Adventure Gamers Awards
Based purely on its graphics, Corpse Party looks like it’s a 1990s-era 16-bit RPG, but any RPG similarities are only skin-deep. In fact, it is a Japanese visual novel originally released in 1996, having since received several ports and rereleases on various platforms, the most recent being the 3DS adaptation used for this review. Each iteration has included new and improved features. The 2016 version, released during the game’s 20th anniversary, added a host of bonuses to the original title, including new characters, a new chapter, updated graphics, and full voice acting. Corpse Party is rooted in an uncompromisingly oddball Japanese design philosophy, stuffed full of quirks that set it apart from other adventures and visual novels. It also has its share of annoyances that dampen the experience somewhat.
The game begins just as a group of high school students from Kisaragi Academy have holed themselves up after-hours in a classroom to tell spooky stories by candlelight. As the perfect way to cap off an evening filled with supernatural chills, class representative and de facto leader of the group, Ayumi Shinozaki, proposes a harmless ritual, the Sachiko Ever After charm, as a way to bind their friendships together. However, the charm goes horribly wrong, and the entire group is transported to an alternate dimension and split up from each other. They awake in the dark and dilapidated halls of Heavenly Host Elementary, a predecessor to Kisaragi Academy that had years ago been the notorious site of some unspeakably grisly murders. The next dozen or so hours are spent walking the halls of the school, participating in dialog, uncovering the truth behind the events in the school, and finding a way to escape without falling victim to the vengeful spirits inhabiting it.
A big part of Corpse Party is its atmosphere. Though its sprite-based graphics are more reminiscent of games featuring kid-friendly adventures in fantastical settings, this visual novel is intended for a mature audience, and does not pull any punches. It can be difficult to square the graphical aesthetic with its J-horror trappings, routinely complemented by the sexually awkward, pervy interactions between the fumbling teenage boys and their school girl-uniformed counterparts. The horror is often psychological, relying on the genuinely unnerving vibe of the dark school and a moody music-and-spooky-sounds concoction. Sometimes, though, the terror becomes a more acute threat: horribly disfigured spirits out for blood slowly stalk the group to inflict a grisly demise on them. This side of the game can get quite visceral and gory, making 16-bit sprites go places and do things no 16-bit sprites ever have before.
Gruesome death is a running theme in Corpse Party. From beginning to end, the game forces its characters to endure a level of graphic violence that is rarely associated with the innocent look of this style of animation. Characters are strangled, drowned, hanged, mutilated, eviscerated, pulverized, and buried alive, just to name a few of the horrific acts visited on them. One lengthy scene focuses in ample detail on the methodical torture and dismemberment of several primary school students. Another plot point spends the better part of several chapters on one female student’s lengthy search for a bathroom, particularly her increasing stress at her failure to find a place to relieve herself.
This uniquely adult content wouldn’t be half as impactful without the excellent voicework provided by the cast. Each person is fully voiced – in Japanese – with the written portions translated into English. The actors and actresses offer top-notch performances and are a joy to listen to. What really sells it are the many, many moments of terror acted out within the dialog, especially during the later chapters. As the terror level ramps up, the teens’ grip on sanity becomes increasingly tenuous. This gives rise to what may be too much of a good thing: though no one can accuse the actors of selling the script short, the amount of screaming, moaning, and panting becomes perhaps a bit too much as the game heads towards its finale. Gruesome, squishy and squelchy audio effects are also cringe-worthy, but in a good way. Actual background music is used sparingly, and usually reinforces the dark moodiness. Often, the developers build tension through silence, with a notable exception near the game’s climax where an oddly upbeat dance track clashes with the on-screen drama.
Playing on the 3DS, perhaps not surprisingly for a twenty-year-old game, offers little actual 3D. In fact, only a few sporadic hand-drawn images that pop up during narrative moments have any 3D effect whatsoever. The handheld controls are fine but basic: moving left, right, up, and down on the top-down two-dimensional plane works best using the D-Pad rather than the thumbstick, while the A button is for everything from confirming choices to advancing text and searching objects. On PC the controls are just as simple using either keyboard or gamepad, though the visual display loses a fair bit of crispness when blown up to higher resolution.
Actual gameplay is fairly straightforward, reverting back and forth between two styles. Players are directly in control of the groups of students, represented by a single on-screen avatar, maneuvering them in and out of classrooms, bathrooms, locker rooms, and through the many hallways of Heavenly Host Elementary. Sometimes this means searching for an item, maybe looking for a missing companion, but often just wandering until the next event is triggered to move the narrative along. Trouble is, most locations in the school look virtually the same. It doesn’t help that the various groups of characters are also trapped in different versions of the school, meaning that items, furniture, and traversable pathways do not stay constant from one group to the next. Over the course of time, it’s possible to develop a slight sense of geography of the place, but until then it’s more a matter of aimlessly stalking from place to place until a locked door or a collapsed floor force you to turn around and try a different direction.
The other half of gameplay is spent in dialog between characters, unraveling the story. The protagonists are just as difficult to get a handle on as the environments, especially for western audiences. Particularly this newest iteration of the game, with its expanded cast of characters, throws a barrage of unfamiliar names and faces at the player right off the bat, only to scatter them to the four winds mere moments later. Constructing a mental picture of who’s who and how everyone fits together takes time, and requires many pauses for concentration when first starting the game. The designers should be commended, however, on not making the characters so derivative as to be neatly pigeon-holed into oversimplified token roles. As the story unfolds and players follow the dialog between students, their interpersonal relationships are slowly revealed. Though the typically overdramatic writing makes it hard to create emotional connections with them, they at least move past the cookie-cutter personalities they start with.
It’s fair to say that traversing the school and reading lengthy dialog sequences is what Corpse Party is all about; there simply aren’t any deep puzzles – or much other interaction, period – to speak of. Some items that can be examined simply offer cut-and-paste flavor text, most objects nothing at all. This makes it all the more baffling when the occasional roadblock pops up that actually requires a specific item to have been found, a particular object to have been examined in order to progress. The game plays fast and loose with offering hints on what to do or where to go, and there are no helpful features like a map or a list of objectives.
A handful of inventory items do exist, but these often work automatically without much agency on the player’s part. Rather, players affect story progression by making occasional choices, whether it be selecting a response during conversation or picking a course of action when faced with a dilemma. Each of the game’s five chapters includes several bad endings – literal “dead ends,” a kind of macabre collectible for completionists. As each is viewed, its description is unlocked on a chapter-specific menu page. Accessing one may be as simple as picking different dialog options, though some can only be found down some very tricky gameplay paths the further in you get. Without a way to fast-forward to a specific part of a cleared chapter, finding all deaths would require multiple targeted playthroughs of each chapter.
The game’s pacing works reasonably well. Save points usually keep you from having to restart an entire chapter due to death. On the other hand, it is entirely possible – especially in later chapters – to overwrite a save file after starting down a “bad” path. The final chapter took me several attempts, and even then required a few hints to get the true ending, as not all “bad” choices necessarily seem bad at the time. Options as simple as whether or not to examine a shroud-covered shape in the middle of the room, or turning left at a fork in the road instead of right, may have far-reaching consequences on the outcome, though you won’t know this for some time after. There are lots of little bits and pieces of flavorful story dialog that can easily be missed in just one playthrough, but even with the option of quickly clicking through scrolling text to cut down replay repetition, the prospect of starting a chapter over from scratch may be unappealing to some players.
At least event triggers that move the game forward are placed with careful consideration, and it is rare to spend more than a few minutes waiting for something to happen that makes the story advance. However, on a few occasions, most notably in the final chapter where only one very specific path leads to the true ending, progress becomes a more cryptic and obtuse affair. In contrast to the rest of the game, which flows smoothly, these moments may make it necessary to have a walkthrough handy while playing. In the end, the bad endings are all death and doom of some sort, so it feels critical to attain the one good ending to let at least a modicum of sunshine in after all this misery and death.
It’s hard to be fully prepared for what Corpse Party brings to the table. Its aesthetic and environmental exploration aren’t consistent with typical expectations of what a visual novel should be. Its subject matter and general storytelling style feature a recognizably Japanese design mentality, with some unique and intriguing bits along the way. Though there is a dearth of outright puzzles and some finicky narrative paths, the voice cast’s tour de force of hysterics is, at the very least, worthy of recognition. Fans of the genre who don’t mind more focus on narrative than puzzles won’t feel too much out of their element, but all others should know what they’re going in for before committing.