Published on February 13th, 2013 | by Christian0
Corpse Party – Fashionably Late
Summary: It's not for the squeamish, or folks who need more 'game' than a visual novel can deliver, but if you love a good ghost story then you can't do much better than Corpse Party.
I spent some time with Corpse Party this past weekend. If you haven’t heard of it, don’t worry, you’re not alone. I only came across it while perusing the web for deals around Halloween last year when it was on sale. I’m a huge fan of the horror genre, and am especially fond of Asian horror, so there was some immediate interest. Video games, however, have not done a great job with horror. I can count the number of horror games that have really unnerved me on one hand. The first Condemned comes to mind, as do some of the early bits of Dead Space. Most other games that try their hand at horror wind up being mostly about shooting a bunch of monsters, which to me isn’t really all that scary. Anyway, I bought the thing, how could I resist a game with a name like Corpse Party?
Corpse Party, it turns out, is a visual novel with 16-bit JRPG visuals and some light adventure game elements. If that sentence means nothing to you, then I’m sorry, you’ve arrived at this website by mistake. Have a nice day searching for whatever corpse party you might have been looking for that’s not a video game, you weirdo. The story focuses on a group of high school students who have become stuck in an alternate dimension after the creation of a friendship charm for a classmate who is changing schools goes awry. After the ritual is completed, they find themselves trapped in Heavenly Host Elementary, a school that by all accounts was demolished after a series of shocking murders. That’s the basic setup for Corpse Party, and from there you’re mostly along for the ride as the protagonists try to survive, appease the school’s vengeful spirits, and hopefully escape back to their reality in one piece.
It’s is a visual novel through and through, so story progression and dialog are given precedence over other aspects of the game. The adventure game elements mostly consist of you wandering the halls with your party of characters and interacting with objects until the story is advanced by a dialog sequence. There aren’t any real puzzles to speak of, and the only other game mechanic involves occasionally running away from ghosts or other characters who are trying to catch you. In fact, the only time player input really matters is when the story branches, which can happen in a variety of ways during each of the game’s five chapters.
Dialog is presented in a classic JRPG text-box style, with nicely drawn character portraits accompanying the text most of the time. I was surprised to see that the game is fully voiced in Japanese, and although I wound up skipping past a lot of the voice acting as I advanced the text, it’s still a nice feature that gave me an idea of the characters’ personalities, which really steal the show in this game. As I played Corpse Party, it became increasingly apparent that its emphasis is on characterization of the trapped students and their existing emotional baggage. The game is as much about getting to know these characters and what drives them to survive as it is about running away from angry ghosts and exploring the school. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a ton of scary ghost school stuff too, and it’s great, but I found myself mostly drawn to the character interactions. The relationship between Naomi and Seiko stands out especially, and while Seiko’s dialog often seems like bawdy incongruous anime bullshit, it is always balanced by real pathos.
This balance exemplifies the solid pacing in Corpse Party’s story. Whenever I let my guard down during one of the game’s sillier moments, it was prepared with morbid descriptive text, gruesome sound effects, or a chilling still image. This is after all a horror game, so it’s crucial that it actually be scary. In this regard, Corpse Party succeeds handily, which is largely thanks to the game’s often shocking disregard for the health and safety of its protagonists. It pulls no punches. A bunch of characters die or suffer fates worse than death, and if you’re squeamish at all about violence then you might want to tip-toe carefully around this game. I was surprised by how unsettling some scenes were considering the game’s primitive visual style. There is an incredible economy of horror at work in this game, and it depends greatly on convincing sound effects, solid voice acting, and well-written text. I played this game in the dark with a good set of headphones on, and would occasionally get spooked by the barely perceptible sounds of my house settling, so it definitely succeeded at putting me on edge.
Corpse party is not without its problems though, and I’ll run through them real quick. First, all but one of the game’s alternate chapter endings are basically fail-states that result in a “wrong end” and kick you back out to the chapter select screen. That’s not bad in and of itself, but I found myself having to replay lengthy sections of chapters 2 and 5 especially because I didn’t have a save before the branch point.There are five save slots per chapter, but even then the events that make the story branch are sometimes so unintuitive that I wound up having to use a guide in order to figure out how to proceed. Chapter 5 is especially egregious, and while looking for directions I noticed a common sentiment that a guide is basically required to reach the game’s true ending. Even then, it took me an extra hour and a half to replay the 5th chapter from my pre-branch save, which was frustrating to say the least. That’s the worst of it really, so if you have no problems with consulting guides in situations where it is absolutely necessary to proceed, then you should be okay.
When it was all over, I had some difficulties, but am still of the opinion that Corpse Party is a really special game. Thinking about it now, I don’t regret the time lost replaying chapters 2 and 5. I mostly regret how long it took me to finally pick up my PSP and really dig into it. The way it works with an extremely limited palette to create a poignant horror experience that is driven by my affection for the characters is super impressive to me. Most games would struggle with either horror or well realized characters, but this one delivers both in excess. It would have been nice if it could do this with more refined, meatier mechanics, but when it comes to a good ghost story I’m happy to take it where I can get it.