Originally released as doujinshi visual novel back in 2003, Higurashi was successful enough that it reached acclaimed status, getting several enhanced ports and an anime adaptation. While only the anime managed to make it to the West, that all finally changed with the Steam release of the first chapter, with the rest to come later. And yes: the story is as chilling as it is engaging.
Higurashi is about a boy named Keiichi, who moved from the city to the countryside as a part of his father's job. He's only been there for a month, but he has managed to make some friends. After the town's annual Watanagashi Festival, he learns of the town's past involving a murder. This eventually ties to a rumor created by the townspeople about the curse of a deity known as Oyashiro. The rumor is that for the last four years, a person or two have either died or disappeared as a part of this curse.
Keiichi receives more information later that has him doubting his friends, and soon they begin to act strange (or at least they seem to be). It's the first chapter, which acts more as an introduction, so a lot of the story is not revealed. It plays on the idea that Keiichi might be the one who's going insane, or maybe they all are. This is actually only one part of a total of eight chapters, with each one considered a totally different setting with the same cast of characters. The best way to describe how the story plays out is that each chapter is like an alternate route in a visual novel with branching paths.
Since this entry of Higurashi is just an introduction, it focuses more on letting the player learn about the characters and basic backstory. There are some side stories called tips that can be viewed at the end of each sub-chapter, which tend to reveal more extra story to help the player come to conclusions about where the story might be going. In this entry, the route can be considered the worst bad ending. It gets very dark, and doesn't have to rely on visual sensationalism like gore to make the atmosphere unsettling.
The gruesomeness is revealed through text, and the readers have to use their imagination and sense of hearing. This reliance of hearing has lead to the novel to be called a sound novel, especially when you consider how ugly the original character designs are. It's pretty comically bad. Thankfully you can keep the new art, but as this version of the game is the original it lacks the voice-acting seen in later versions. However if you have seen the anime, you could easily imagine the voice actors saying these lines. It does a great job going from fun silliness to twisted malice. The first chapter has me hooked, and I can't wait to see what the other chapters will bring.
The Good – The story is very intense, and relies more on the reader's imagination and hearing to create the mood.
The Bad – Since it's based on the original, there is no voice acting.
The Ugly – The comically horrible optional original character art mode.
Summary: A good first entry and introduction to the madness of Hinamizawa.
FINAL GRADE: 9.0 (out of ten)
Review code provided by MangaGamer