The village of Hinamizawa serial murder incident... Every year on the same day in June, someone died and there was a mysterious disappearance. This death is intertwined in the conflict surrounding a gigantic dam project. The resurrection of a mysterious case hidden during the Showa era. Conspiracy, chance, or a curse... (Source: MangaGamer)
Having watched the first season of the anime and read the first story arc of the manga, I didn't think that playing the Onikakushi-hen arc of the Higurashi No Naku Koro ni/When Cicadas Cry visual novel could surprise me. Although I haven't delved far enough into it to talk about the murders that will soon plague the claustrophobic village of Hinamizawa, what I've seen so far is an interesting deparature from how Higurashi is experience through its anime and manga adaptations.
For those of you wishing to join me in exploring the Higurashi VN, the first episode is currently available for free via the Kindle Fire and MangaGamer. It seems like the game is a bit of a battery drainer and it takes approximately one hour to download the game data even after you install the app. Luckily, once all that is done, you can jump directly into the game.
I expected a soft opening but Higurashi plunged you into the deep with a black screen and the unmistakable sound of someone bringing something heavy and large - like a baseball bat? - on someone else's head. We are treated to the inner dialogue of our protagonist, Maebara Keiichii, who at this point in time sounds like a complete psychological mess. He is clearly in the process of murdering someone he considers a friend and keeps justifying his actions to himself as he does them.
Then the game jumps backwards in time to a much earlier, happier period, and Keiichii is getting ready for a day of school with his small circle of friends - the moe Rena, the sporty Mion, the bratty Satoko, the quiet Rika. They spend the morning teasing each other, playing games and pranks, and stealing each other's food. It's all fun and lighthearted, but there's a dark edge to every scene that reminds you in subtle ways that these kids are most definitely not all right.
Seriously, Rena is constantly knocking people out and Satoko's idea of a 'safe' prank is to tape thumb tacks to a door handle so Keiichii can hurt himself on them. Rena is the most disturbing girl of the group so far: her punch can knock people off their feet, she wants to kidnap cute things and take them home, and she has apparently never taken a sex ed class in her entire life.
Not that Keiichii is any better. He makes himself out as the only person who can "protect" them because as a man that's just something he has to do and his female friends are too weak/naive to do it themselves. Gag with me a spoon. He sees his friends in a rather clinical light and doesn't seem to have any other friends outside of the four girls, claiming that an age difference makes Keiichii frightening to the other boys in the class.
Naturally, Keiichii is an outsider in the respect that he is not a native, has only been in town for a month, and doesn't fully know the history of the village Hinamizawa. This makes him the ideal main character; through Keiichii's point of view, his ignorance becomes our guide to what makes the villagers tick. In that respect, any questions don't come across as someone trying to figure out hints for a game - it's just Keiichii genuinely doesn't know why things are.
Ryukishi07's art did not get translated directly to anime form and I'm so glad, because his art style is whack with a capital eww. Character's faces are askew, the lines have a scribbled quality to them, and those hands, man. Those hands look like deformed mittens covered in skin, as if Hinamizawa is directly located above a toxic landfill and everyone is just born that way. The scenery art isn't as bad, but there's an odd sepia tone to a lot of them that becomes distracting. Someone should tell Ryu to stop running them through so many Photoshop filters because it's not helping.
As a visual novel, however, the mechanics for the Kindle Fire app are perfect. The menus are easy to navigate and 95% of the time, players can pause the game and save at one of ten save slots so they can pick up the game later. The soundtrack is a nice touch; the music switches appropriately between creepy and casual as the mood of the game changes, and the sound effects are executed perfectly.
Personally, the fact that there are zero dialogue tags throws me off at times and I have to remind myself who is saying who. I think the narrative text would have benefited from a slight tweaking so that players know for sure that a line of dialogue belongs to Rena or Rika. It's not a serious problem until the number of characters in one scene balloons to five and people start sounding alike.
Higurashi as a visual novel is a different beast from its manga/anime versions. Narrative streams are split between the main game and the 'hint' scenes you earn through playing. It's dialogue heavy and the images are mostly static, which doesn't lend to much in the way of emotional expression. We are stuck in Keiichii's POV for the time being, which means that if you don't like him, you won't like the tone of the game. But once you start playing and discovering how the people of Hinamizawa live, you'll find it hard to save and put away this VN.
The Higurashi no Naku Koro ni manga is currently being published in English by Yen Press. The anime adaptation was once licensed by Geneon but is now out of print and unlicensed.