In Reading Corner, Susan takes a look at some visual novel games, and takes you through the highlights and lowlights of this subgenre.

Higurashi: When They Cry – Onikakushi is not only a mouthful to say but it’s another visual novel I played through in my exploration of the genre. ‘Played through’ probably isn’t the right thing to say, ‘read through’ is more accurate as this was a visual novel in its purest form. Higurashi is simply reading – the only level of interaction is clicking through to read even more text. At first, this was quite off-putting, as I like the choose-your-own-adventure or even the puzzle aspects of the visual novel games that I’ve played so far – otherwise, why not just read a book?

Onikakushi is the first in a series of four, which together creates the Question Arc of the storyline. After this, there are four games called Umineko: When they Cry, which make up the Answer Arc, naturally. The thought of Higurashi being a part of a wider tapestry of stories made the reading aspect of it a bit more palatable to me – after all, I could be discovering a new favourite book series here.

Higurashi is another title that has a reputation for being a fine visual novel, so I was excited about starting it. After some further reading, I learned that Higurashi is described by the creators, 07th Expansion, as a ‘sound novel’. This means that care has been taken to create atmosphere through the use of sound effects and music to complement the story itself. It sounded promising, I thought, so there was nothing to do except brace my eyes, and maybe my ears.

A large chunk of time is dedicated to slice-of-life, giving you an insight into life in Hinamizawa, the personalities of the characters, and their various relationships.

The main character is Keiichi Maebara, who has moved to the rural town of Hinamizawa. Keiichi makes friends at school with a group of girls, each with their own distinct personality. There is Rena, a silly but kind girl with a penchant for all things ‘kyute’; Mion, an athletic leader; Rika, a quiet and stately young lady; and Satoko, a mischievous prankster. Together, they form a club to make their days more interesting, participating in various games and challenges and frequently trying to one-up each other. Each challenge has a hilarious but embarrassing punishment for the unlucky soul who loses.

A large chunk of time is dedicated to slice-of-life, giving you an insight into life in Hinamizawa, the personalities of the characters, and their various relationships. These are just like reading through any all-ages manga – there are a lot of silly antics and daily adventures to get through. In Onikakushi, these kind of adventures took up the first 3-4 hours of reading, which is a lot of time if you think about it.

However, things took a turn once we reach the Watanagashi Festival, the annual festival which takes place in Hinamizawa and is centred around the town’s temple grounds and rooted deeply in its traditions. At this point, you start to realise that the long buildup and characterisation at the beginning was just to lull you into a false sense of security. As the story continues, a horrid, creeping sensation starts to build and all of those light, fun moments are suddenly cast in a very dark shade. You realise that the small idyllic town that Keiichi is in, is actually a nightmare, and the very friends who have been by his side this whole time are the demons that lurk in the dark.

You realise that the small idyllic town that Keiichi is in, is actually a nightmare, and the very friends who have been by his side this whole time are the demons that lurk in the dark.

Onikakushi is an excellent horror novel. Once the story started to take its bleak turn, the action accelerated and at times it was quite scary and difficult to read. That was when I forgot that this was a visual novel and simply started to experience it. Still, it took a lot to get to that point, and the slice-of-life scene-setting at the beginning was often quite painful to get through. Looking back gave me an appreciation of what that section of the visual novel was trying to do and what its purpose was, but at the time, some parts of it were very boring, and often it was so twee that it bordered on intolerable.

Playing through this visual novel was a strange experience, and it did show its age. The backgrounds are simple photographs with what looks like a filter over them that makes it look ‘hand drawn’, like one of those silly arcade machines. The music consists of only a handful of tunes on very short loops, which started to feel like the essence of insanity. I only stuck with the sound because I felt it was necessary, with the music cues and the sound effects key to the whole experience although I sincerely wished that it wasn’t.

If you switch to the original sprites, you get some dreadful artwork which completely ruins the game, but thankfully there are modern, updated sprites that are much more polished. 07th Expansion is a doujin circle, and the amateur aspects of the game can definitely be felt.

However, all of this can be forgiven if you consider that Onikakushi is the work of essentially only three people, one of which did most of the writing and the illustrations. It can also be further forgiven simply because the horror story is so good, with the right amount of fear and shock throughout, and a hefty amount of devastation at the end. It’s no surprise to me that Higurashi was later adapted into a suitably creepy horror anime.

If you have the patience, I would recommend Onikakushi as a good horror visual novel. It does have its flaws, but if you can look past these and endure, you’ll be rewarded with an interesting and affecting story that lingers once you’ve finished. On the strength of Onikakushi, I’m ready to try out the rest of the stories in the Question Arc, now that I’m prepared for the potential flaws. But maybe I’ll just play during the daylight hours.

Higurashi: When They Cry – Onikakushi is available on Steam.

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