Why is it that the Japanese horror genre is so incredibly frightening? I remember seeing “Ringu” and couldn’t sleep for a week, while the American remake was a pretty lackluster affair. No matter how scary and uncomfortable they make me, I’m constantly fascinated with the Japanese horror genre because of how it plays to our psychological fears while Western horror tends to rely on jump scares and gory torture sequences. When the localization of Corpse Party was announced, it was advertised as being one of the scariest games on the PSP and featured some grisly death sequences. Intrigued, I downloaded the game from the PSN store and sure enough, it scared the bejeezus out of me.
Corpse Party (in Japan, Corpse Party: Blood Covered Repeated Fear) is the story of a group of students from Kisaragi Academy and one of their own is getting ready to transfer to another school. The students have stayed after school to throw a party for her and in an act of friendship, the class rep suggests they perform the Sachiko Ever After charm in order to create an everlasting bond between them. After the ritual is performed - by tearing off a piece of a paper doll while saying a chant - an earthquake rocks the building and sends the students into an alternate realm occupied by the haunted ruins of Heavenly Host Elementary School that was closed down twenty years ago after three children were found brutally murdered. I mean, really brutal - tongues cut out, eyes removed and a head separated from a jaw line. Blech. Separated and scared, the students must brave the haunted school and search for one another in order to escape, all the while steering clear from the angry, vengeful spirits that roam the halls.
Corpse Party is not a game in the traditional sense but a visual novel, a genre that is incredibly popular in Japan. Instead of shooting enemies or jumping around on platforms, you’ll spend the majority of the time reading text screens and following along in the story. The story is divided into five chapters, each focusing on a specific pair of students as they try and find a way out of the school. Providing that you perform certain actions or come across particular name tags left on the skeletal remains of other victims, you’ll unlock extra chapters that don’t necessarily advance the main narrative but gives you further insight into the thoughts and values of the main cast as well as those who have come before.
The game element comes into play as you guide the students around Heavenly Host, searching for and interacting with objects and people in order to trigger the next story sequence. Because the game only gives you vague hints of where to go/what to find, it is important to pay attention to the dialog as there is absolutely no hand holding. If you make the wrong dialog choice, fail to have a specific item on hand during a confrontation or get caught during a chase sequence, you’ll be treated to Corpse Party’s many, many death sequences. Unfortunately, you never see your character’s deaths as the screen goes black while you listen to their final moments in sequences that last about five minutes if you don’t skip the dialog.
Corpse Party does not boast high resolution graphics and advanced 3D modelling. Instead, it is played from the top down perspective and everything is designed in a pixelated sort of way, making the title look like it came from the Super Nintendo era as characters are no more than sprites. During conversations, however, the characters are given large hand drawn profiles that frame the screen. Despite this visual downgrade, the pixel designs are detailed enough to that all the characters are distinctively different from one another, each with their own little visual cues. For certain story sequences, you’ll be treated to a full screen hand drawn image that highlights a particular character or event.
Much to my disappointment, for a game that hypes the number of ways the students can die you never see their deaths and instead, they occur off screen leaving you to witness the aftermath. If I recall correctly, the only time you see someone in the throes of death is when a book case full of knives and scissors crushes a character but because they are rendered using pixels, the death doesn’t seem all that gruesome. The blacked out death scenes are effective if only for the vocal performances. In the end, the lack of visible violence feels like a cop out. It feels weird saying that because if there had been an animated sequence of a character getting thrown against a wall with such force they become a pulverized puddle of gore, I would have been scarred for life. All I’m saying is if you’re going to heavily advertise that part of the game, follow through with it.
Corpse Party offers up a genuinely scary and spine tingling story that’s really easy to get sucked into. The dialog is well written (if not strangely bizarre at times) and the Japanese voice cast does a great job with the script and their screams, moans and death cries can feel authentic and uncomfortable. Despite the story being all gloom and doom, there are moments of comedy relief that help break the tension - for example, one of the girls freaks out and complains about messing up her shoe after accidentally stepping on a puddle of gore that used to be another student. Wait, that’s not funny....
As interesting as the story is, where Corpse Party falters is when the game gets in the way. As mentioned earlier, you don’t get much help on where to go and what to do. There’s no quest list or an objective menu (it won’t even tell you what part of the school you’re in unless you find a save point), so knowing where to go when lost grinds things down to a halt. If you’re about to make a game altering decision, you won’t be warned. This gets especially frustrating because you’ll still be able to play for a while before getting the game over screen. Chapter five is the best example: if you make the wrong choice, the game will continue for about a half an hour before you realize that things aren’t right and that you’ll have to start over. Admittedly, a large portion of my time with Corpse Party was spent consulting a walkthrough.
The game’s death sequences get to be an incredible annoyance because you can only skip past the dialog, not the scene itself. What this means is that should you mess up, you’re forced to sit through a five minute death screen before you can pick up from your last save. In chapter two, there is a bit that involved fleeing from a ghost in a room with very little space to maneuver and because it was an area I failed so many times, I was resigned to shut off my PSP, turn it on again and launch the game because it was faster than having to sit through the death scene in order to reload the save.
If you’re going to spend the $20 on Corpse Party, it is very important to know what you’re getting into. This is not a “game,” but an interactive novel with video game elements that, for the most part, aren’t very good. You will get frustrated and lost a few times, but if you stick with it and keep a cool head, Corpse Party will reward you with an unsettling story that will keep you on the edge of your seat. The game doesn’t shy away from violence so be prepared to sit through some really disturbing and uncomfortable moments.
Teen Services Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.