December 16, 2011
Corpse Party's origin dates back to 1996 when doujin soft developer Team GrisGris released the game for the Japanese-exclusive PC-9801. Being developed with the RPG Maker software, it featured a very traditional RPG-like visual presentation and movement, albeit with a lack of RPG-style gameplay mechanics save for a surprise RPG-like final boss battle at the end of the game (which didn't carry over into the title's later remakes). These features stayed with the later PC and following PSP ports but were met with improvements in the graphics, voice overs and the sound effects utilized in the game while at the same time keeping the core gameplay focus of the original intact.
From the outset Corpse Party seems like your typically Japanese-style game. Your typical anime stereotypes are all present here: the kind-but-shy male, the short-haired tomboy, the hyper "genki" girl, the serious glasses-wearing male, the young and beautiful female teacher, the younger sister --- the list keeps going on. The story opens up in the local school with one of the group's friends, Mayu, having to move to another town because their father got another job far away, causing another member of the group, Ayumi, to suggest performing the "Sachiko Ever After" charm ritual that she found on a local occult site via the Internet. By making a wish to the spirit of the paper doll it's said that group of friends that perform it will be friends forever no matter what happens. So each member of the group takes a section of the doll in their hands, chants the incantation the required number of times according to the instructions and breaks off their own piece of the doll.
Of course, this would make for an incredibly dull video game, so all hell breaks loose right after the ritual is performed. A massive earthquake hits the school and the very fabric of the room begins to break apart as the floor disintegrates before their very eyes as each and every one of them fall into the darkened abyss. And thus begins the story of Corpse Party as the various characters find themselves separated from the others in their group in a strange and decaying school building that eerily resembles an ominous building known as the Heavenly Host Elementary School, which was the host of a horrible and strange murder scene and was supposed to have been closed up and kept hidden underneath the school from which the group hails.
How Corpse Party handles this premise is especially brilliant. Initially, the player is just as confused as the characters themselves. How did we end up here? Where is everybody else? How do we escape? Why are there decaying, mutilated and broken bodies of humans and pieces of bone fragments laying around everywhere?
Uncovering the secrets and finding out how to survive what awaits you in the halls of Heavenly Host plays out much like the classic adventure games PC players enjoyed back in the 1990s. Players need to search every room to find hidden items and figure out where they need to be used and to find the next means of progression in each of the game's five chapters. To break up this monotony, Corpse Party has thrown in some horror and puzzle elements such as using multiple characters to solve a puzzle, playing a cat-and-mouse game with the local malicious spirits that wander the halls or completing a timed task.
At first glance, this likely sounds quite basic and contrived, but how Corpse Party handles this is quite exemplary. The correct path to the chapter's end is never quite as simple as it appears as the game intentionally throws a minefield of dead ends in your path, many times on purpose to pit your own intuition against you. Oftentimes knowing how not to screw up a puzzle is completely obscure, but it fits in perfectly with the premise that anyone who enters Heavenly Host gradually loses their own sanity and gets taken over by the evil spirits that line the walls. Essentially, as the player you feel just as the characters do in the game as both you and them get pushed to the utter breaking point as the game progresses.
Initially, it appears like things aren't as bad as they seem. Sure there's a few rotting corpses scattered about and there's a number of spirits moving about, but it's nothing you as the player hasn't seen before. But then, all of a sudden, something unexpected occurs. A character might perform an act you weren't expecting --- your entire view of the events going on is tilted on its head and the game just keeps making things worse from there on out as you progress.
As stated before, even though Corpse Party has been remade a number of times since it's original PC-9801 release, it still has the RPG Maker-style sprites, although with a lot more style to them as the original game's graphics were way too bright in comparison to the dreading tone the game provided. Surprisingly enough, the 16-bit sprites help the game's atmosphere as Corpse Party does an excellent job with utilizing shadow and lighting effects to set the mood, as such its effect appears much more pronounced. And in a nice touch the more violent dead ends don't even use graphics at all, instead exclusively text to explain the horrific deaths that befall the characters when the player screws up which can range from someone getting their eye cut out with a bloody pair of scissors to being buried alive.
As much as the graphics help set the mood in Corpse Party, nowhere does it excel more at this than its audio, which was recorded bin-aurally. This means that the game's audio was recorded with two microphones instead of one to create the effect of "3D" stereo sound. While the PSP's speakers (outside of the new E-1000 model) do support this the bin-aural effect, headphones are the optimal choice when playing the game as it uses this effect to send specific sounds to each ear at specific points in the game.
Imagine this: blindfolded, the player hears the killer using a rusted, bloodied pair of scissors to slice through one of the nearby victims. It starts as a simple puncture wound accompanied by a painful scream. But the killer --- and the sound --- doesn't stop. The killer keeps stabbing the victim over and over and over again. And as this progresses the sound of flesh wounds changes into the sound of mush alongside a straining gurgle from the victim as they try desperately to avoid drowning in their own blood pooling in their throat. And then they stop. Knowing that the victim is now dead the killer goes to the next person in line, creating an even more unsettling mood as the sounds of the killing get closer and closer until the next victim...is you.
The audio is quite unsettling. Unlike most horror games Corpse Party genuinely makes the player feel what the characters are feeling. I won't spoil what happens next, but the overall effect Team GrisGris and the localization team at XSEED Games was able to create is nothing short of breathtaking.
For all that Corpse Party does right it does have a few flaws of its own. Due to its premise and genre the game is primarily text-based. Generally there's about three to five minutes between the last save point and when a bad end takes place for some of the less severe offenders. The issue is that when the player has to reload to the last save there's no way to skip past text without mashing the X button to advance it. While it's not a game breaker it is somewhat baffling that this wasn't taken care of during the localization process as XSEED worked with Team GrisGris to modify other parts of the game and there are some buttons on the PSP that Corpse Party doesn't utilize at all that could have served this purpose. There are also a few character sprite color palette issue that jar against the rest of the sprite work in the game but it only manifests itself in a few areas and really doesn't detract from the game unless you are specifically looking for them.
Overall, this game is easily one of the few PSP highlights of the year. It's genuinely been a while since I've played through a game that hit me as emotionally as Corpse Party did. It won't be surprising that many will likely write this game off due to its aged look and for being a Japanese-style horror game, but those who do try it out will find their money well-spent on what is an unbelievably fantastic and horrific experience through exactly what level of trauma the human mind can endure when it's pushed to the utter edge. If you can give it a chance this is one party you shouldn't miss.Editor's Choice