Umineko When They Cry Review
Without Love, It Cannot Be Seen
Note: This review is wholly spoiler-free, and tries to keep details confined to what is relevant within the first episode. If folks are interested in a more spoiler-y review, leave a comment, send us a tweet, or an email and I’ll write one as a supplement!
In my opinion, one of the most genuinely heartfelt praises one can bestow upon a work of fiction is “I don’t want this to be over.” I had this feeling hit me pretty strongly about three quarters of the way through Umineko When They Cry—which is saying a lot, given that the game took ~130 hours to complete. It is possibly my favourite work of fiction I’ve experienced, and cements my opinion that creator Ryukishi07 is a genius. Well… A genius who could benefit from an editor; but a genius nonetheless. It is a complex, mystifying, emotional tale which has more layers than I could even begin to break down here. Rather than immediately trying to sum the game up, let’s instead start by talking about what it is.
Spin The Board Around
Umineko is part of a genre which writer/creator/director Ryukishi has dubbed the “sound novel.” That is to say it is essentially a visual novel which focuses heavily on its use of audio—voice acting, soundtrack, foley and atmosphere all play a huge part in his works. The entirety of Umineko is fully voiced by incredible voice actors (especially Miki Ito, the voice of Eva) who deliver each of their lines passionately and perfectly for each scene. Their performances are further elevated by the game’s exquisite soundtrack, which has close to 200 tracks—some of which only get used once or twice in the whole experience, which does an incredible job to invest readers in the scenarios with a crescendo of intensity. The impeccable audio work is one thing, but what about the rest of it?
While some games can tend to leverage strong voice acting in order to make a mediocre story appear better than it actually is, Umineko is an example of top tier voice acting bringing an incredible story to a whole new level. The dialogue is spectacular, the storytelling is divine, and the English localization for the official release is second to none. My screenshot folder for this game is bursting at the seams purely due to all of the beautifully written and often insightful text emblazoned upon the screen. There were some passages which stayed on my screen for minutes on end as I contemplated their meaning—not in the sense of me trying to parse their meaning; but rather coming to the realization that it was putting words to feelings I’d never been able to properly articulate, and in ways which left me teary-eyed and introspective. That kind of meaningful impact is just one of the many things which makes Umineko so special, and it would be impossible to ignore one of the largest vectors for these particular moments—the characters.
My first reaction upon starting Umineko was “dang, there are a lot of characters to follow right off the bat.” The game starts and there are eighteen people to keep up with. The majority of them are all members of the same family, with the remainder being the servants and friends of said family. As you could likely glean by the fact that they have servants, the family is quite wealthy, and we join in on their story as they’re all meeting up for their annual family get-together. A conference where the kids get to be kids and play with their cousins, and the adults talk about adult things like inheritance, upholding the status and honour of the family, as well as a multitude of schemes and plots surrounding which of the siblings will become the family head once their father dies. While there is initially a bit of sticker shock by seeing those eighteen characters right off the bat, you quickly get a feel for each of their individual personalities, quirks, and motivations.
Ryukishi does an amazing job controlling the pace of the story, and gives every character an appropriate amount of time in the spotlight. Since it is such a long game, he is able to explore each character with nuance and depth. As the story carries on, you learn so much about each of them—critical and defining experiences from their pasts, their fears, their aspirations for the future, the things they love, the people they love, and much, much more. Each of them is so layered that they start to feel like real people, and within a few hours you will easily know them all by name, and care about each and every one of them. Once you feel comfortable with these core characters, you are slowly introduced to new ones. They continue to be added for quite some time, until we reach a final character count of 46. While this sounds absurd on paper, they each get the same treatment and love as the core eighteen (all while those eighteen continue to get excellent development), and at this point I could easily recite all of their names to you simply by seeing images of them—there are no bad characters, and they all matter to the story. Which makes it all the more affecting when they start dying.
Never Stop Thinking
Oh, by the way, Umineko is a horror story. A brutal one. To be more verbose, it is a profoundly twisty psychological horror with an extremely intricate mystery throughline. The mystery is so masterfully woven into every aspect of the story that, if you were so inclined, you as a reader could potentially solve it yourself within the first few “episodes” (we’ll get back to that term). In fact, though I sunk so many hours into it, part of me wants to go through it all again just to pick up on all the details I had missed the first time. It’s the kind of story where you will be invested in the story beats, reach a revelatory moment, say “wowwww” out loud, and need to go for a walk as everything which came before is wholly recontextualized. Those who know me are likely aware that I’m fairly stoic while gaming, but there were many events which left me pumping my fist in the air, others which left me welled up with tears, and many more which took my breath away.
But what about those “episodes” I had mentioned? To put it another way, think of Umineko as a single story broken up into a series of eight books. The first four of these books are considered the Questions Arcs, and the latter four the Answers Arcs—each of these books is an “episode.” If you are familiar with Ryukishi’s other major work (Higurashi) this format is likely familiar to you; but to sum it up, the Questions Arcs set up the mystery within a horror construct, and the Answers Arcs, as you’d probably expect, answer those questions. This is extremely oversimplified, but is a basic overview of the format—in practice, there are questions raised all the way until the last few episodes. The ending itself is extremely satisfying in a way I can’t in good conscience even begin to describe here. It is sufficient to say that in my opinion that the ending is worth experiencing, and worth the significant time investment.
A question I have been asked by some friends has been “why is this considered a game?” While I could sidestep the issue and say that the last episode does actually have some gameplay, that doesn’t explain the other 7. Ultimate, the answer is: honestly, it isn’t a game. But that isn’t a bad thing. It is a series of episodes which each use a game engine to provide visuals, animations, voice acting, and music to make for an immersive experience. While the manga is supposed to be excellent (and the anime is baaadddd), I think that this format is the ultimate way to experience Umineko. Gratefully, each episode is broken up into smaller chapters which generally work out to ~30 – 45 minute chunks (with a few notable exceptions during particularly climactic story beats), so you will naturally have resting points to save and come back; but man is this book a page turner. I spent a lot of nights up until 2 or 3am on weeknights because I could not put it down.
One last thing I haven’t really mentioned are the visuals themselves. If you intend to play Umineko on PC, I absolutely recommend installing a community-created mod called 07th mod. It patches the game to have high fidelity visuals, music, and audio compared to the original release. It is how I played the game, and it is amazing. The art and voiceover come from the PS3 remaster of the game, which makes both the character and background art more dynamic and beautiful. There are also some pieces of art (called Character Graphics, or CGs) which I genuinely want to make into backgrounds for my computer. I couldn’t imagine the experience without these touches, and can’t sing enough praises for this mod. Without it, the visuals are okay, but the mod demonstrably improves the experience.
If it isn’t abundantly clear by this point, I feel that Umineko is an unrivaled masterpiece. It has simultaneously taken my top spot for both all-time favourite book and game. It might seem absurd for me to say I want to experience even more of this story given that ~130 hours is not a small investment of time; but as the final moments were unfolding and the conclusion was drawing near, I felt genuinely sad about the notion of saying goodbye to these wonderful characters, the amazing world in which they inhabit, and their incredible story. While it is indeed a horror story with a tightly woven mystery tying it all together, ultimately it is also a deeply affecting story about love, loss, trauma, catharsis, feminism, family, the value of living, and the importance of our relationships with fellow humans. “Without love, it cannot be seen” is the core message of Umineko, and one which I’ll carry with me for years to come.
- Exceptional story and characters
- Some of the best voice acting in a game
- Dynamic, high quality soundtrack
- Beautiful art (with 07th mod)
- Very long (~130 Hours)
- Requires a mod for ideal experience