Game: Higurashi Onikakushi
Developer: 07th Expansion
Release Date: 5/5/2015
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for the purpose of review.
Despite being over ten years old, Higurashi is a story that has nevertheless stood the test of time. From its incredibly atmospheric music, to the intense sense of paranoia that permeates every corner of the game’s lengthy story, there is simply something timeless about this tale of murder, vengeful gods, and the insular nature of small-town life. What has lent Higurashi this longevity while many of the other visual novels from the same era have fallen into obscurity? That is the question that we’ll be attempting to answer today.
Higurashi Onikakushi, which roughly translates to “Abducted by Demons”, is the first chapter of an eight-episode plot and serves as a prologue to set up characters and concepts featured throughout the series. From the onset, we are introduced to the game’s primary protagonist Keiichi Maebara — a city boy whose family has just moved to the small mountain town of Hinamizawa for the sake of work. From here we see Keiichi attempt to adapt to his new small-town existence. The first chapter focuses on Keiichi’s school life and his run-in with a group of girls who form the Punishment Game Club: a series of games that has the loser subjected to embarrassing penalties. Each member of the club is an interesting character in their own right, except for a small girl named Satoko. And though I’ve been told that Satoko gets a bit of character development in a later chapter, Rena Ryuguu stands out as perhaps the best of the lot.
Rena, at first, comes across as a rather generic girl-next-door type, but she evolves into something far more interesting as more of her background is revealed. Besides Keiichi, who serves as this chapter’s narrator, every character in Higurashi seems as if they are hiding something about themselves and the mysterious small town in which they live. This sense of mystery and the specialty of the novel’s author serve as hooks for players to latch onto. By the time things come to a head and secrets begin to spill forth, the player wants to keep going through all of the gore and blood to learn the truth behind Hinamizawa and unravel the role that Rena and her friends have played in it. Unfortunately this same mystery may come across as frustrating to some who have only played Onikakushi because it is mostly a prologue for the rest of the story, and the player will have to wait until the release of further chapters to dive into the world of Higurashi.
What could be said of Rena and her friends can also be said of Higurashi’s writing as a whole? The novel begins slowly with Keiichi and his friends playing around and do silly things together. It isn’t long before the mood begins to shift and the carefree days of the Punishment Club’s various activities soon begin to melt into a haze of blood and conspiracy. This shift is a perhaps the most appealing part of the first chapter’s run time, in that there is such a smooth progression between the lighthearted to the macabre. This change is made possible by author Ryukishi07’s natural talent for mixing together disparate elements — in this case carefree childhood days spent with friends and vast conspiracies, into a whole that is far greater than the sum of its parts. We see this in Higurashi’s characters as well as mentioned above in the case of Rena, but, for the most part, such evolution will have to wait until later installments to play itself out in full. In all, within a medium defined almost entirely by text, Higurashi stands out as an example of how evocative a game can be based on storytelling without the aid of high-end graphics.
Thus far, we’ve established that Higurashi’s strength lies primarily in its writing. The music provided by Dai and the rest of 07th Expansion’s composition team, restored here for the first time in a Mangagamer release, is just as important to the overall feeling and mood of the world of Hinamizawa as Ryukishi07’s script is. Though much of the novel’s early portions are defined by happy-go-lucky themes that are best described as “bouncy,” any time the mood shifts from slice-of-life to mystery, the music follows suit. These jumps — often sudden and jarring in timing — help to define the border between the two sides of the games story: the happy day-to-day life of Keiichi and his friends, and the conspiracy that lies just beneath the surface. At one moment when Keiichi and Rena are simply going back and forth about their day at school, the music suddenly becomes foreboding, and Rena’s sprite shows a dead-eyed stare with Keiichi’s narration turned to shouting. This all lends an air to the scene, showing how different the two sides of the story are, and just how thin the wall between them is. This combination of art, text, and music is a rarity, yet 07th Expansion was able to pull off such a combination in their first commercial release.
Not all is well in Hinamizawa however, and some of the novel’s strengths may be a turn-off. At moments, the narrative goes into quite a bit of detail about the deaths, and there are several instances of suicide and self-mutilation. While none of this is ever shown in full detail, the text itself is usually more than enough to elicit feelings of disgust and revulsion. Beyond this, elements of Onikakushi only make sense in the broader context of the rest of Higurashi’s expansive story, with some answers provided as late as the novel’s last episode. This may turn off some readers who wish to jump right into the next part, or who are not used to Ryukishi07’s narrative. He challenges the player to put together the small clues to solve the plot’s mystery on their own.
Despite the fact that Higurashi is a mystery defined by gore and blood, it still retains a strange sense of humor. Most of the humor on display here is found in the interactions between Keiichi and his friends. It is riddled with anachronistic anime culture references that make sense given the fact that Higurashi takes place in the early 80s. Keiichi’s rant about the greatness of the concept of “moe”, for example, or comparing a game of tag to the first Gundam TV series are still amusing for those in the know.
Higurashi is an excellent visual novel only hampered by its poorly aged graphics, which thankfully were touched up a bit for this release, and a narrative that at times is more obtuse and dense then it needs to be. If you are looking to get into visual novels, the works of 07th Expansion, or just want something fun to read, Higurashi Onikakushi is a great experience that I cannot recommend enough.
For more 07th Expansion, make sure to read our recent video interview with Ryukishi07 here or our first e-mail interview with him from back in January. You can also find them on Twitter @07th_official. For more gaming news and reviews, be sure to follow us on Twitter @APGNation.
Till next time, I’ll see you all when the cicada’s cry.