Umineko no Naku Koro ni (eng: When the Seagulls Cry) is the story of a family – a rich, fractured, miserable family full of intrigues and mistrust. It’s the story of an old man driven mad with a desire that he could never fulfill. It’s the story of a witch, a woman who may or may not really exist.
Really, though, Umineko no Naku Koro ni is a “sound novel” produced by independent Japanese designer 07th Expansion and released in eight parts from 2007 to 2010 (is this old enough for a “retrospective?” Sure, why not.) This team is also responsible for the earlier series Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, with which Umineko shares some links. Umineko is essentially a book – you simply click through screens and read description and dialogue. If you’re familiar with the visual novel concept, it’s a bit like that, only it’s even less of a “game” than the typical visual novel, because Umineko presents the reader with no Choose Your Own Adventure-style options at all. You just read the thing. Just like a book!
Umineko takes place on Rokkenjima, a private island owned by Kinzo Ushiromiya, the fabulously rich head of the Ushiromiya family. Kinzo is an old man and is near death, yet he seems to have no interest in writing a will – to parcel out his assets to his children, those “vultures”, as he calls them. Even so, the traditional annual family meeting is still on. Kinzo’s four children, their spouses, and their children are all headed to Rokkenjima to talk family business, and that’s where our story opens.
There are a ton of characters in Umineko, but the central ones – at least in the first episode – are the four cousins, the children of Kinzo’s children: Jessica, George, Maria, and the strangely named sort-of protagonist Battler (the red-haired guy on the cover.) The cousins get along very well, which is more than could be said for their parents, who spend most of the conference fighting over their ailing father’s inheritance. The cousins are much more interested in the stranger aspects of their grandfather Kinzo’s massive estate, not least of which is the massive portrait of a young blonde woman in an elaborate gown. This is not a portrait of their late grandmother, but rather of Beatrice, the “Golden Witch”, a mysterious woman whom Kinzo claims lent him the enormous amount of wealth he needed to establish his business empire.
Of course, a loan demands repayment, and Kinzo is prepared to pay back Beatrice’s loan in a way that will terrify his family. As a huge storm bears down on Rokkenjima, trapping the Ushiromiya family on the island for the weekend, rumors of Beatrice’s arrival start to circulate and the tension within the family grows. How will it end?
Umineko starts out as a murder mystery along the lines of an Agatha Christie novel (in fact, Ryukishi, the writer, drops some big references to Christie and other mystery novelists in the narrative.) It quickly turns into something else, however. In a really, really basic sense, Umineko is about the melding between the real world inhabited by the Ushiromiya family and Kinzo’s servants, on one side, and a fantasy world inhabited by strange magical beings on the other. In the center is the mystery of exactly what happened on Rokkenjima that weekend; a mystery that Battler, one of Kinzo’s grandchildren, is forced to uncover after the fact by entering a bizarre timeloop meta-world and playing a “game” attempting to reconstruct the event with a woman who claims to be an ancient and powerful witch. It makes more sense when you’re reading it, I promise.
To be completely honest, Umineko isn’t without its faults. The writing seems to be unedited, and dialogue can go on and on without any seeming regard for pacing. Speaking of that, in fact, the first episode of the story (there are eight at around 10 hours each) is incredibly slow and occasionally dull before it reaches the climax near the very end; it’s pretty much setting things up and introducing the characters. And you might not have noticed from the above screenshot, but the art is pretty bad – Ryukishi, the writer, also draws the characters, and he can’t fucking draw.
However, the positives of Umineko outweigh its negatives. The story really picks up after the first episode, and its “supernatural murder mystery” angle is pretty unique. Just like a normal mystery novel, the mystery of the deaths on Rokkenjima is made to be solveable by the player, and technically it is, although it’s pretty much impossible to figure out in the English-translated version because it relies in part on some kind of kanji puzzle. Characters will even throw out statements in “red text” that are guaranteed to be true in order to help the player – and Battler – sort out the situation. The characters also turn out to be pretty compelling. And the music is really damn good; it’s well-written, diverse and sets the mood of the story perfectly.
Umineko was originally made for the PC with Ryukishi’s janky art and no voice-acting. This version is still available to buy on disc in various online stores and has a full and very well-done English patch. PS3 ports of the game also exist. These are way more polished than the originals, with actual good art and voice-acting. A different fan group has made a patch of the PS3 better art/voiced edition that you can apply to your PC copy of Umineko. This also has the same English patch adapted to it.
There’s also an anime series. Don’t watch it, because it’s crap. A case where the adaptation fell flat on its face because it simply isn’t possible to adapt Umineko to any other format. This isn’t some “purist” twaddle either, there are technical reasons why it can’t really be adapted to any other format without some serious changes. The sound novel original contains lines of text that are key to understanding the central mysteries of the game, and the show left some of them out completely and screwed other parts up. There was apparently not much care put into the adaptation. In fact, the show seems to have bombed, because the second half of the series (the part where the questions posed by the first are answered) was never adapted for the screen.
Anyway, that’s Umineko for you. Not quite a game; not quite a traditional novel. Think of it as a computer based novel without an editor but with a soundtrack. It is a really good soundtrack, though. And Umineko is a good story, despite its issues. It is a serious time commitment at this point, though (80+ hours!) so don’t plan on finishing it in one night. Hell, the only reason I ever finished it was because I started when Episode 3 was translated. Otherwise I probably would be dead by now.