Corpse Party, a dōjin soft title made within RPGMaker by Team GrisGris for the NEC PC-9801 in 1996, presented a survival horror/adventure game that tasked players with exploring the ruins of the Heavenly Host Elementary School in the heart of Tokyo. The top-down perspective and sprite-based characters belied the game’s very dark nature. This was a horror game that pulled no punches and told a daringly intense ghost story that was full of intrigue and the macabre. It was remade in 2008 as Corpse Party BloodCovered for Windows and then again in 2011 as Corpse Party BloodCovered: …Repeated Fear for the PlayStation Portable system.
This retro-tinged horror game featured excellent sound design (binaural audio used to full effect) along with professional voice-acting, CG images to accompany death scenes and retouched graphics. Most of the world, especially the game’s rabid Western fans, came to know it via the PSP remake. The original remake, BloodCovered, sparked an explosion of Corpse Party related spin-offs including manga, anime and served as the inspiration for numerous other Japanese indie developers who followed suit with their blood spattered dreams. Some might say that this could be the proper way to experience Corpse Party as this was the original development team, headed by Makoto Kedōin, improved upon the original PC-9801 title. It even helped spawn a live-action film so surely this is the one to play? Right? Perhaps I’m one of those spoiled Western fanboys, but the recent PC release feels lacking in comparison to the PSP version (which will be coming to the Nintendo 3DS in August).
Corpse Party opens with a group of friends saying goodbye to one of their own who’s transferring to another school. Mayu Sazumoto is broken up about the prospect of leaving behind her friends so one of the group, Ayumi, suggests trying something she found on the Internet. A charm they can all perform known as “Sachiko Ever After” which purportedly binds all who help cast it together in a lifelong friendship. So, as per usual, a magic ritual in the hands of idiot teenagers goes horribly awry, and then things get fascinating. An earthquake strikes and the group of friends find themselves in a horrible nightmare known as Heavenly Host Elementary. Tragedy befell the Tokyo elementary school and, eventually, it was torn down to have Kisuragi Academy built upon its ruins. The vengeful spirits of students remain, however, poised to take the sanity and very lives of the trapped students.
Lone Survivor is a likely analog to Corpse Party for the uninitiated, and it showed that horror can be quite effective in the modern day when displayed through 2D graphics. Corpse Party‘s two-dimensional sprites can evoke a large range of emotions effectively. There are some genuinely heavy themes being explored within Corpse Party and these kids are put through the wringer all while building an effective sense of dreadful oppression. Fans of visual novels will find the pacing to be extremely familiar and it hums along at a brisk pace despite all the exposition drops. There is, however, still plenty of room for exploration of the Heavenly Host Elementary School as the game is mostly spent walking, examining objects in an attempt to piece together the mystery of how the students of Heavenly Host met their untimely demise.
The game’s story is divided into nine chapters (including three bonus chapters and a retelling of “Tooth” from the sequel Book of Shadows) and each of them has numerous possible endings to uncover as the mystery unfolds. The cast’s nine main characters, in the hopes of figuring out what the heck is going on at Heavenly Host, split up into groups of two and three to explore the ruins of the elementary school. Trial and error will be required to make it past certain segments, although there isn’t anything too frustrating to deal with here. There is certainly no lack of content for those interested in fully exploring the elementary schools’ every nook and cranny, though one major flaw became apparent quickly. The PSP version featured CG images that accompanied the rather gruesome descriptions of character deaths, etc. Crucial story beats were capped off with grotesque imagery that hammered home the dread and horror present in every facet of the situation these Kisuragi Academy were thrust into. The updated release for PC lacks a lot of the impact the PSP remake had as it lacks this critical nuance of the presentation. The game’s story is mostly based on those moments to shock the player and lacking them entirely makes this feel like a neutered version of the Corpse Party that I and other fans fell for back in 2011. The disconnect between the sprites and the imagination of the player can certainly lend to the atmospheric nature of the game, but I found, more often than not, feeling that many moments fell flat in comparison to their PSP remake counterparts.
Despite the changes, the game’s story still sings when it’s rolling. Even the most trite of characters will matter when the bell tolls for them, and a collection of dog tags which allows players to see their “cause of death” is a nice touch. The ability to change the fate of those involved with critical choices was a genuinely novel concept back then, and it still holds up well today. There is a feeling of real consequence and weight to actions as the result can turn out very differently depending on the choice. The narrative can, however, swing wildly at times with tonal shifts that feel jarring, and that hasn’t changed from the prior versions of the game. It’s nothing that derails the whole game but the dreadful atmosphere created by the rest of the game is slightly damaged nonetheless. The voice acting can sometimes make up for those foibles as it’s uniformly excellent across the board and adds a lot to the delivery of the grim news awaiting these poor students.
The bottom line is Corpse Party is mandatory for horror fans. The game is worth experiencing in one form or another but, if possible, stick to the PSP remake or the upcoming Nintendo 3DS version. This feels decidedly lacking in comparison to what those other versions offer.
Corpse Party was reviewed on PC via Steam with a code provided by the publisher.
Corpse Party, a new port of the 2008 remake of the original, will bring exposure to the title's great narrative for many. It is, however, decidedly lacking in comparison to the PSP remake of 2011 or the upcoming 3DS version. It can still bring the spooks but it simply doesn't go as far as the other versions. Play those instead.