Editors Note: Updated to include details on the recently released 3DS version of the game.
Over the past few nights, I’ve been losing a fair amount of sleep thanks to a game. And while I would love to say it’s due to the hyper-realistic frights the likes of Outlast II, in reality I can only blame a twenty year-old, black and red, cackling pixelated spirit that trapped me in the room in Chapter 1 of Corpse Party. While I’m not the bravest of gamers, the recently-released remaster had me playing with the lights on — despite the dated visuals.
It’s scary how engrossing Corpse Party is — the game (which seems like a clear inspiration to the subsequent Danganronpa visual novel series) tells a tale of a group of teenage friends testing the boundaries of urban legends. With one of the friends moving away, the hopeful highschoolers attempt to perform the Sachiko Ever After charm, which promises to bound the participants together in friendship for eternity.
Unfortunately for the teens, none of that happens. Following a violent earthquake, each character finds themselves in the halls of the since-demolished school, Heavenly Host Elementary. Littered with pixelated corpses, terrifying messages, and lingering spirits, players are tasked with reuniting the group and finding an exit. That is, if they can manage to do so before whatever has killed all the previously-trapped students gets to them first.
While I’m not the bravest of gamers, the recently-released remaster had me playing with the lights on
Corpse Party tells its tale in an episodic format, with each chapter (typically) following a different set of characters in their struggle to escape Heavenly Host’s clutches. And just like a real novel, the chapter approach helps divide the story into 2-hour manageable segments that you can retread to discover the secret endings.
Speaking of endings, there are over twenty of them. Any innocuous choice or action can result in death, instantly giving weight to any decision you make — be it what piece of papers you read or which hallway to go down. Even more surprising, the “bad endings” differ wildly in scope. While some are no more lengthy than Mario falling into a pit in any given Mario game, some will take you on half hour-long detours. The latter incidents make it hard to pinpoint what the incorrect decision triggering the end truly was.
Corpse Party wears its Japanese heritage on its sleeve — the title is packed with regional quirks that slipped past localization to the game’s benefit. Paired with the Japanese voice-acting, the game keeps a distinctly Eastern feel while also being able to stay entirely relatable to a Western audience.
And while the story is the most captivating aspect of the game (like most visual novels), I would be remiss without mentioning the excellent sound design. With brief exception to some more upbeat background music in Chapter 5, the soundtrack manages to nurture the unsettling ambiance.
Corpse Party is hauntingly successful in spite of its visual style, not because of it
Corpse Party is hauntingly successful in spite of its visual style, not because of it. While the 16-bit pixelated motif makes sense (given it is is a remaster of a remake of a title from the 90’s), the story is so engaging that it would turn many more heads with a remaster. If they managed to sport a similar (yet bleaker) artstyle from comparable visual novels, the game would manage to scare visually just as much as it does cerebrally.
However, none of that is to say that the 16-bit style hindered the freight in any way. I suffered countless chills, goosebumps, and raised hairs from being stalked by pixelated spirits or after hearing a snap of the occasional floorboard.
Because of the nature of Heavenly Host Elementary and how the school is always in a state of flux, I was never sure when the building’s layout would change at a moment’s notice, annihilating the smallest amount of security or comfort you may find. And while I found the visuals to be ineffective in translating the horror, perhaps there is something to be said of players using their imagination to visualize what Heavenly Host actually looks like.
Unfortunately, even given my mostly positive experience with the game, it is still relatively difficult to recommend. Corpse Party is as niche as games get, being a Japanese-themed visual novel with grotesque horror elements and a 16-bit motif. So while I personally had a great time, I’m the type of person that is readily attracted by all of those elements. If you fall in the same camp — or are willing to try something outside your comfort zone — I expect you won’t be disappointed.
Corpse Party is as niche as games get
There are some clear variations between whatever system you grab Corpse Party on, as described in an XSEED blog post. While I loved having the game on the Nintendo 3DS thanks to some bonus chapters, the PC version felt overall superior thanks to expanded endings, fast forward feature, and an updated voice track.
In my 10-12 hour time with Corpse Party (and the handful of endings I stumbled upon), I had lost a handful of friends and witnessed a fair amount of frights. More importantly, the twenty year-old game delivered on a captivating ghost story, fit for the most veteran horror-buffs. And while the art style and themes may turn a few people off, the game is a rewarding, terrifying experience that shows the limits of what a well-told story can accomplish in spite of its artstyle’s limitations.