UPDATE: Corpse Party is now available for Switch, PS4, Xbox One and PC! Check out the full announcement here. This article is primarily based on the PSP release.
It is October and, of course, that means that it’s time for spooky things, because Halloween now apparently lasts all month. If you’re yet to experience the blood-drenched horror of Corpse Party, make this year the year you experience it for the first time — because it is still one of the finest Japanese horror games ever created.
Corpse Party opens with its cast of school-aged kids doing one of those obscure Japanese charms that always go wrong in horror movies. It, of course, goes wrong, and they find themselves trapped in a parallel world: a ruined school that is absolutely full to the brim with ghosts — both vengeful and otherwise.
Chief among these is the ghost of a young girl named Sachiko, who has a bit of a thing for inserting scissors into parts of the body that are really not made to receive scissors — but she’s far from the only dangerous thing in this terrifying other world.
Indeed, Corpse Party features a wide variety of ways to meet an extremely grisly end — and, in fact, collecting the game’s numerous “wrong ends” is actually something of a metagame beyond simply following the single linear storyline through to its conclusion. But more on that in a moment.
Structurally, Corpse Party is essentially a visual novel, but it is executed like a top-down role-playing game. You explore the school from an overhead viewpoint, moving into rooms, investigating items and interacting with characters and ghosts. As you progress, you’ll uncover clues about the truth of the situation — and have the opportunity to get to know each of the characters a little better too.
And a fascinating bunch of characters they are, too; for the most part, the game resists falling into typical anime archetypes, and often throws up some significant surprises, such as when you discover quite how foul-mouthed and crass the rather demure-looking Seiko is, or the dark fascination the distinctly sensible-looking Morishige has with corpses and violent scenes.
Interestingly, too, Corpse Party is a game in which sometimes, unpleasant fates are unavoidable. As gamers, we’re conditioned to expect characters in the things we play to inevitably find themselves getting into a pinch and then finding a convenient means of escape as part of the narrative.
Not so in Corpse Party; the game makes this abundantly clear at the end of the first chapter, where a character who we’ve just been starting to get to know and like meets an untimely end, and there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it. Indeed, you can try to do something about it — but eventually you just have to accept that sometimes a situation is just hopeless. Sometimes it’s just someone’s time — even if the manner of their passing isn’t necessarily… natural.
Corpse Party knows that there is nothing glamorous about being trapped in a horrific situation. It knows that death itself isn’t anything to be celebrated; sometimes it’s drawn out over a long period and excruciatingly painful. And, perhaps most importantly for the horror genre, it knows that sometimes the things you don’t show are the most powerful stimuli for the imagination.
One of the most horrific sequences in the game, for example, is presented as nothing more than a blank screen and a text box with voice acting. There are occasional flashes of red, sound effects, but aside from this it’s a completely minimalist presentation. But given the context of what is going on, the content of the dialogue and the way our imagination has a tendency to “fill in the blanks” when one or more of our senses are deprived… it’s a truly, truly unpleasant (and highly memorable) scene.
A significant part of Corpse Party’s horror comes from its absolutely spectacular use of sound. This is a game that you’ll absolutely want to wear headphones for, since it makes use of quasi-3D binaural sound in order to make sounds and voices appear as if they are coming from various points around you. It’s particularly good at providing the impression of someone — or something — whispering directly in your ear while standing behind you; it’s enough to make all the little hairs on your body stand up on end, I tell you. Yes, even those ones.
One of the most powerful things about Corpse Party is that its cast of characters are teenagers and children. And not exaggerated, heroic anime teenagers and children, either; they are realistic teenagers and children. They’re terrified, they’re emotional, they’re irrational, they’re hormonal — and sometimes they’re even prone to doing the most inappropriate thing possible under already challenging circumstances.
The game even acknowledges that sometimes mundane problems can come to the fore under difficult circumstances and make things even worse than they already are; one of the game’s characters realises that she’s started her period while exploring the school, for example, and finds herself frustrated with her own body for letting her down at the worst possible moment.
The different characters have varying degrees of mental fortitude, too. Some manage to make it through the experience with their minds and bodies mostly intact; other succumb much more quickly to the many strains that the terrifying situation they’re in places upon them. In some cases this turns them into somewhat morally ambiguous characters; in others, it makes them outright villains. And it can be extremely unnerving to watch.
As noted above, part of the core appeal of Corpse Party is in seeing just how drastically things can go horribly wrong for the core cast — and indeed, the game tracks how many of the possible “wrong ends” you have seen in each of its five chapters.
In some cases, these “wrong ends” are simplstic “you were caught by a monster/ghost/trap and you die” affairs, but for the most part they’re surprisingly involved. In one especially memorable (and frustrating) situation, messing up one single sequence allows the game to continue on as if nothing had happened, giving the impression that you’re on the route to the “correct” ending — but things fall apart in a hideously disastrous manner just as you’re about to reach the finale.
Narratively, it’s extremely effective; mechanically, having to go back an hour and do everything again is mildly annoying — but that’s the price you pay for thoroughness.
Like most visual novels, exploring all the possible narrative branches — in this case, taking a look at all the possible “wrong ends” — gives you additional insight into the characters and what they’re all about. Sometimes even a “wrong” end provides you with information that you otherwise wouldn’t have discovered if all you did was follow the “correct” path — and as you progress through the game, you’ll also unlock additional “extra” chapters that show what was going on in other places while you followed the main narrative.
Corpse Party is still a fantastic game — and there are lots of ways to enjoy it today, each of them slightly different from one another. For my money, the best version is the PSP release, which you should still be able to download via the PlayStation Store on a Vita — but it’s also available for Nintendo 3DS, iOS and PC, with each version having its own little tweaks to the formula.
There’s also a Switch and PS4 version, which is an enhanced and expanded port of the 3DS version, but after releasing in Japan in February of 2021, we’ve heard nothing about a western release. (Until now — see the update at the top – Ed.) The Japanese version does have English support, though, so if you have access to the Japanese eShop or PlayStation Store you may want to check it out.
Regardless of which version you play, be sure to do so wearing a good pair of headphones, sitting in a dark room. And you may want to have a change of undies on hand, too. Y’know, just in case buttering up your pooper real good proved to be a bit of a mistake.
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