This is a guest review by Alain Mendez. Alain, a.k.a. Hisui, a.k.a. Saber Fan #1, writes for Reverse Thieves and is a part time detective and otaku. He also has a podcast on Anime3000 called The Speakeasy. You can talk to him on Twitter about a wide variety of topics as he is an anime, manga, comics, science fiction, and role playing aficionado. Just mention your love for female King Arthur.
Let us begin at the beginning. There are a multitude of adaptations of Higurashi but all of the anime, manga, live action films, novels, drama CDs, PS2 games, DS games, and iOS games of Higurashi no Naku Koro ni have a common origin in the original visual novels for the PC. Higurashi is actually made up of 2 sets of 4 visual novels released at Comiket by 07th Expansion. Released as doujinshi games they were a surprise success and put 07th Expansion and the When they Cry series on the map. The first set of games is made up of 4 visual novels collectively known as the question arcs and each game has a corresponding game in the second set called the answer arcs. The question is what makes these first four stand out from normal visual novels as well as from the other iterations of the franchise.
I won’t go into great details about the specifics of the plot. If you are unfamiliar with the story of Higurashi then you should read the manga summaries by TheGinachu for Higurashi Month. They sum up the story of each arc quite nicely. Each arc focuses on a specific girl as we delve into the mystery and madness of the secrets of the town of Hinamizawa and the endless summer of June 1983. Despite the similarity in story there are two major differences between the manga and anime adaptation that make the original games stand out.
The first is that in the original the time devoted to each arc is much different. Having read the manga and watched the anime I noticed that the pace is much slower in the original games than in any of the adaptations. Even with the Time Wasting chapter, which is the shortest of the 4 games, has a slower pace in the visual novel format. Almost as if having all the time in the world the games firmly ground the story in the mundane before the gradual crescendo to the madness and ultra violence that ends most of the arcs. There are many more scenes of everyone getting along as the slowly build up the oddities in everyone’s behavior.
This slow building story great affects the horror as well. Animation and live action control the pace as which the viewer sees things. The director can determine how quickly the viewer goes to the next event. This lets visual mediums also use jump scares to frighten the audience. While these are often considered a cheap trick they are unusually effective. A visual novel can sometimes control the pace by speeding up or slowing down the text but the reader can still exert a good deal of control over the pace of the story despite this. Jump scares can be somewhat replaced by waiting to spring a scary scene after a page turn but they are rarely as effective as they are in visual mediums. Higurashi compensates for this but having stronger psychological horror. The most effective way the visual novels unnerve you out is by slowly building the sense of dread. The first three arcs wonderfully build the growing paranoia and hopelessness in Keiichi as he slowly finds entangled in a horrible destiny. The fourth arc does quite a bit to unsettle and disturb you as well.
The other major difference story wise is the emphasis on the mystery aspects. Ryukishi07 makes it very clear that he wants you do be freaked by the supernatural menace but also to sit back and think about what happened in each arc afterwards. We see Keiichi do more detective work in the games and makes reference mystery and crime novels more as well. As a bonus at the end of each arc there are little omake theaters where the characters gather and discuss the story and clues. Half the characters support the idea that the crimes have a human culprit and the other half think there is a supernatural force at work. While these sections are extremely humorous they have a secondary purpose of getting the reader to examine the story and think about it as a solvable mystery despite how hopeless the task may seem at first. It gives the visual novels a very different feel than any of the other adaptations.
Without a doubt the graphics are the weakest part of Higurashi. Ryukishi07 is clearly a writer first and artist second. No matter how much they slashed the budget on the anime or what you think of each individual artists for the various manga arcs they are clearly better at drawing the characters than Ryukishi07. They characters look slightly crude and their hands are infamously oddly drawn. You are clearly here for the story and not the art. If you need pretty pictures you best bet is to seek out one of the professionally done versions. The PS2 and DS versions are much nicer in the art department but none of them are officially licensed or translated.
The real question comes down to is Higurashi worth your money. It is a visual novel without any erotic content, so if you were hoping to get steamy love scenes like in a majority of the other visual novels on the market you will be sorely disappointed. But if you wanted to test the waters with a visual novel that you would to be ashamed of playing if someone walked in on you playing than this is a great place to start. As for its advantages over other iterations of the franchise is it the increased depth of the games. There is more meat to all the charters, stories, and mysteries in Hinamizawa. While a horror story the games are also a mystery with a distinct push and pull towards discovering the answers to the riddles proposed by this tale of the macabre. The graphics make it a hard sell indeed but the added richness make this an excellent point of entry of new fans as well as something worth visiting for established fans.
The Higurashi visual novels are licensed by MangaGamer