" Like 1999's The Blair Witch Project, Corpse Party is the video game equivalent of a smaller, art-house horror flick that made it to the big screens and became a surprise hit."
What is it that makes horror films truly horrifying? Is it something tangible, like a ravenous creature or a forbidden place? Perhaps it's something more psychological, like fear itself? Then there's that shadowy plane between tangible and intangible, where ghosts and spirits reign. Although my favorite type of horror movie is the monster movie, the ones that unnerve me the most are those that harness the power of suggestion to make my imagination hurtle headlong into an abyss like a runaway train. I could go into a whole thesis about the nature of horror movies and the ways they exploit our fears for entertainment, but what I've said so far is enough to put you in the Corpse Party mindset.
Corpse Party is not a game for the faint of heart, because it plays with dread on multiple levels. The game has a disquieting atmosphere, jump scares, splatter, high level tension, psychologically disturbing material, and vengeful apparitions. Originally a 1996 doujin
(fan-made) game created using RPG Maker, it has since been remade and released for PSP, iOS, and now 3DS. Corpse Party has also spawned some sequels across multiple platforms, a manga, an OVA anime series, and even a film adaptation, making it a true cult hit. The 3DS version of Corpse Party is based on the enhanced PSP and iOS version and features its own cosmetic and storyline enhancements, making it one of the more robust versions available. There is even a special edition retail version that comes with killer goodies like figurines and a soundtrack CD.
The story begins with a group of high-school friends and their student-teacher spending the evening at school to clean up after a festival. The class representative decides to call a break and gathers everyone around to tell a ghostly urban legend about the cursed elementary school that used to stand on the grounds where the high school currently is. Unbeknownst to everyone, the class rep and the teacher have colluded in a prank to scare the students into thinking that the urban legend is true. This works all too well on one of the boys, who has a massive hissy fit. One of the girls then wells up because she is moving to a new school district the next day and this is the last night she has with her friends. This prompts everyone, including the teacher, to join in an occult ritual called Sachiko Ever After, as it ensures that they will all be friends forever...
...That's when everything literally crumbles around them. After doing the Sachiko Ever After ritual, an earthquake destroys the school, swallows everyone up, and thrusts them into separate parallel dimensions that all resemble that aforementioned elementary school where several grisly murders took place in the 1970s.
The main narrative consists of 5 chapters, with each chapter focusing on 2-3 of the characters trying to escape their supernatural prison. There are also 14 unlockable chapters (4 exclusive to the 3DS version) that wonderfully enhance the characters, world, and lore of Corpse Party. Unlocking these bonus scenarios is not always easy, but totally worth it.
I don't want to spoil anything, but as you go through the game and really discover the heart of the dire situation the characters are trapped in, you realize their tense circumstances are stranger and more sadistically twisted than you could have imagined. You will witness people cruelly be killed in gruesome ways. The gore is not explicitly shown except for a couple of instances, but the descriptions of carnage are plenty vivid to stoke imaginations. If you're anything like me, you will find yourself drawn in until the very end. People who have played prior versions of Corpse Party often say that the game's discomforting nature will either make you shut off your device and never speak of it again or compel you to go as far down the rabbit hole as possible to figure out what the hell is going on. I agree with that sentiment, because I experienced both of these conflicting emotional states throughout my play time.
The script also has appropriately placed moments of levity here and there to showcase characters' personalities and provide a little comic relief. I enjoyed these vignettes, because the dialogue exchanges read like believable teenage banter. I should warn you that some of the conversations get a little raunchy, especially when a particular character is involved. There is also profanity laced throughout the game's script, but it's not gratuitous and is used effectively. This game doesn't have an M rating for nothing.
The gameplay is akin to a graphic adventure, where you examine your surroundings and collect items to solve puzzles and progress forward. There are also some light JRPG elements in that characters have HP, which can decline if careless moves are made. Each chapter has right and wrong endings depending on what you do, or don't do, and how much HP you have left. The paths to each chapter's right ending are very particular and get narrower and more elusive as the game progresses. Only certain actions must be done per chapter and they must be done in the correct order, or it's Game Over. There are also times when minute actions to save your life require precise response in a very limited time frame, yet you feel like you're tripping over yourself like a horror film character crippled by shock. Finding the proverbial needle in a haystack with little in the way of hints adds to the visceral immersion of disorientation, but it can get maddening at times trying to get the planets to align perfectly for the right ending paths. I must have gone through the first chapter a half-dozen times before getting the right ending and it only gets tougher from there. Because the game gives you zero margin of error, it is advised to keep multiple save files throughout.
Corpse Party's chibi character sprites resemble those of a typical 16-bit JRPG. The sprites themselves animate with tons of detail, but some of the female characters have very similar hair colors and/or hairstyles so it's sometimes difficult to tell them apart. The environment looks appropriately dilapidated and desolate, and because the setting is limited to the cursed elementary school, it definitely feels claustrophobic. The most detailed visuals lie in the few CG still cutscenes scattered throughout the game, some of which are undoubtedly spine-chilling and may give nightmares to those with weaker constitutions.
My only beef with the graphics lies in the stylized dialogue font. I'm all for unique fonts, as long as they're readable. Unfortunately, the font here is a strain to read. I feel like this font would be fine on the larger screen of a PC, TV, or iPad, but does not translate well to the smaller screens of handhelds, including my 3DS XL. Screenshots of the PC version, available via Steam, GOG, and Humble, indicate that its font is less stylized yet far more legible. I would have preferred that font in the 3DS version.
I was quite impressed by the sound. The music, sound effects, and voice acting are all fantastic, but the overall sound design made the biggest impression. I implore everyone to play this game with a pair of good headphones, because its clever use of binaural audio techniques makes you feel like you're completely absorbed by the game's foreboding and mystifying atmosphere. Regarding the individual parts of this grand design, the 16-bit MIDI music tracks seem unremarkable at first, but the way they subtly crescendo, decrescendo, and either add or peel back layers at appropriate times always sets the right mood. The sound effects are eerie without being over the top, and the dramatic Japanese voice work would make any scream queen proud.
Like 1999's The Blair Witch Project, Corpse Party is the video game equivalent of a smaller, art-house horror flick that made it to the big screens and became a surprise hit. There is no excuse to skip this game because it is available in some way, shape, or form on multiple platforms. As for which version is best, each version has idiosyncratic features so it mostly boils down to what your preferred platform is, though the 3DS version has the most bonus storyline content. Corpse Party is far from perfect, and horror veterans may not find it as chilling as I did, but I heartily recommend checking it out.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.