Corpse Party (PSP) — Review

Pete Davison spends some time with the ghosts and tries not to cack himself.

I’m glad this game exists. It’s a pleasing piece of evidence to point to when people start talking about subject matter which would “never get greenlit by a publisher”. It exists. It was greenlit by someone. It’s freely available to download to your PSP or Vita via PSN. It’s horrific. And it’s brilliant.

Corpse Party tells the story of a hapless group of schoolkids who botch an attempt to commune with the spirit world and find themselves trapped in a long-abandoned elementary school populated with rather unfriendly ghosts. It’s then up to the player to help the group (who quickly become separated in true horror movie fashion) to understand the truth behind what’s going on and return them to safety. It all gets very Japanese horror very quickly — if you’ve seen anything like Ju-on: The Grudge or played Fatal Frame you’ll know the sort of thing to expect.

Unfolding like a cross between a visual novel and a top-down 16-bit RPG, Corpse Party manages to keep the player feeling involved in the action while keeping the story flowing at a good pace. Oftentimes the player’s only contribution between important events will be moving the current player character (for there are several) to a new location, but that simple act, along with the ability to examine items in the environment such as creepy notices on the walls and corpses of previous unwitting visitors to Heavenly Host Elementary School, makes the game feel far more interactive than many visual novel titles, which typically involve tapping the “continue” button lots of times. There’s plenty of that, too, sure, but mild exploration and puzzle elements make this feel much more like a “game” to those who care about that sort of thing.

It’s worth noting at this point that far from taking the relatively “straight line to the finish” approach that many visual novels take, Corpse Party gets increasingly easy to balls up completely as you proceed. Rather than simply immediately ending with a “Game Over” screen for making a bad choice, however, sometimes the butterfly effect of actions you take doesn’t become apparent until an hour or two later. This is a double-edged sword; it turns “making a mistake” into an “alternative ending”, even going so far as to credit the player with this ending in the menu screens, but it also means having to replay previous events, figure out what you did wrong and then do something differently. And God help you if you didn’t make full use of the five available save slots per chapter. Fortunately, though, each of the game’s five chapters is relatively short, with the final one being the longest at around three hours, meaning that replaying a whole chapter is not as much of a chore as it could be — though the game could really do with that mainstay of traditional visual novel interfaces: the “skip” button.

Corpse Party may look like an old SNES RPG, but it’s one of the most horrifying games you’ll ever play.

While it’s relatively easy to get on to a “bad ending” path, particularly later in the game, this actually isn’t something to get too frustrated about, for some of the most intense, morbidly fascinating and emotional scenes come about as a result of these “Wrong Ends”, as the game calls them. Sometimes these are subtle changes to events in the supposed “true” ending for each chapter that mean hope turns to tragedy. Sometimes these endings result in horrible deaths for one or more of the main characters. Sometimes they result in revelations about the characters that you wouldn’t find out about otherwise. Pretty much all bar a couple of “you were caught by a Bad Thing, you die” incidents are worthwhile and substantial narrative events in their own right, making discovering all of the story’s possible endings — good and bad — something of a metagame in itself.

The game’s story and the emotional power behind it is helped by a fantastic translation from the Japanese coupled with some truly excellent, emotionally charged Japanese-language voice acting. Even if you don’t speak Japanese, you’ll want to let the fully-voiced dialogue run its course, as it’s packed with convincing expressions of emotion. (Oh, and you’ll want to wear headphones while playing. The game features some of the most unsettling use of stereo effects I’ve ever encountered, along with a kickass soundtrack.) Characters laugh, cry, scream in terror and generally act in an incredibly realistic manner given the situation they find themselves in. Certain incidents which occur also show that being in a horrific, seemingly inescapable situation doesn’t make the cast immune to things like your body letting you down at the worst possible moment, or your own feelings towards another person. Despite its supernatural core, Corpse Party’s tale is a very human one, examining the relationships between all the members of its main cast and leaving the player feeling like they know most of them very well by the end of the story.

But that doesn’t mean that the horror side of things is toned down. Far from it. Despite its retro-style presentation, this is likely one of the most disturbing, unsettling games you’ll ever play. It doesn’t hold back. This game puts its characters through some of the most unimaginable suffering possible in the name of evoking an emotional response from players, and it’s all the better for it. Story is conflict, and through conflict people grow and change — sometimes for the better, sometimes worse. The fact that the characters are children drives home the fact that tragedy can happen to anyone, and the way in which we react to horrific situations can make a big difference to what happens to us next. It’s a powerful tale, for sure, and even the most strong-stomached will struggle not to wince at some of the acts described throughout the course of the game’s narrative.

Gory scenes like this are spread sporadically through the game, but the text packs the truly horrific punches.

Note that I say “described” and not “seen”, for Corpse Party understands that most fundamental tenet of horror — the most terrifying things are not the most spectacularly gory things presented to the viewer on a plate, but the things in their imagination. As such, many of the game’s strongest, most disturbing scenes are depicted entirely through text, colour flashes and sound effects. The understated manner in which various unpleasant incidents are coolly relayed to the player makes them all the more powerful, for it’s at these moments that the imagination comes into play, filling in the blanks about what is not described as much as picturing what is described. It’s a potent demonstration of the huge difference that having people who know what they are doing work on a game’s script makes.

Corpse Party isn’t a long game, and it won’t take you long to beat all five chapters. There’s plenty of incentive to replay, though, including discovering all the possible endings — good and bad — as well as a series of smaller “extra chapters” that fill in other events which are occurring alongside the main plot. There’s also a bunch of student ID tags to collect throughout the course of the game, providing details on previous visitors to Heavenly Host who weren’t so lucky, including how they died. It’s a diverting little side mission which is integrated nicely into the theme of the game rather than feeling like a gratuitous addition. Since the PSP doesn’t have a Trophy system, it’s clear that these tags haven’t just been added to fill out the Trophy list; they’re instead present to provide context and atmosphere to an already creepy and impactful game.

So should you play Corpse Party? If you’re a fan of story-based games and Japanese horror, then yes, you most certainly should. There’s more than enough content to get your £11.99 worth in this game, and despite a couple of niggling flaws (the lack of a “skip” button when replaying scenes being the most disappointing oversight) it’s a memorable, emotional experience that will stay with you long after it’s finished.