I’ve been putting off this review for months trying to collect my thoughts. It has been an experience unlike any other. It single-handedly made me fall in love with the mystery genre, teaching me to appreciate all the intricate details the author has to conjure up. But with its mystery themes aside, Umineko no Naku Koro ni is a beautiful tale of love and suffering.
Umineko no Naku Koro ni, which literally translates to Seagulls: When They Cry, is the second series from Ryukishi07, the creator of Higurashi no Naku Koro ni. In short Umineko is an exceptional murder mystery, heavily inspired by Agatha Christie’s famous And Then There Were None. But even without its mystery elements this title is an amazing tale that will change your take on the world by the time the credits go rolling by.
The protagonist of this tale is Battler Ushiromiya. He and his parents visits a private island called Rokkenjima to meet up with their relatives. For the children, Battler, Jessica, George and Maria, this is a period during which they get to finally meet up with their cousins and enjoy their time. For their parents this is a time when they argue about splitting up the inheritance once their father dies. The owner of all their riches is Kinzo, a man who in recent years has become obsessed with the occult, spending every moment possible in his study. He is depicted as a monarch, a powerful man able to silence all his children just by entering the room. Still this doesn’t prevent the internal arguments about the inheritance behind his back.
Legend has it that Kinzo’s great fortune came from a pact with a witch. This pact gave him 10 tons of gold ingots which allowed him to get the funds he needed. Beatrice, the thousand year old witch behind this, is said to be the real owner of this island and will return one day and take back everything Kinzo has made. Kinzo’s obsession with Beatrice has made him put up a portrait of her and under it an epitaph. Whoever solves the riddle of the epitaph will receive all the riches and the pact will be broken. It’s to no surprise that nobody believes in this little story, accrediting Kinzo’s obsession with the occult as him going mad and his supposed gold being just a fairy tale.
Everything takes a nosedive for the worse when a hurricane delays the ship that was supposed to take them home. Soon murders occur in the exact order as they were depicted in the epitaph, one by one. The survivors find the corpses mutilated and the doors marked with magic symbols. Soon everyone suspects everyone, uncertain if these grisly murders were done by a man or by the witch Beatrice.
After the events of the first chapter Battler refuses to believe that a witch could be behind the murders. He challenges Beatrice, ready to prove to her that the murders can be done by a human. Together they watch as those cruel events unfold, again and again, fighting with words from the comfort of the witch’s tearoom. The constant battle between mystery and fantasy as well as the game of cat and mouse between Battler and Beatrice are the main motives of this game. Whenever you think you are about to grasp the situation another clue turns up which throws everything upside down.
As you might have guessed the story is extremely meta. Witches will be sipping tea and enjoying cake as they watch the people on the island die one by one. The majority of murders are shown from the witches’ perspective. However all this is written in such a metaphoric way. When the Beatrice burns a victim or the squad of bunny soldiers snipe someone from afar, it may have a twofold meaning, leaving it up to the reader to decide which of these two elements he wants to believe, the mystery or the magic.
The entire story is written in this double layer structure. The author himself said he wrote each chapter twice linking them at specific parts. What this means is that once you complete the game playing through it again is as enjoyable. You will see all the little details in a totally new light. And in the words of one loli witch: “Tales can be enjoyed twice. First you love them. Then you tear out their guts.”
At the beginning of the game there are almost 20 characters each with their own distinct personalities and motives. Every character is flawed in their own way, from the self-condescending servants who call themselves furniture, to the overzealous adults who conform to the seven deadly sins. Each and every one of them can be over-analyzed to your heart’s content, uncovering a new clue to the mystery. Each character is explored in depth and by the end you will genuinely feel as if you are part of the Ushiromiya family.
New characters are introduced in each chapter, for both the fantasy and mystery side. Some of the characters from Higurashi also make a return, but not in exactly the form you might come to expect. The tale culminates with the introduction of a detective Erika. She is self-proclaimed intellectual rapist, a person who doesn’t care about anything other than unveiling the truth no matter how many people it may hurt. It is through her that the author shows the readers their naivety, piercing through many of the mysteries in this title, but also showing that the truth may not always bring us happiness.
Whenever I watched a murder mystery I always saw it as a story, a case that the protagonist solves and then presents to the viewers, making them nod at how clever the tricks were. Umineko showed another part of murder mysteries, the part where the viewer is an active participant, trying to solve the mystery before the detective rounds up all the suspects ready to make his proclamation. It’s a battle between the author and reader. The author poured his soul into this work and you as the reader are rewarded for every thought that you put into this title.
The entire mystery follows the 10 Knox commandments and still manages to flawlessly hide the truth. Because of its heavy magic motives, almost all the murders are done in gruesome way in a locked room with no way out. To aid your detective work you have the option to check up on notes explaining how, when and why characters died or disappeared once it has been revealed in the game.
The game does a good job of stating any of the ideas or theories you may come up with. To make this whole title solvable Beatrice will often counter Battler’s theories with her own statements marked in red text. There are considered the absolute truth and it is from these that the protagonist and reader can build a theory about what exactly happened.
Just like Higurashi, Umineko is very metaphysical, touching on many philosophical and logic theories throughout its duration, such as: Occam’s razor, Laplace’s demon, Schrodinger’s cat, devil’s Proof, phlogiston and caloric theories, Hempel’s raven, posterior probability and Menger sponge. Thankfully the game will go and explain in depth when the time comes, so it will never go over your head.
But despite all the philosophical and mystery elements, the game is not without love. The whole work is based upon love and the way it changes perception of the world. Part of the mystery is almost unsolvable if you are blind to the magic and emotions and just look at all the clues and cold facts.
Like Ryukishi07’s other games, Umineko is almost void of any choices. Instead every chapter starts in exactly the same way, but slowly branches, showing a totally different aspect of the mystery. It follows an almost identical structure, consisting out of 8 chapters. The first 4 chapters of the game form the question arc, while the next 4 form the answer arc. Unlike Higurashi, the cut is not as clear. Some answers pop up during the question chapters and more questions appear during the answer parts which keeps the game exciting until the very end. Chapters were released in a 6 month interval, once every Comiket. Because of this and its sheer length it is a good idea to take a week or two break in-between each for your thoughts to settle.
Aside from all this praise, Umineko is a game you will either love or hate. It doesn’t have the distinct horror elements that made Higurashi such a hit, and its story does get repetitive despite all the author’s efforts. The meta worlds, witches and extremely slow start to each chapter can be a final nail in the coffin when it comes for some readers. If you are a person who doesn’t enjoy going through 4 hours of text about a family arguing before it comes to the good parts, Umineko may not be your cup of tea.
The game definitely drags out for too long, taking well over 80 hours to complete. That is not to say that a single chapter is bad. Almost every chapter had a very important purpose. However unlike enormous Muv-Luv: Alternative for example, some elements just feel like they add very little to the core plot.
The visuals are a step up from Higurashi. Things look a lot better, but they still have that one man vibe. They might not be as cringe worthy as before, but they are not pleasant never the less. The game has a PlayStation 3 version which has amazing 1080p artwork, but for English readers the original is the only option.
The music is amazing, really fitting with the whole tone of the title. It’s filled with upbeat classic music, composed so well you can almost see the witches dancing. The PlayStation 3 version is fully voiced and the actors did an amazing job. The author also purposefully withheld information from the voice actors so they could deliver believable lines, not knowing the answer to the mystery beforehand.
I must admit I came into Umineko with pretty low expectations, thinking that after Higurashi there was no way anyone could make a visual novel that was so thrilling to read from start to finish. Thankfully I was wrong. Umineko feels like a natural progression to the series, with almost everything being improved. The pace may be a bit slow, but it is a wonderful tale, filled with witches, detectives and a riddle that shows the path to the hidden gold, that is a must read for everyone.
“See you again, when something else cries.”
Both the question and answer chapters can be bought from MangaGamer. The game is sold in Japanese but the translation can be downloaded from The Witch Hunt, a phenomenal group to which the author himself gave his blessing. For anyone unsure about the game, the whole first chapter is available for free.