A few things before reading this review:
-yes, I am one of those who have played the sound novel before watching the anime;
-no, I will not make this an essay of comparison between the two, nor will I praise the novel over the anime; however, it is inevitable that certain comparisons will indeed appear, in order to explain the flaws of the anime;
-this review might seem a bit unfriendly to someone who has no clue what Umineko is about. In fact, it's much more addressed to those who have partially or completely watched the anime/read the manga/played the game.
Let me begin with a simple assertion. Umineko as an anime is a bad experience. Note that I did not say horrendous nor terrible. The Umineko anime is not at all a complete train-wreck, despite all the hatred it receives from the fandom; it's simply nothing more than mediocre. In other terms, it feels similar to trying to bend a very detailed paper figurine in a jar that's too small and ruining it in the process. Yes, the figurine was remarkable beforehand. But no, it did not remain so afterward.
There are two main reasons why the Umineko anime doesn't work:
-adaptation decay (butchering of the characters and the plot for time's convenience) and
-the very little effort Studio DEEN put into making it (bad graphics, right music at the wrong time, wrong character designs, overall wrong atmosphere).
BUTCHERING OF THE CHARACTERS
One of Umineko's main put-offs is the fact that is has such a large cast of characters. You cannot help but forget who is who, who is related to whom, where someone popped out of, what the purpose of a certain character is and so on and so forth. The adaptation from the novel to the anime meant losing a lot of development for plot's sake, and that really adds to the overall confusion. Except for the very main two characters (Battler and Beatrice), almost all the other characters are uni-dimensional. Name one word that relates to Rosa - abusive. One that defines Maria? Whiny. One for Ronove? Cookies. See the point?
While it becomes (or should become) clear after a while that in the wit game of Umineko, the humans are nothing more that chess pieces and the witches are simply devices to advance the arguments, that isn't an excuse. Why should you watch something where you don't care for any of the characters? Again, this is still the adaptation's fault. The original source material, while still keeping a few members of the cast undeveloped (I'm looking at you, Hideyoshi and Nanjo), at least managed to make all the characters likeable – therefore less likely to suspect. The anime didn't retain that; quite the opposite. You end up feeling exasperated most of the time by almost everybody.
Now onto the main characters: Battler and Beatrice.
-supposed to be the epitome of manliness, logic and determination [novel];
-ended up being the most delusional of them all (ironically), has huge shoujo eyes and most of the times doesn't make any sense at all [anime].
-complex character, acts all cruel, rough and unrefined in the beginning, but manages to melt halfway through and create a friendship/rivalry bond with Battler, to the point of finally being able to transmit to him the purpose of her existence [novel];
-complete bitch who takes a 180 turn in the last episode and goes all helpless moe moe kyun for no reason [anime].
BUTCHERING OF THE PLOT
Like it or not, the original Umineko story is damn complex, a complete, subtle mindfuck, in fact. Perhaps that is why it doesn't work that well in the visual format of the anime. Anime watchers are used to taking something literally as it is. Umineko was not supposed to be like that – hence even the unfriendly red text. Unfortunately, Studio DEEN didn't manage to clear the misconception at all. To get to the point:
One of the main questions that arose while experiencing Umineko (both in the sound novel and the anime form) was this – why the heck would Battler try to deny the existence of the witch when she's obviously sitting in front of him, cackling inelegantly and hitting him in the head with her pipe? It seems utterly ridiculous and pointless. A complete waste of time.
However, that is not the case. The novel, having the advantage of underlining concepts in a textual form, managed to clear this. The anime didn't. To explain further on:
Say Mary (Beatrice) is a multimillionaire and Ben (Battler) is a salary-man. There is a great business plan (the murders) going to unfold. Ben claims that you can manage that business with an amount of experience similar to the one he has (logic). Mary claims that you can only do it with a lot of money (magic). They decide to settle this in a game of monopoly (the anti-fantasy vs. anti-mystery game).
Now obviously, in a game of monopoly there are restrictions. You can only play with monopoly money. Had Mary played with real-life money, Ben would have absolutely no chance of winning. That's why, Mary's moves are restricted as well. It's a completely fair game.
Proving the point, basically Battler doesn't have to deny magic, period. He would never be able to do that, with Beatrice appearing in front of him and whatnot. He has to deny magic on the 4th and 5th of October 1986 in Rokkenjima, based on the fake scenarios created by Beatrice. It's logical, it's fair and with the right ideas, it doesn't contradict itself at all, quite the opposite. That is the whole fun and magic of Umineko.
Of course, some might say, how the heck were the viewers supposed to know this with the anime not explaining it? Unfortunately, by the explanations being cut, they simply could not know it. The novel had a lot of detailed sidelong concepts to help the whole logic battle (chessboard turning, Hempel's raven, Schrödinger's cat box) which the anime only briefly mentioned and never insisted on. In other words, a mystery which seemed barely solvable in the novel isn't solvable at all in the anime. That's why, if you're watching Umineko expecting to get a straightforward, definite answer, you won't get it. Which is sad, considering that the main purpose of Umineko was to make you have a brainstorming session. Besides, when in an anime you have to consult additional sources to realize what the heck is going on, that in itself is a problem. I'd say watch Umineko for some other aspects than the mystery, but honestly, there's nothing more to watch if for. And that is Studio DEEN's fault.
EXCESSIVE FANSERVICE, COMPLETELY UNRELATED HIGURASHI ATMOSPHERE, UNSYMMETRYCAL EARS: I'm looking at you, Studio DEEN
That's exactly as the title says. You could feel that the staff members of Studio DEEN were completely desperate by simply throwing a glance at the DVD covers. Or by the excessive amount of cleavage in all the female character designs (minus Bernkastel, who, funnily enough, did have quite the bust in the original material). It's very likely that DEEN themselves realized the Umineko anime was bad as it is; and that they had no other plans in which to compensate that.
Now I don't have anything against this particular studio; but you as a viewer could definitely sense that they screwed up. There is a famous screenshot in which Eva has a huge ear on one side of her head as opposed to the tiny one on the other side. That goes beyond the excuse of lack of funds. It's simply not caring for. The other main mistake is probably the fact that DEEN tried to promote this as a Higurashi sequel as much as they could to be able to milk money out of the fans. Why should Maria have the Hinamizawa syndrome eyes? They are irrelevant and out of place. Why must there be those weird sideways camera angles? And that emphasis on the gruesome death scenes instead of, say, the reactions of the living (much more important to the plot themselves)?
As for the art, while not being overly-pretentious, it manages to be above barely watchable. In fact, it's a nice change from the shiny shiny artwork nowadays. Still, it doesn't rise above the overall mediocrity of the execution itself.
Let's stop this lament at once, though. For Umineko also has certain redeeming characteristics, though not enough. To name them:
-the music. Yes, used mostly inconsistently, but taken as a whole, very good music. However, that is still thanks to the sound novel tracks remixes;
-OH! DESIRE. A perfect ED theme. Almost as if it was the studio's message of 'You want to get trolled? Well get trolled till the end, then!';
-good, fitting voices for the characters (surprisingly, Shannon's voice actress managed to suit her personality really well).
ENJOYMENT AND OVERALL
Umineko anime can basically be defined as a great story with a horrible execution. And that is not right; for, on an anime market with a lot of mediocre stories with great visual/audio/atmosphere candies, Umineko is exactly the opposite, being hard to digest.
For a sound novel player, it's a complete session of rage, of 'Why the heck was that cut?' and 'Hey, they did that wrong! Bastards!'.
And for an anime-only viewer, it's a 'How do I make head or tail of this thing? Eh, never mind, someone's been killed again' reaction chain.
To conclude with, I would recommend Umineko the anime only to those who are new to anime in general and have only watched around 20-30 series so far. More experimented watchers would definitely be able to sense the plot holes and lack of affective implication. And they will not enjoy that.
(As a small parenthesis, this is quite opposed to my recommendation of the novel/manga; I recommend the novel/manga to absolutely anyone. Read it and you won't regret it.)