Few countries feature as rich a gaming heritage as Japan. Known for crafting unique experiences, several genres as we know them today was either created or inspired by titles hailing from the rising sun. Yet, despite having built a solid development and worldwide publishing structure, most of its indie releases tend to slip by through cracks, unnoticed by a western audience. Such was the case with Corpse Party, originally released as a PC-98 game in 1996, it took over a decade before we were finally privy to our very own, officially translated versions in the form of a remake released for the PSP and Nintendo DS.
Though it began life as a relatively unknown title, soon enough it grew a cult following in Japan, spawning sequels, an anime and even a live action movie. Now, nearly 20 years after its debut, XSEED published the 2008 remake, fully translated for PC users.
Corpse Party begins with a group of Japanese high school students and their teacher telling horror stories. However, when one of the students with a particular inkling for the occult goads the group into performing a friendship ritual, everyone is separated and propelled into a mirror reality of their school. To go further into detail on the plot synopsis is already revealing too much, as true fear often comes not from what we know and see, but rather from what we can’t bear witness to and what we’re unaware of. In fact, this is the reason why the initial hours of Corpse Play are so effective. The game features a retro-pixelated art style that seems ill-suited for horror title, but its writing is slow and methodical, heavy on the build-up and complemented with expertly crafted sound design.
Though it may have been originally crafted on RPG Maker, very few if any tropes are found here, barring a menu listing each character’s HP, a feature which is never used or addressed. Indeed, there’s no ‘combat’ here to speak of, you are a group of teenagers, trapped in a supernatural environment with no means of defense. There are no weapons to save you, and you’re often on-rails with a paltry number of choices popping up occasionally, some meaningless, and others will unknowingly be the determining factor between life or death.
With your controls being limited to walking in four directions, picking up items and finding the correct spot to use them, one could argue Corpse Party is more akin to a visual novel, but with even fewer choices. To a certain extent, this is true, the few moments that gaming reflexes are required is to walk around dangers or avoid the rare, scripted occurrence when a supernatural being chases you. Ironically, this is one of Corpse Party’s weak points; having to skirt around slow moving dangers is insultingly simple and breaks tension when compared to how easily you can be misled into death during other segments. Whether due to RPG maker’s limitations or lack of coding knowledge from its developers, what few action segments there are should have been removed. Seeing a ghost become trapped against a table is hardly a fear-inducing element.
Yes, this is a game you play strictly for its story and ambiance, both of which are generally well executed. Though your characters are separated, some run into each other and seeing them talk between themselves makes your group surprisingly human and vulnerable. They generally feel like real people, from a female student who suffers from abandonment issues hinting she’s attracted to another girl due to how motherly she is, to flashbacks which reveal the hardships and anxieties of everyone before they were thrown into this torrid situation.
Unfortunately, the writing isn’t perfect, for one thing it seems needlessly edgy at times, as if trying to constantly add disgusting or gory elements at every possible chance. Often characters will run-off or become separated for the most contrived reasons. Moreover, the writers seem intent on over-explaining where you are and what is causing it, which shatters part of the mystery and therefore, reduces the sense of impending dread from the unknown. Even the themes are often inconsistent, in one chapter you’re expected to emotionally distance yourself from a friend in order to survive, abandoning her in a callous manner and rewarded for it. Then, in the very next chapter, you’re encouraged to share your burden with a different character and are are equally compensated for this action.
Interestingly enough, in past releases, the writing was used as both a reward and punishment. It appeases first time players as they progress through the engaging plot, but punishes failure by forcing them to revisit every exchange again. This version however allows you to skip any dialog, making wait times much shorter. If you also take into account that Corpse Party’s main plotline is divided into five generally short chapters, which can be freely accessed from the main menu, it becomes clear there’s little reason to be apprehensive throughout each stage. Oddly enough, this might be the only motive to choose this version over its handheld cousins, as they feature better art, more CGs and full voice acting.
Perhaps the game’s biggest issue is that it provides a great first impression, but becomes less ominous as you progress. The more you learn about this haunted school, the less frightening it becomes, moreover, some deaths become so unrealistic as to lose their shock value and instead turn into a relatively humorous spectacle. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t laugh at a few of the supposedly bad endings. Even though Corpse Party’s main plotline is relatively short, each completed chapter rewards you with a new side-story to play. The fact these are their own unrelated missions re-introduces the fear of the unknown, but it comes with a price, as characters and storylines are not as fleshed out.
As an experience, Corpse Party is entirely dependent on its writing and sound design to create an enthralling experience. Though the latter I have no issue with, the first tends to walk a fine line between greatness and collapsing under its own weight. There are moments when the set pieces presented are some of the best I have seen and gave me chills no game has achieved in years, but then these are often followed up by disappointing payoffs.
Corpse Party was played on the PC with review code provided by the publisher.
Developer: Team GrisGris
Publisher: XSEED, Marvelous USA
Release Date: April 25th, 2016
Price: $14.99 via Steam
Language(s): Japanese voice, English text