For the hardcore only.
- Horrific, graphic Japanese horror game on PSP
- Extremely unsettling to the point of bringing on nausea
- Fantastic sound design
- Cutscene/drawn art assets are appropriately disturbing
- 16-bit graphics conflicting with the awful events create a great mind-bending dissonance
- By majority, the translation is top notch, particularly when describing some of the grotesque ways characters die
- Story takes a while to get revved up, but has some fantastic and unpredictable twists
- Actual core game (a fusion of adventure mixed with visual novel and 16-bit RPGs) is horrendous
- Many of the deaths/different endings happen for completely unrelated or predictable reasons
- In addition, the minimal save points and lack of an ability to skip cutscenes or text at a reliable rate exacerbates every time you screw up
- 16-bit graphics look like they were made in RPG Maker 2000, because they were. Sprites in particular are fuzzy and not great
- Game feels less "scary" and more "unsettling," and the ending is downright depressing
- Weird "Japanisms," such as random panty shots and voyeuristic fan service feels out of place and gross
- Speaking of which, is Japan really filled with 16-year-olds with DD sized breasts? I doubt it.
I love 16-bit horror games. The dissonance that plays out between the cutsy, overexaggurated sprites of my childhood and the grotesque, horrible things that happens to them is just enough to set my hair on end. It's like somebody went into my past and took the games I find so much nostalgic comfort in and turned it against me. And, despite the obvious limitations of adhering to a style, I find that the limitations only make the blood and gore that much more horrific.
Enter Corpse Party, one of the handful of games I actually went out and bought a PSP for (another one being Persona 3 Portable). At first glance, Corpse Party looks like everything I want in my horror. Japanese (who are inarguably the masters of creep-out horror), pixelated, with crazy things happening all the time in messed up ways. Sold.
So after blitzing through Corpse Party and getting every single ending for every single chapter, I must love the game, right? Well...let's get to that.
The story in Corpse Party is actually its biggest strength. A group of eight high school students (as well as a middle school aged younger sister and their teacher) all recite and participate in a ritual called "Sachiko Ever After," seeing as one of the students is being transferred and this ritual is supposed to show how they'll all be together. Shortly after everything goes wrong, and the group is transported to Heavenly Host Elementary school, an old school that was destroyed and their current school was built over. Trapped (usually in groups of two) and alone, the various characters must uncover the mystery of how they got there, what happened at Heavenly Host, and if it's ever even going to be possible to get home.
A common theme throughout the game is helplessness and despair, one that really hits home early on. It is explained very early that the groups of characters are in different planes of existence while in the school, meaning their present might be another group's past, etc, and there is frequently some bizarre carry-over between these multiple dimensions. This allows for the story to do some very clever set-ups and awful things to screw with the player's (and characters') minds. Finding or seeing something that might originally be believed to be a cheap scare gains further depth on other playthroughs, as you discover exactly what happened. Piecing the bits together is deliciously satisfying as well as creepy, pushing you to continue forward to see what is going to happen all the way to the end.
This is good, because it takes the story's main plot a while to actually kick in. The biggest plot reveal happens at the end of Chapter 4, and Chapter 5 feels like an elongated expository cutscene with how much stuff is just shoved into you to better explain the reveal (remember: this game only has five chapters total). Part of me wants to critique the pacing as being "weak" (and throwing a truckload of red herrings at you and the characters), but the other part of me feels this ties in well with the helplessness mentioned before. There is no obvious way out, and you and the characters are just trying to survive without going insane, starving to death, or whatever. This makes the fact that next to nothing is accomplished (in terms of the overarching plot, mind) in the first three chapters seem acceptable to me. It made me upset at how I was clearly not progressing in saving these characters, which is exactly what the game wanted. So, kudos to them for that, though I will admit I almost lost interested when I finished Chapter 3 and felt like I was going nowhere.
I will also say the writers have some serious guts in how they treat their characters. By that I mean George R. R. Martin would cringe at some of the completely horrible things Corpse Party does to its group of high schoolers. Main characters will die frequently, but that isn't the worst of it. Those who die do so often in horrific, grotesque ways, but what really hurts is the aftermath it has on the living charters As famed author Patrick Rothfuss said, "There's a lot worse things I can do to a character than kill them." Corpse Party has this and in spades. And while the deaths (for the "Wrong End" endings) are absolutely unsettling in nearly every way, at least then you can mark it as closure so you don't have to keep torturing these poor kids any longer (though even death isn't an escape, as revealed in an early portion of the game. This game really hates its characters).
I must also make note on how well it uses text without visuals to make things unsettling. While several bad endings have some nice, full screen art to accompany the awful thing that has happened, most tend to avoid showing the exact moment of horror. Instead, the game uses vivid text descriptions and sound effect and then lets your imagination do the rest. This is an excellent use of both overcoming the obvious graphical limitations of the game, as well as that ancient horror tactic that what the viewer things is always far worse than anything you can display on screen. Corpse Party takes this to the extreme, to a point where I actually had to look away from the screen rather than read and listen to the descriptions of what was going on, and I actually felt sick during several instances. As a relatively spoiler free example: if the notion of a possessed girl, fully aware of her surroundings but unable to control her movements, being forced to swallow a pair of scissors complete with vivid textual descriptions of the damage is too much for you, you should not play Corpse Party.
All this being said, it does seem to end quite abruptly, and good grief is it depressing. While I love fiction that impacts me emotionally (usually through grief or stress), Corpse Party might go to far, especially for those who get heavily invested in characters. Very little positive happens here, all the way down to the downright Prozac-necessary ending, so unless you are really good at shaking stuff off, Corpse Party might hit you pretty hard.
So now that I've praised the story, let's talk about where Corpse Party completely and utterly falls flat: it's absolutely abismal gameplay experience.
Corpse Party is a fusion of two genres: adventure games and visual novels, and all this is wrapped in a 16-bit, JRPG graphical wrapper. Don't let the fact that characters have hit points and are are small sprites moving on a grid-based map fool you, there are no RPG elements in this game, and in fact the hit points only really apply in two situations I can think of during the game, and even then it boils down to one or two hits and you die. All other "attacks" that happen are on a strict fail/pass basis, rendering all that moot.
The problem arises with how the adventure game elements come into play, or rather, how they completely suck. A regular chapter of Corpse Party consists of a few very simple objectives: find random items, use random items in ways that make sense, use random items in ways that make no sense, and answer dialogue options that tend to only matter about 20% of the time. While doing this you'll be wandering around the school, frequently in no actual danger at all (sorry to break the illusion, but this game has very distinct "Game Over" screens, meaning you can only screw up if the game lets you), trying to know where the hell to go next or what item you need. It's maddening.
Rather than try to explain it with hypotheticals, let me give you the story of my experience with Chapter 1, which very nearly caused me to quit the game completely. I knew going in this game tends to do stupid crap like give you bad endings if you fail to read every random newspaper article lying around or whatever, so I took great care in seeking out everything I could find. After sitting through several long cutscenes I finally got to a point of the game where my character was locked in a room and hunted by a monster. I knew what items where in the room to solve the puzzle, but the game wouldn't let me pick up one of the items before I tested that the other item I had didn't work. All while being chased by a monster who randomly threw up barriers in my way only after I'd stepped on the spot to try to escape. In a very small, grid-based, enclosed room. Great.
Needless to say, I died several times, and every time I died I had to go back to a savepoint and watch the entire slow cutscene that preceded the chase scene because the game has no way to fast-skip stuff you've already seen (again, I'm going to blame this on the fact it's made in RPG Maker). So after about twenty minutes trapped in the same room, I finally figured out where the creature spawned the random, invisible blocks, and was able to figure out the arbitrary order the game wanted me to approach the room and get the items needed. It as a miserable experience, and any immersive horror I'd felt was yanked away as the game's busted up mechanics came to light.
But that isn't even the worst of it. I finally got to the end and, to my surprise, got a "Wrong End." I couldn't understand: I'd explored everything! I'd gone back and checked every inch as I progressed! Well, it turns out I screwed up. After a cutscene where the game very clearly directs you to go forward, you are instead supposed to go back. And not only back, but into a completely random stairwell (which I'd checked before and found nothing) a distance behind. Now, after the cutscene was over, a key had magically appeared. And I'll point out, the cutscene I mentioned had nothing to do with the key or the doorway, no hits whatsoever. It was just there, now.
This key opens another random door that has no indication of unlocking. What does this do? Grants another brief cutscene that more or less has nothing to do with the bad ending I got. I should also point out this happens very early on in the game (and I didn't have a save before it, because the game has extremely limited save spots), so I had to watch the entire beginning of the chapter again and replay the whole thing with no text skip.
Ahem. Anyway, after all this, what happened? I got a slightly elongated sequence near the end, and then the actual ending only changed very, very slightly. Without any spoilers, the big awful thing still happened, it just didn't have the additional secondary awful thing that happened during my "Bad End" where I failed to watch the completely unrelated cutscene in the completely unrelated room. Awesome game design, guys.
While I will admit this sort of blatant bad game design does soften up a bit in later chapters, it never goes away completely. There's a scene where you emerge from a door to find an enemy, the second one in the whole game. Previously, you couldn't run out of the door to escape (see my rant above); you just had to learn how to run. After dying countless times to this guy (who also spawns invisible walls) I found out you are supposed to go back into the door, and when you go out a second time he spawns further away (with no walls) and you can get away. Again, no explanation.
And don't even get me started about the items that "save you" from one death, but if that happens it might as well game over, because you have to keep that item to the end of the level to get the good ending (and progress to the next chapter). So why even have it? Just let me die; I end up having to reload a save if it gets used anyway.
This total lack of direction is where Corpse Party failed me, so much so I gave up and used a spoiler-free guide for the last three chapters. I am not ashamed in saying that, and I think I had a much better experience because of it. It was getting to a point that the game wasn't scary anymore, because all I could see was the broken mechanics, and I was constantly backtracking over the whole huge school after every cutscene to be certain I didn't miss something and screwed up like I did in Chapter 1. And don't even get me started on the things you can look at that seem to do nothing, but if you trigger that unrelated, unhinted at "switch" then you're just doomed to get a bad ending. Seriously? How is this ok?
After I got a guide, I should point out, I actually enjoyed the game a lot more. While the ambient creepiness sort of diminished because I was following instructions, it was gone anyway after I realized there were only very specific ways you could die (despite numerous ways you could "fail"), so I don't count it as too big a loss. I recommend playing through Chapter 1 without a guide to experience how the game could have been, and after failing go to a guide and never go back. Trust me. You'll like it better this way.
Let me really quickly bring up another thing that kept ruining the game for me before talking about the graphics and sound: what I like to call "Japanisms." Now, I don't mind Japanese games. I have some friends who adore how the culture influences their games, and others that straight up hate it. I tend to just love the weirdness and not like the other less permissible bits, but Corpse Party is filled with plenty of the latter. Like...seriously? Is it really mandatory that we see panty shots of characters in key scenes that are supposed to be disturbing or plot-crucial? Is it necessary that all the girls have the chests of porn stars (except the 14-year-old, who acts like she's 5 to fill the "little sister" role, and even she ends up taking off her underwear at one point in the game. Don't ask)? Do we really need a bath scene flashback? Now, I get the whole "it comes with the culture" argument the otaku will counter this with, but for me it really tore me out of the game and made me feel really uncomfortable. To be fair, it only happened maybe five times in total, but every time it did the game totally lost me (especially the time it happened during an extremely climactic story flashback scene. Like...seriously?).
The graphics are a mixed bag. As I've mentioned before, I dig pixelated horror games, but something about Corpse Party's extremely low-rent presentation really bothered me. The game, despite being remade from its original RPG Maker 2k PC release, still looked fuzzy and super low-def on the PSP screen. The backgrounds were ok (though they get recycled frequently thanks to the game's "multiple dimensions, same place" trick) and actually pretty good looking at times, but the character sprites were fuzzy and jittery in their animations (probably a weakness of RPG Maker). All the UI stuff, from menus to the weird "HP" levels and everything looked straight out of old RPG Maker games (this coming from the guy who made stuff on RPG Maker) and as such it feels like an extremely low-rent indie game. They also are in sharp contrast with the cutscenes, which were added to the game after the PC release, but often the sprites don't match the in-game characters (or the scene/gore will be much more graphic in the pixelated version but quite toned down for the drawn cutscene). While I usually think this sort of thing works, Corpse Party doesn't look good. And considering how much wandering you'll do, that's a bad thing.
Music, on the other hand, is excellent. The game uses silence quite well, and despite the soundtrack perhaps feeling a bit too "upbeat," I'm pretty sure they did that to lure you into a false sense of security. I liked all the songs (and the fact they all variate on a similar theme, which is clever) and they were certainly catchy and memorable. The sound effects, as mentioned above, are a downright standout, and the Japanese voice acting is also quite good despite it being done by a small team. Sound design gets an A, at least.
Let's Cut the Crap and get on to what's really important, the big, elephant in the room question: Is Corpse Party scary? And to that I say...maybe?
I can say this: it is certainly unnerving, disturbing, depressing, and it sticks with you long after you finish. I am a hardened horror buff and I fully intended to blitz this game over the course of five nights (since playing at night is the best way to play horror games), but after the second chapter I found I started feeling uneasy playing the game, even with a guide. I played Chapter 3 during the day, and after that actually had to take a break for almost a week before continuing and beating Chapter 4. Chapter 4 left me so unhinged I didn't finish the game for another week and a half, neglecting the bad ends (which are by far the most messed up parts of the game) and just wanting to get it over with. I later went back and got the rest of Chapter 5's ends (and did most of the "extra chapters," which tell the story of other groups of students trapped in the same school), but I didn't have the heart (or guts) to go back again. So on that front? Yeah, it worked.
I don't feel Corpse Party has the atmosphere it thinks it has, however. Games like Silent Hill and Amnesia prey on you during the quiet times, the slow times when you are walking around, alone and in the dark and in complete silence, long shadows creeping you out and the atmosphere of not what is there, but what might be there causing your own head to play games with you. Corpse Party, either because its awful gameplay shatters any illusion of immersion, or simply because of the way it is designed, doesn't really have this atmosphere of dread. What it does have, however, is horrible things happening in completely, mercilessly horrible ways to otherwise good people, and the implications of many of these things are more than enough to disturb. So is it scary? I can't say (it's an arbitrary thing anyway). But I will say I will not be playing it again, and not because of the gameplay, but because of what it did to my head.
As it stands, Corpse Party is a very specific game created for a very specific group of people. Some people absolutely love it, and are willing to overlook it's massive gameplay flaws in leu of the visual-novel style horror story awaiting. Others, like myself, will only barely stomach the game (and almost give up on it) and still somehow push through with a guide or otherwise and find the great horror game that is buried underneath all the garbage. And many will play the first chapter, realize this isn't the game for them, and never play it again.
At $20, that makes Corpse Party a hard sell if you are on the fence. When it was on sale for $10 that seemed much more reasonable for a risky plunge, but still be aware of what you are getting into. I'm a massive fan of this genre, and Corpse Party pushed my gaming patience to its absolute limit. Which makes me sad because, again, I think there's a fantastic scary story buried under here. It's just buried a little too deep for most.
That being said, it accomplished exactly what it was designed to do: unnerved me completely and left an unforgettable impression. If that alone seems enticing enough, then grab your PSP, jump over to Gamefaqs (the one guide that says it isn't spoiler free actually is, so you should be ok. It's also a better guide, FYI), and get yourself on over to Heavenly Host Elementary. However, if more than once during this review you've said "this is not for me," you should probably avoid it.
Three out of five stars, though again: if you aren't into these kind of things (and don't have the patience of a saint), then knock one or two stars off the score.
More at http://nathanvsvideogames.com