This is the last cultural festival horror fan Mayu Suzumoto can spend with her friends, so resident occultist and class representative Ayumi Shinozaki pulls out a “mystic charm” that she found on the Internet. With it, they — all 7 students, their teacher, and one little sister — will all be together forever. All they have to do is grab onto the paper doll and say “Sachiko, we beg of you,” one time for each person present. The ritual is completed without a hitch, and Ayumi tells everyone that they should keep their piece of paper safe. Otherwise, the ritual won’t work. This seems all for naught, though, because just as they’re about to leave, an earthquake shakes the school building and, one by one, all nine people fall down into the dark abyss that opened up beneath their feet.
They wake up, only to find themselves separated into small groups of two or three. They soon learn from nearby spirits (thankfully, relatively friendly ones) that they and their friends were sent to different dimensions. They have almost no hope of meeting them and absolutely no hope of escaping. Further examination of their surroundings shows that the place they were thrown into is the ruins of Heavenly Host Elementary School, upon which their school was built. The school had been closed down and razed after four children had disappeared and were later found brutally murdered.
Corpse Party follows a unique formula in terms of story flow. The game is separated into five chapters, and they each follow a group of people. Because each group is in a different dimension, events you see in one chapter may affect what you see in another, but not necessarily in a chronological order. For example, when one character dies at the end of one chapter, you may see the body at the beginning of another. There are five save file slots for each chapter, which should be plenty since each is approximately 1-2 hours long.
As a horror game, Corpse Party uses more than the traditional “sudden scare.” In the first scene alone, you learn the personality of each of the nine characters and grow relatively attached to them in such a short period of time. You’ll only feel closer as time goes on as you learn more about their emotions and relationships.
Another strategy the game employs is creating an unsettling atmosphere, and then dispensing just enough detail to let you know what’s going on. Your imagination should fill in the rest.
The 16-bit graphics aren’t completely devoid of detail. You can see obvious things like an antique doll lying abandoned on the floor or a pile of bones representing a previous victim’s corpse, but the game provides finer details when it comes to the characters. You can see the smiles on the teacher Yui Shishido and Ayumi’s faces as they high-five on a job well done for freaking everyone out during the ghost story. Naomi Nakashima pulls on her best friend Seiko Shinohara’s face when she makes a snarky comment. In addition, the combined efforts of the beautiful portraits and the dramatic (but not overly so) voice-acting depict the emotions of everyone present.
Of course, the 16-bit style doesn’t depict everything. Art, rather than the usual graphics, is used to show the finer scenes that are best seen rather than described. However, these are sparse. You really don’t need to see dramatic depictions of everybody you come across – that would lose its impact. Besides, I believe the horror comes more from the emotions of those present rather than you seeing all the gruesome happenings around you.
The reliance on atmosphere is also why the music, already suspenseful, goes the extra step and crosses into the realm of distressing (high violin chords really sound like shrieks sometimes), and why every sound effect, from creaking floor boards to screams, is played binaurally, as though you’re standing in the middle of the desolate hallway with rotting walls and broken windows and a skeleton lying off to your right. As you approach the end of the hall, you can hear the sound of buzzing, soft and distant, but as you take one step, and then another, the humming grows louder and louder. You hear it in the distance, slightly to the left. Gradually, it’s loud enough for you to recognize it as the buzz of insects. Then you turn the corner and are greeted with the pleasant sight of a pile of red mush of what was presumably once a person.
The writing is strong and engaging, as well. The dialogue is very believable, given their situation (you try not screaming your head off every so often if you were thrown into a death-filled building), and I found myself rooting for the characters. I was more nervous about them dying than anything actually going on and found myself treading carefully to try to avoid any mishaps.
Escaping from the school involves a lot of investigating and sometimes running through the same areas because new items have popped up in places you’ve already been to. Luckily, the area you can wander around in is fairly small, so there’s no getting lost. You can pick up tools like matches or crowbars to help you on your way, but they’re very story-specific and one-time only. The moral is to examine everything.
There’s no lack of information floating around the school either. You can investigate the corpses on the ground to pick up their nametags, which you can then view in your menu to read about how they died. Notes tacked onto the walls provide hints on what to do, such as “Don’t let your curiosity get the best of you. Do not read the Victim’s memoirs to the end!” Other papers lie half-ripped on the ground, such as the aforementioned memoirs.
You’re not alone either, for better or for worse. Many ghosts wander the halls. Some are helpful, while others just want to kill you. Still others will actively follow you and try to bring you to a premature grave.
There are multiple endings per chapter, but there is only one “true” one. Most of the others are rather horrible, and completely voiced, deaths. Interestingly, to unlock the “Extra Chapters,” you may have to go after some of the bad endings. You can always see which endings you’ve obtained and what Extra Chapters you have unlocked from the Title screen.
The Extra Chapters tell short stories of what happened to those who wandered into this closed space before you. They’re not always gruesome and some are quite cute (until you remember they’re already dead), and they serve to broaden the game as a whole. You can still die, but since each chapter is so short, there’s no real penalty in starting again.
Because of the many endings, you may find yourself playing through the same chapter again and again. I understand that this was probably done to preserve the atmosphere, but I found it irritating that it is impossible to fast-forward through the dialogue, even of those you’ve read before. In addition, if you find yourself accidentally getting the same ending again and again, you can’t access the menu to enter the title screen during the middle of a dialogue. Oddly enough, there’s also no backlog so you can’t read anything you may have skipped.
I enjoyed Corpse Party as a visual novel with a rich cast and intricate relationships between the characters. Everything from the graphics (or lack thereof) to the writing was aimed at making you care and fear for their lives. I wanted to see them make it out alive, and it was this motivation that drove me towards the end of the game.
Food for Thought:
1. All this doesn’t mean that Corpse Party doesn’t have its sudden scare moments. Telling you would ruin the surprise, though.
2. Corpse Party is the first, and main, game of the series. The sequel, Corpse Party: Book of Shadows, directly follows this game’s events. As such, there are some loose ends in Corpse Party that are only tied up or explored in Book of Shadows.
3. Corpse Party may have some lag issues. This shouldn’t affect any gameplay, but it’s enough to see very slight jolts when your character moves in a straight line.