story and how it’s told. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this chapter of the Higurashi story because the Onikakushi arc was always my least favorite arc out of the manga and anime adaptations of the Higurashi story, but after playing the VN I like it far more. The girls are more alive, there’s more time invested in developing and explaining Keiichi’s relationship with the people around him, and the gradual descent into pure horror is far more upsetting when you’ve spent so long living a happy, normal life in Hinamizawa and risk losing people that feel like real friends. It was a trip through a very well-developed world with delightful, flushed out characters. Frankly, even if the game hadn’t gone down a dark and twisted route, I would have wanted to keep playing it just so I could see if Keiichi ever beat Mion in a game of wits or finally dodged all of Satoko’s traps in the schoolhouse. The bond between these five seems much stronger than what I saw in the anime or manga, even stronger than what I’ve seen in many other VNs, which makes the ending all the more tragic.
From a technical standpoint, well…honestly, I was expecting better. I and many other Higurashi enthusiasts had to wait months upon months for this release of the game, which promised a better translation and sprites than what was then available via fan patches via fan translations and PlayStation 2 sprites. Reading through the story after its initial release, I noticed multiple typos and grammar mistakes that should have been caught in the months they spent on this single chapter. The fullscreen mode works but creates ugly black bars around the edge of your screen, and you can hear the sound cut out where it loops. A lot of these issues have been fixed since then via various patches, but we were waiting well over a year for a game to come out that had already been translated and patched multiple times, so bugs like this have no excuse.
It’s not a dealbreaker, but I feel like some scenes (such as when Rena rescues a Colonel Sanders statue from a garbage mound) would have made nice CGs.
In addition, I wish that they had thought to introduce a few CGs to the game since they were already redoing most of the art by creating new sprites. It’s not a dealbreaker, but I feel like some scenes (such as when Rena rescues a Colonel Sanders statue from a garbage mound) would have made for nice CGs. Also, Higurashi does not use text boxes, but rather has the lines of dialogue appear over the character sprites, starting at the top of the page and going down. Honestly, I prefer to have my text contained within a box under the sprites so I can see them, and also have a name written in the text box so I know for sure who is speaking (and yes, that was an issue a few times in this story). I later found out that the PlayStation version of the game had voice acting and CGs you could patch into the PC version (the new one, anyway), and that just made things even more frustrating to know that such a valuable element of the game was left out. As for the normal sprites and backgrounds, I honestly like them both, especially since the sprites look so cute and innocent but the backgrounds are rough and smudged, as if to hint that not everything in Hinamizawa is as beautiful as you’d like to believe at first.
This may sound like the Onikakushi arc has a lot of issues, but I don’t think that any of these faults are strong enough for me to tell people to turn away. The story is still excellent, the characters look good and appropriately creepy when things start to fall apart, the music is great at all points, and the world is very well developed. Even with some technical problems, Higurashi is still Higurashi; a delightfully sweet yet horrifically twisted story of five kids, a curse, and one horrible summer.
Higurashi is currently available on Mangagamer and Steam, for $6 on both sites. Considering that this chapter took me about 6 hours to read, that’s an incredibly good deal. I highly recommend picking it up, and experiencing the horror for yourself. The others chapters are being translated one by one, and if you like the Onikakushi chapter be on the lookout for a chance to preorder the others. Buying Onikakushi before release on Mangagamer got you a free Steam copy, so you could share the horror with your friends, and I sincerely hope they do something similar with the other chapters. My final recommendation is get it, read it, and then join the many fans like me who are eagerly waiting for the Watanagashi chapter to release later this year.