With Summer upon us, it’s time to draw the shades, shun the light, and scare yourself silly. Join Jason as he begins his Summer of Scares, playing horror games new and old in addition to a wide range of terror-themed articles.
If you ever want to stump even the most hardcore gamer, try interrupting his latest teabagging session in Halo with a Visual Novel. Examples of this genre rarely make it over here to America despite raging popularity in Japan. Visual Novels are basically thinly veiled interactive comic books, often filling the bits between conversation or exposition with basic exploration gameplay or menu surfing. You walk around a small environment, picking up different items while desperately searching for the next trigger. Did picking up that rusty lighter finally cause the fat guy to leave his bedroom so you can question him about what he had for dinner? No? Shit, back to the drawing board. If you’ve ever played Hotel Dusk or nearly any old school adventure game, you have a good idea of what you’re in for. Think Myst, but replace all the silent vistas with “accidental” panty shots of anime girls.
Corpse Party is such a game. I heard about it on 4chan (which seems to have an obsession with these things, especially when they involve girls with disabilities) and, after seeing a few screenshots of the utter brutality the game promised, I decided to take a leap and purchase it on the Playstation Network. After a thorough cleaning and delousing, my PSP was drudged up from retirement for one last big case. I was off to the ominous Heavenly Host Elementary School with a bunch of Japanese teenagers in tow.
The game’s full title is Corpse Party: Blood Covered Repeated Fear. If you haven’t guessed already, this is the last in a long list of iterations that goes all the way back to the RPGMaker program for Windows, where the game first took shape. After getting noticed, it was spiffed up and released as Corpse Party: Blood Covered, with high resolution character portraits, new sprite work, and full voice acting. For some reason, releasing the game for the PSP and iOS earned the Repeated Fear addition.
Like most good Japanese horror stories, Corpse Party is about a haunted elementary school, scary girls in red dresses with long black hair, and revenge for a long forgotten act of violence. The story revolves around a group of high schools who perform the Sachiko Ever After charm, which sends them spiraling into the long lost Heavenly Host Elementary School, known for its laundry list of murders and suicides. Split up and sent to different versions of the same place, each of the games self-contained 5 chapters deals with how the kids get their bearings and uncover more behind how they ended up there and how they can escape.
The vast majority of the game is played out from an old school 32-bit sprite based perspective as you wander around your surroundings and attempt to trigger different conversations or solve very basic puzzles. From a gameplay perspective there isn’t much to do outside of basic exploration. Occasionally the game attempts to throw a chase scene into the mix, which almost always ends in frustration as you fumble with the controls to escape whatever ghastly creature is pursuing you.
When you’re not getting lost in the dilapidated halls of Heavenly Host, you’re talking to other characters or yourself. With few exceptions, you’re always in control of two people, and this a chatty bunch indeed. The game maintains its original Japanese voice-overs, which are actually pretty amazingly well done. I don’t speak the language, but I can say that these people give it their all. This game has some of the most blood-curdling screams and hair-raising laughter I’ve experienced in any language…and don’t get me started on the quality of the retching. A+ for vomit sounds guys, seriously.
It’s here in the sound department that the game really shines. There’s only so much you can do with static anime images and low-quality sprites to disturb and shock, so it’s up to the audio to do all the heavy lifting. If there ever was a game to play with headphones on, Corpse Party is it. It uses a surround sound emulation system to throw its sound all over the place, creating a real sense that the game is in the room with you. Corpse Party takes the dubious honors of being the first horror game to ever actually get to me to look over my shoulder in confusion, so sure was I that the voice in the game was in the room with me. Some of the most disturbing scenes in the game are entirely aural, just sounds and text against a black screen. One death scene, where your character is being buried alive and loudly choking on the dirt while begging for his life, comes to mind.
If just a summary of that scene made you squirm, you might want to avoid Corpse Party, as it’s easily one of the most brutal games I’ve ever played. It doesn’t shy away from digging into your skull to roughly implant all manner of terrible images in your mind. Where films like Hostel rely on scenes of abject gore, Corpse Party leaves a lot to your imagination, leaving just the most basic outline of violence on the screen. Characters are brutally beaten and murdered, commit suicide, and go through all sorts of mental torture, dragging you along for the ride. The game earns its title, as corpses are measured in the dozens, especially as the game rapidly approaches its climax. It’s terrible, uncomfortable, and unsettling, but if you’re reading about a game titled Corpse Party, there’s probably already enough wrong with you to enjoy this.
While the game does a great job creating atmosphere and character, it stumbles in the gameplay department. As a Visual Novel, it’s based entirely on activating events in a specific order to ensure that you don’t get the wrong ending. This means, unless you’re careful, it’s entirely possible to break the necessary sequence and get yourself stuck and forced to retreat to a past save. I lost a whole 90 minutes in the final chapter because I went down a certain staircase at the wrong time, which skipped over an entire important conversation. Despite being totally engrossed in the story and damn excited to see how it played out, I simply had to take a break from the game and come back a few days later, ruining all the momentum I had built up.
Corpse Party is a great horror game that ends up being hampered by its medium. Given a full budget and the opportunity to transform the game into something more like Silent Hill, Team GrisGris could probably come up with a masterpiece of horror, but trapped in the expectations of a genre that barely has a foothold on this side of the Pacific, Corpse Party can end up as more of a chore than it should be. If you’re a fan of brutality and don’t mind a little reading and obsessive-compulsive saving, Corpse Party is a great way to spend 4-6 hours. Everybody else should probably steer clear until the inevitable next version gets released: Corpse Party Blood Covered Repeated Fear Zombie Arena Panic! (xSeed, if you’re reading this, I’ll sell you this name for an English translation of Corpse Party Book of Shadows.)