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Review of Umineko no Naku Koro ni
|Umineko no Naku Koro ni
Vote: 4.9Baffles on 2023-12-03
|This review is for the entire work, including the 4 episodes in Umineko no Naku Koro ni Chiru.
My main aim with this review is to organise my own thoughts and put them into words - so spoilers are inevitable, but always marked.
Let me start by saying that I approached this VN with great expectations. For years, I had been hearing about it time and again - whether through fan art on the internet, numerous people praising it to the skies or even describing it as life-changing.
In parts, this praise even seemed very justified to me. The soundtrack, although a little repetitive at times, always creates the right atmosphere when it matters, and many of the tracks already fill me with nostalgic, euphoric emotions when I listen to them again.
The performance of each individual voice actor is truly outstanding - each voiceline conveys exactly the right emotions and really completes the picture of the characters perfectly. In general - the 18 people on the island are all solidly written personalities with understandable motives.
The independent puzzling in Bernkastel's Game was more fun for me than any other part of a visual novel so far - the fact that you always had the Red Truths and Purple Statements on call meant that it was actually solvable, and provided virtually the only sense of achievement... in... how many hours of reading again? Oh well...
With ~120 hours of reading (including Chiru), Umineko is a work of enormous proportions. Unfortunately, its length is also a glaring weakness. Now, I would never say no to 120 hours of suspense, excitement and intrigue. The problem is that Umineko simply doesn't manage to fill the exorbitant length with interesting, non-repetitive content. This is evident from the very first chapter. It takes around 8 hours of build-up before the first murder takes place - in the meantime, you get to know the many characters and the whole setting in extended interactions without too much happening.
However, I was warned about the somewhat slow start and was therefore prepared for it - and as soon as "the show began", I was even extremely enamoured with the premise. The scope that the work gained in chapters 2-3, the battle between mystery and magic played out between Battler, thinking from Battler's perspective, and wriggling out of Beatrice's Red Truths were all extremely enjoyable. Unfortunately, I didn't realise that these scenes would be my highlight of the whole work, as the focus changes drastically, especially in the Answer Arcs.
In every single chapter, I was annoyed by the length of some of the scenes. I particularly disliked all of the magic-level fight scenes, as the game pretty clearly leads you to believe that the goal is to "downplay" magic to mystery. So it's a mystery to me why I should be interested in extended, dramatic fights that obviously take place on a level of meaning that you're actually against anyway (Beatrice vs. Virgilia, for example).
But on many other occasions, too, the game insists on explaining and reinforcing things for a tediously long time (Ange is unhappy in the future, Kanon and Shannon are furniture, Rosa is a bad mum, Maria says Uu-uuu, Kinzo's children need money...). Maria's "backstory" in chapter 4 in particular stands out negatively here - I'd go so far as to say I've never experienced such terrible pacing in a work this well-liked by many.
The writing style, at least in the English translation, is less than poetic, often downright mundane - which I think is an extreme shame, as the drawn out scenes in particular would have benefited greatly if they had at least been beautifully written. Instead, I found myself sitting in front of the monitor mashing left clicks more often than I would have liked, as I couldn't find any joy in either the "what is written" or the "how is it written". It may sound pretentious, but after Umineko, it was enormously nice just to read a "normal" book again, whose author has a sense for aesthetic language.
In my opinion, the developers should have invested the effort that went into the eternally long scenes mentioned above into the visuals of the game.
The Steam version of Umineko contains the original graphics and the Pachinko artstyle, both of which I feel are incredibly ugly and do a disservice to the tone of the game. Of course, the visuals are a matter of taste, but I can't understand how you can put so much work into a VN just to make the characters look like they were drawn by a mediocre DeviantArt user. I have to give credit to the original artwork that the faces are extremely expressive - but here in particular some characters just look disfigured, especially Hideyoshi, Rudolf, George, Nanjo and - oh god - Kyrie. The proportions are simply botched, most of the characters look like action figures without necks and with spheres for hands - as if they're made of wax and have already melted a bit.
The Pachinko graphics have obviously been drawn by a more experienced artist, but almost all of them also look "off". The expressive faces are replaced by huge anime style eyes with a sharp gaze, the shading makes a cheap impression - it just looks disastrous.
That leaves the PS3 sprites, which you can also get on Steam with mods - which I must recommend to anyone who seriously wants to read through Umineko. Everything looks "right" and clean here - the new backgrounds, too, are leagues better than the photos flooded with effects that serve as backgrounds in the original. Yes, the PS3 sprites are less unique than Ryukishi's own drawings - but they fit the serious tone of the game considerably better.
All along, in the finest carrot on a stick style, the game makes you expect that you can somehow manage to solve the puzzles. Come on, the next chapter is sure to unravel it, it's so close! But even deep into the Answer Arcs, the game throws more and more questions in your face, shrouding the answers that do exist in fog.
The actual answers to the Epitaph or the solutions to the murders, however, are so far off that it's simply virtually impossible to come up with them while you're reading. It's a waste of time for most people to ponder - and also impossible because the game itself constantly sows doubt about everything. How are you supposed to get anywhere when everything - apart from the red truths - in a 120-hour work can be a trick? How are you supposed to know what is even relevant in this gigantic mass of text?
Sometimes I read comments like "No scene is unnecessary, if you re-read everything a second time after the end, suddenly everything makes sense!" - but I don't believe that good writing should only make sense on a second reading - especially not if it's a longer text than the Bible. I see the same problem with Maria's Uu-uuu. Of course, it's a "nice" twist that this voiceline is, according to her interpretation, a magic spell for luck - but that doesn't make it any less annoying to listen to "Uu-uuuu" hundreds of times (or, like me, to click away).
Now, in chapter 4, the biggest flaw in Umineko kicks in for me - the philosophy of "own truth", illustrated, for example, by Maria, who is neglected and even beaten by her mother Rosa. Maria's "own truth" is that her mother is possessed by a witch in these bad moments - she is actually a totally loving mother, and Maria is a happy daughter. It is this philosophy that also plays a huge role in the Answer Arcs. While it was a very special mystery novel up to that point, the tone changes dramatically here, becoming more and more preachy towards the end. Those longing for the solutions to the riddles are now suddenly on the wrong side, illustrated by Battler's sister Ange, who tortures herself by not stopping the search for the truth about what happened on the island. The thought that the game forcefully imposes on the player (and Ange) is then the same as Maria's: "Make up your own truth. All your relatives were very friendly people and had a great time on the island". I was honestly shocked when it became obvious that this was the direction the VN would ultimately take. The example of Maria and Rosa in particular should make it clear what kind of cynical thinking is involved here. It was simply not possible for me to like it when an abused daughter is happy because she takes refuge in her 'own truth'. Until the very last moment, I was still hoping that there would be a twist in Ange's thinking - namely that she would finally realise that she can bear not knowing the truth without having to take refuge in naive ideas.
That would have been a really nice message from my perspective - all the agony isn't necessary. Things in life will be uncertain, but we can be strong enough not to make these uncertainties into shackles for ourselves and instead live confidently in the present. But... no. I admit - the way you as a reader initially "root" for the truth/mystery, but the story then reveals the opposite side to be the true solution is a clever twist - I just don't like the logic that led to this goal at all, as described, which made Umineko totally lose me, especially in the final stretch.
But I'm still not finished. At the beginning of the review, I mentioned the 16 characters on the island as a major plus - however, an extremely large number of other characters that the game introduces on the meta-level are flat cardboard cutouts that unnecessarily take centre stage. The humanised Eight Stakes of Purgatory, Zepar and Furfur, the three Chiester Sisters, Cornelia, Gertrude, Gaap, Virgilia, Sakutarou - the VN offers an incredible number of characters that may symbolise something, but contribute extremely little to the overall experience. And so, the longer you read, the more Umineko consists of interactions with characters who are as uninteresting as they are intrusive, and who sometimes act like wacky anime characters in the spotlight.
These moments, in which you realise that Ryukishi was heavily inspired by anime (or even hentai) in a mainly written work, are also among the absolute low points of the VN for me. In particular, I can't help but think of Battler's initial insistent blathering about the breasts of his female mates - or even his implication to Maria (9 years old, his cousin) that he would have no problem "eating her up" in 10 years' time. I also found the aforementioned battles on the magical plane far too prominent and to hardly fit in with the rest of the tone of the work. You get the feeling that Ryukishi has simply squeezed everything he likes into this one work, regardless of whether it all adds up to a well-rounded whole. I think there's a reason most works fit into about 2 or 3 genres - Umineko, in what feels like an attempt to be unique, just tries to be everything - a sob story, a detective novel, a fairytale, a mystery, a slice-of-life work, an action work...
The result is an absolutely chaotic mix - horrific scenes at a snail's pace followed by scenes that guarantee goosebumps.
Interesting characters with great dubbing actors talking to squeaky anime bunnies.
First, some facts are thrown in your face for a wretchedly long time, then tricky puzzles in which you don't understand anything take centre stage again.
A serious, mysterious atmosphere is continually mixed with colourful silliness.
Virtually unsolvable mysteries, after that a well thought-out puzzle with clearly laid out clues that can actually be solved.
Scenes that make you want to pull an all-nighter, followed by scenes that could serve as a bedtime story.
And finally - a resolution so thoroughly preachy that after all that reading time I asked myself: Really? This is it? THIS is supposed to be the end of this journey? To illustrate just how much the message didn't sit well with me - in the end, the game offers you two choices, and I, even after being bombarded with the "how you should think" "it's bad to think like this" stuff Chiru includes, I couldn't help but honestly choose the option that led to the "bad ending".
Even over a month after I finished reading it, I really don't know how to feel about Umineko. If it had maintained its often high quality all throughout every episode - I would have loved it. But unfortunately it's a rollercoaster ride in the worst sense - with very high highs and insufferably low lows, streched out into what feels like an eternity sometimes. In addition to the nostalgia for the music and some scenes that is already starting to take hold in me, there is a constant feeling that I have been cheated out of many, many hours of my life.
I feel just like I was trapped on Rokkenjima for a long time - if only I had been ill and missed the family gathering...