On first glance, Corpse Party looks like every other fluffy-smutty high school-kids-in-danger gratuitous-panty-shot-laden Japanese doujin soft game slapped together with RPG Maker. But, the game lives up to its title in ways I did not expect — or could stomach.
Corpse Party is the story of a group of high schoolers plus one teacher and one junior high student who stay late after school to perform a friendship charm. With all the talk of murders and hauntings, what happens next is predictable: the charm goes awry and the group finds themselves transported to an alternate dimension and into the elementary school that previously stood where their high school is. You know, the one where all the murders and rapes happened. The gang — now separated — must find a way out and deal delicately with other groups of students that have been trapped. Oh yeah, and not be brutally murdered by ghosts.
The game’s opening is a little cliche, but once you get past the “We’re going to be friends forever!” mush it’s all downhill — downhill in a good way, mind you. Part of what gives this game its umph is the sudden drop from cheesy happy-go-lucky I’m-young-and-innocent-and-everything-is-wonderful sentiment to gut-wrenching despair and some of the most harrowing voice acting I have ever heard… But more on that later.
Corpse Party isn’t really a party at all. Unless you’re into graphic anime-stylized deaths and listening to teenagers choke on dirt as they are buried alive or try to speak as they hang themselves. The game is sprite-based with anime character portraits, and the dialogue appears as text as well as voiced over. I should note that the game has been subbed in English but retains the original Japanese voice acting, which is pretty nice if you’re a Japanophile and prefer subs over dubs.
Gameplay is very simplistic, reminiscent of earlier Persona titles without the battle system. There is no battle system in Corpse Party, now that I think about it — the only battle players must face is internal, as deciding what choice to make and which hallways to walk down can lead to multitudinous outcomes, most of them involving the player watch the character they are controlling die in first-person. Some of these choices are as simple as deciding whether or not to read a journal entry or hand off a certain item to another character.
The game is divided into chapters, each featuring a different grouping of characters. The character the player is controlling often changes as these groups split up or the rather linear narrative requires the perspective shift. A source of constant frustration with this game is that there are absolutely no instructions. No hints, no tips. You either find an item that will help you move to another area or you don’t. It’s that simple. This can — and did, for me — lead to hours of aimless wandering, wondering where and if there is a key for a certain room or something that can help you cross the poisonous goo blocking another hallway.
The environment layout varies from character to character. According to the ghosts your party will encounter, everyone is in the same school but in different dimensions. While your current party is in one dimension, you can still hear the screams and see the shadows of your friends in another — but you can’t communicate with them. As you move between chapters and parties, you won’t experience the same layout twice — or rather, you won’t experience the same area in the same way, be it the addition of a ghost or a new interactive item or a particularly grizzly corpse.
The lack of direction on the game’s part leads to one of two things, but never both at once: rage-quitting and obsessive play. The next chapter cannot be unlocked until the previous one has been completed, so if you’re an impatient gamer who isn’t the adventurous type — i.e. the kind of gamer that will explore every nook and cranny of the environment while pressing A, hoping something is interactive — you will not enjoy Corpse Party. However, if dungeon crawling without the random encounters is your cup of tea, then this game is worth your time.
The player can also arrive at a “Wrong End” by making an incorrect dialogue choice or being outrun and caught by a ghost. If you have a weak stomach, you’ll want to restart your system as soon as the Wrong End cutscene begins. Otherwise you’ll find yourself in a front row seat for your character’s death. And when I say front row seat, I mean you are watching through the eyes of the character as you are brutally murdered. I’ve been forced to stare at a black screen listening to a character choke on dirt as they are buried alive. For ten minutes. Every agonizing scrape of the shovel. Every gasp and gurgle as I listen to this teenage boy die. I’ve had to stare at the blood-soaked corpse of my female classmate and read her suicide note, only to learn that the guy who ate her to keep himself alive… was me. And then listen to this boy sob through gummy mouthfuls of flesh as he continues to eat her.
I’m getting nauseous just remembering it. The deaths depicted in Corpse Party are straight-up unsettling.
I went down the slippery slope of obsessive play, and this was partly because of the outstanding voice acting. Very rarely does a game sport such an impeccable performance across the board; the Japanese actors and actresses that had to laugh, cry, scream, and re-enact some of the most brutal deaths the human mind can fathom give it their guttural all. I spent a majority of my time playing Corpse Party on my morning and evening commutes, and it’s a miracle I didn’t vomit all over the subway. It is one thing to read text on a screen depicting someone screaming over their best friend’s mutilated corpse. It’s an entirely different, harrowing experience to hear it with your own ears. Sprites and anime profiles be damned — the voice overs for Corpse Party bring the game to an entirely new level of creepy and personal.
While the story is extremely engaging and the characters well fleshed-out (umm, maybe too soon for that one…), it is far too easy to get lost in areas and, as I mentioned earlier, find yourself wandering aimlessly for hours searching for clues. If you make the wrong choice and encounter a Wrong End scenario, you can do one of three things. You can restart the chapter from the beginning, pick up the story from a save file within the chapter, or save and continue, leaving most of your party dead.
In order to get the best ending, players will have to take the first course of action and restart the chapter. This constant restarting of scenarios — and you will be surprised how many times you have to backtrack after watching yourself get stabbed in the eye with scissors or hung in a stall in the girl’s bathroom — is time consuming, hence my assertion that an impatient gamer will feeling the uncontrollable desire to rage-quit earlier on.
Corpse Party may not be worthy of instant-classic status, but I can see why this game has garnered a cult following. The game was originally released for PC in Japan, then rebooted in 2008 and again in 2010 for the PSP. North America has just now gotten it for download on the PlayStation Network only. There are two manga and another newer game that is also exclusive to Japan. Obviously there is something to this smutty horror-survival thing, as people do enjoy prolonged feelings of suspense and sudden stomach-churning scares.
However, Corpse Party‘s lack of clear direction in covering in-game territory is not for the faint of heart or the short of fuse; you will become lost, and you will become frustrated. This significantly brings down the game’s fun factor, as nothing kills the chilling mood of suspense and terror by having to power walk through the same three areas for two hours searching for a clue. Other than that, I highly recommend this game — there’s nothing quite like it out there on the market. Not yet, anyway.