Horror-themed attractions in Japan are fundamentally different from their Western counterparts. Before venturing into a labyrinthine recreation of a mental hospital or school, you’re often prompted to watch a short video which describes the creepy setting. Narrative plays a large role, cultivating a sense of dread as your way through the venue. And while the sporadic jump scare generates a feeling of apprehension, fright is cultivated gradually, unsteadily rising toward tormenting levels.
The recent port of Corpse Party: Book of Shadows embodies both techniques. As a follow-up to Team GrisGris’ Corpse Party, the work expands on the mythos conceived for the original PC-98 title and its two remakes (subtitled Blood Covered and Repeated Fear). Across Book of Shadows eight stand-alone scenarios, perspective shifts through time. You’ll witness characters before their decent into Heavenly Host Elementary, moments that occur during the game’s timeline, a couple of epilogues, and even alternate realities. Pleasingly, it also gives insight into a few of the original game’s subordinate characters, helping polish a few expositional elements.
A prologue reveals the trauma that the school inflicted on Naomi, one of Corpse Party’s survivors. After overhearing conversation between her mother and a therapist, we see the young girl in the corner of her room, in a state of paralysis. After losing her close friend Seiko within Heavenly Host, it seems no one remembers the young girl or any of the other victims. Understandably, that’s put an addition weight on Naomi’s precarious mental state with loss compounded by disbelief and a demoralizing feeling of isolation.
Like any respectable horror storyline, Book of Shadows pivots to a cheerful moment before ratcheting up the tension. Here we witness the bonding of Naomi and Seiko during a sleepover. Unlike much of the game, it’s a moment that’s marked by innocence and cheerfulness, with both girls unaware that a ritual involving a paper doll will soon plunge them into torment. As the calm before a turbulent storm, it’s all too easy to forget about the startling ‘wrong endings’ that can mark a single wrong decision in Corpse Party. A shared bath and preparations for culture festival can make the beginning of the game feel like an inroad to a different genre, permitting players to lower their guards.
Book of Shadows’ skillful writing (and a dexterous translation) help make the experience unnerving. From the perceptive monologues of characters and the interactions between cast members, the writing is admirably descriptive, converging on literary quality. Coupled with the upscaled artwork for the PC iteration and binaural audio, the game begs for solitary play in the dark, with a set of quality headphones on. That’s is the way I experienced Book of Shadows and periodically I had to remove the headset and ensure that there weren’t any dangers behind me. It’s pretty easy to get involved in the narrative and occasionally freak out from commonplace noises like a gust on wind outside.
Whereas the original Corpse Party used RPG Maker to depict Heavenly Host in an overhead perspective incorporating sprites and bitmaps, Book of Shadows uses a different method. Dialog is conveyed via visual novel textboxes and character portraits, while navigation uses a point-and-click based scheme. While this permits the game to offers a character’s point of view, there are some design decisions that may irritate players. Moving from room to room is easier now, with a button or mouse click relocating players to a new venue. But problems are rooted in a system that blocks progress until a certain event is triggered. Occasionally, you’ll have to wonder past points multiple times and since Book of Shadows always doesn’t drop clues, you’ll probably have to consult a FAQ once or twice.
On the upside, the ability to save at anytime and fast forward through dialog makes Book of Shadows’ ‘wrong end’ more tolerable. That’s not to say that the game’s deaths are redeemed. Typically stemming from making the erroneous choice at a binary fork, you’re often treated to a grisly death scene that’s accompanied by an especially gruesome sound effect. The sound of enough force to snap and splinter a person’s backbone may haunt you long after you’re seen all of the ending and collected all of the death record for each unfortunate fatality.
But killings are the only aural feat. From looming footsteps to the splatter of blood against the wall, GrisGris must have had a fun time creating all the horrific foley-work. Equally as adept is the game’s voice acting. Even if you’re not fluent in Japanese, the performances here are impressive, expressing uncertainty in vocal tenor and the occasional unnerving scream. It’s doubtful that English voice actors would have been able to deliver vocal work without a hint of camp, so Book of Shadows opts for a subtitled delivery.
If you’re played through the original Corpse Party, Book of Shadows will likely be a delight. Trekking through the game’s eight scenarios, visiting pivotal moments, and gaining new insights really fleshes out the fiction. But for those with an interest in this game’s gruesome journey, playing the original game is advised. With so much of Shadows rooted in narrative, playing the predecessor will really augment the enjoyment of this game.
Corpse Party: Book of Shadows was played on PC
with review code provided by the publisher.