"Characters make or break a game for me, and if the characters are repugnant, even the best story becomes insufferable."
Higurashi When They Cry is one of the least enjoyable visual novels I've ever played. This decade-old doujin (fan made) game has the most minute glimpse of potential, but that potential is buried so deep under a pile of dung that only the most masochistic gamers would even dig deep enough to see it. Unfortunately, my masochism only goes so far and I gave up on this atrocious game at the halfway point. I normally love visual novels with dark and twisted storylines, but Higurashi When They Cry made me cry like I was slammed in the gonads by a sledgehammer.
My absolute biggest gripe is that this "game" takes the term Visual Novel way too literally. All you do in this game is read. There is absolutely no gameplay beyond pressing a button to advance the text. Now, I thoroughly enjoy reading, adore my Amazon Kindle, and will gladly read 1000 page epic fantasy novels, but when I play a visual novel game, I demand a modicum of interaction. I want the Choose Your Own Adventure style decision making toward multiple outcomes. And even if there is only one true path to a single ending, at least make me hunt for it like EVE: Burst Error did. Why couldn't this game have had branching pathways and decisions at crucial points that open up each of the four scenarios as available pathways within a single game? A horror mystery game like this screams for active player participation, and the passive spoon feeding I received here offends me as a gamer. In my mind, a visual novel is supposed to be a game, but this piece of software has zero gameplay so its gameplay score is a big fat zero.
Since there is no gameplay, Higurashi banks completely on its story being the main draw. The story starts out in the guise of the worst possible harem visual novel set in a podunk Japanese village before switching gears into a murder mystery set in a "village of the damned." It then goes further and further down the proverbial rabbit hole into bizarro-land, complete with supernatural conspiracy theories, exploring the darker side of humanity, demonic possession, descents into madness, deadly premonitions and more weirdness than I even know how to summarize or explain properly. The first scenario has a beginning, middle, and ending, but the other three scenarios showcase the story from different angles, similar to Rashomon. Multi-perspective stories like Rashomon intrigue me and being a huge Megami Tensei fan, macabre stories like this are normally right up my alley. I daresay, Higurashi's labyrinthine storyline would be quite engrossing were it not for one ruinous element that renders it unbearably obnoxious to the point where I could only stomach playing two of the four scenarios.
The game's obnoxiousness lies in the most unlikeable cast of characters I've seen in a video game to date. Not only are they archetypes, but each character is a toxic soup of everything repulsive about that archetype with none of the redeeming qualities. Even when bad things happen to these people, I couldn't care less. I wished they would all drown in the bottomless Devil's Swamp all the villagers talk about never to be heard from again so I wouldn't have to endure their idiocy anymore. I don't mind archetypical characters, so long as they're well-written, but these characters are so ham-handedly written, it's not even funny. Granted, there is one character who did not completely turn me off, but merely being "best of the worst" is no great accomplishment. Characters make or break a game for me, and if the characters are repugnant, even the best story becomes insufferable.
It doesn't help either that the writing is sketchy. There is a fair amount of awkward phrasing, passive voice, and roundabout sentence structure that make Higurashi ungainly to read sometimes. The dialogue suffers these same unfortunate pitfalls and does not flow in the manner of how people normally speak. There are also some spelling errors throughout the text and a few instances of text drop-off as well. I know it sounds like I'm nitpicking here, but when a game is harbored this heavily by its writing, I will not accept writing that's barely mediocre at best, both stylistically and technically.
Another aspect that makes reading a chore is the overall format of the game. Text is written across the screen like the pages of a book, making conversations needlessly difficult to keep track of without dialogue boxes. I can accept this in a book, but a visual novel should have dialogue boxes with characters' names on them to make conversations easier to follow. The unintuitive nature of the interface does not end there, though. When selecting options in the main menu, the blue buttons that look lit up mean that option is deselected and the "unlit" black button means it's selected. It's completely counterintuitive.
In a nutshell, Higurashi When They Cry is like reading a regular book but the text laid over pictures rather than blank white pages. Unfortunately, the pictures are downright ugly. Given that the protagonist's father is a painter, I appreciate that the backgrounds look like painted landscapes. Unfortunately, the art style disagreed with me with its rough textures. The rough textures combined with copious amounts of text make for occasional eyestrain. However, those backgrounds are works of art compared to the abhorrent character art. The characters look amaterish with their simplistic designs, flat color palate, and overly glossy texture that juxtaposes poorly with the backgrounds. One example of the odd character design is one girl who looks like she's intentionally arching her back in a weird way that makes her belly stick out. Who stands like that? And don't get me started on the characters' blobby hands. These make the "Popeye arms" from Final Fantasy VII's character models appear visually stunning.
Adding spit-in-your-face insult to injury is some of the worst music I've ever heard. There are only a handful of short repetitive tracks in Higurashi, but they all sound like they were composed by a tone deaf monkey. The music is nauseatingly cloying and sounds like nails grinding ever so slowly on a chalkboard coupled with the incessant beeping of a smoke detector. It is enough to make any sane person want to stab his/her ears out. There are a few brief moments of respite where the music sounds smoother, but it's still the same nauseatingly cloying drivel that would make anyone within the vicinity of the player's PC want to stab his/her ears out. Listening to this sonic poop-flinging along with annoyingly repetitive sound effects gets old really quickly. Since this is a low-budget project, there is no voice acting, but even laughable voice acting from a couple of the creator's drinking buddies would have helped make conversations easier to follow.
As you can tell, my time with Higurashi When They Cry was a battle of attrition that made me say uncle. After spending a good 20 or so hours with the game and barely getting halfway through it, I simply could not play it any more. The game completely tried my patience and I was ready to shelve it before the end of the first scenario. The second scenario was smoother, but the characters were so off-putting that the mere thought of spending another nanosecond with them made my stomach turn. The lousy graphics, nauseating music, and absence of gameplay did not help matters any. I'm all for seeing more visual novels in Western Hemisphere gaming markets, especially independently developed visual novels, but not when they're life sapping swill like Higurashi When They Cry.