A Monstrous Masterpiece
Here’s the thing. Until the code landed in my inbox last week, I’d never heard of 1996’s Corpse Party. Nor had I heard of the anime series, manga works, live action films, or (of all things) theme park attraction spin-offs the game inspired. I certainly hadn’t heard that it was getting a remastered version with extra content for the Nintendo 3DS, a version that’s called Corpse Party in the eShop, Corpse Party: Blood Covered…Repeated Fear on the menu screen and Corpse Party: Back To School Edition online. In general, I don’t even like anime games all that much, and coming off of the abysmal Omni Link I didn’t have very high expectations.
So you can trust me when I say that the 3DS port of Corpse Party, whatever you want to call it, is an absolute masterpiece. It’s a fantastic adventure game that brilliantly blends story and gameplay, and despite the chibi art style it’s also one of the most genuinely chilling horror games I’ve ever played. If you have any interest in either of those things (and haven’t already played it), stop reading the review, avoid all spoilers, and go buy it.
For those of you who need more convincing, Corpse Party is a psychological horror game featuring nine playable characters – eight high school students and their teacher – who find themselves inexplicably trapped in a dimensional nexus that looks like a ruined version of Heavenly Host Elementary, a school that was torn down years ago to build their high school following a series of tragic incidents. The nexus is made of several dimensions stacked on top of each other, so although all nine characters are trapped in the same space, they can’t see or interact with each other as they have been scattered across different dimensions. Only a few things remain constant between dimensions – most notably, the corpses of any of the characters who die.
The dimensional setting is absolutely brilliant. From a gameplay perspective, it leads to a few Day of the Tentacle-style puzzles that require making contact between dimensions, with the absolute goal of somehow bringing all of the children together to escape. But what’s far more impressive is the way it’s used in the story. To use the least spoiler-y example I can: in chapter 1 you find a letter next to a girl’s corpse telling her sister how much she loves her and how much she hopes she’ll be able to escape and how sorry she is that they got separated. In chapter 2, in the same location but a different dimension, you find a letter by the sister’s corpse cursing the other girl for abandoning her and asking where she went and bitterly explaining how much she hates her. Because time is also disconnected, minor details in an earlier chapter might turn out to be the results of a later chapter’s climactic finale, and it all helps to establish a feeling that everything that happens here is set in stone, and that there is no escape.
That’s really important for a horror game, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen any horror story with a setting as creative or as well-implemented as Corpse Party‘s. And let’s be clear: this game is horrifying, in the best possible way. I consider myself fairly stout-hearted when it comes to such things – I love Five Nights at Freddy’s and Outlast, I’ve watched The Babadook and The Human Centipede and just about every other film people use to measure how easily frightened you are. I don’t get scared easily by entertainment media, and yet there were several points in Corpse Party where I had to stop playing, turn on all the lights, and do something else to de-stress before hopping back in. There’s no jumpscares, no moments where I screamed out loud, but this is psychological horror at its best, creating an oppressive and chilling atmosphere that works its way into your skull and refuses to let go.
One detail I absolutely adored is the Name Tags you have to collect. Not only do these helpfully signpost the general path to the best ending, but they address a problem that a lot of horror media has, especially games. See, when hack storytellers want you to feel like a place is scary, they throw a bunch of corpses into the environment. Even the first Doom does this, but it’s hard to really feel anything for the same dead guy sprite copy and pasted into a level over and over. Corpse Party similarly strews its single map with the corpses of children who’ve died before, but each corpse comes with a name tag that gives you the child’s name, school, and cause of death, often with extra information nearby (like the two sisters’ letters to each other). It’s not a lot, but it’s enough that I actually felt a connection to every single dead child, making the discovery of another corpse powerful, not run-of-the-mill.
I could talk about the story of Corpse Party all day, and perhaps I will in a separate, spoiler-filled article, but suffice to say that as a writer of fiction myself I find myself absolutely staggered by how many things it does smartly. Despite there being nine principal characters, every member of the cast feels like a real person, with enough downtime and humorous moments that the narrative doesn’t feel like a tedious sadfest. What’s more, it does so without having to have enormous Hideo-Kojima-length cutscenes. And the deaths of these characters are nowhere near as predictable as they are in the vast variety of horror movies. Even in the rare instances where I did correctly guess which character would die next, I always found myself surprised by the direction it took.
But enough about story. Let’s talk gameplay. Frankly, if you’re not already a fan of point-and-click adventure games like I am, I doubt that Corpse Party will be the game that brings you into the genre. Progress through the game requires a mixture of traditional inventory puzzles and scarier horror-themed puzzles, like having to learn the patterns of a ghost that’s chasing you to avoid him. These are sometimes frustrating in typical adventure-game style (although for those who just want to experience the story there’s a number of walkthroughs online), and failing puzzles usually leads to a death scene.
These are something that’s fairly controversial in adventure game design. Normally, I’m against them – they’re absolutely horrible in the old Sierra games like Space Quest or King’s Quest. In this case, however, I think they work. They contribute to the overall atmosphere of helplessness, and they’re all very well-done and scary, sometimes containing story information you might not get otherwise. What’s more, they’re usually well-telegraphed: you’re not being punished for doing something you had no reason to expect you shouldn’t do, you’re being punished for walking into the spooky ghost carrying a knife. And since you can save the game at any time, a death isn’t likely to set you back by much, though you’re sent back to the main menu when you do so to discourage save-scumming.
The 3DS version of the game boasts updated artwork, remixed soundtracks, extended scenes and more deaths, and more of the Extra Chapters made available in the previous version of the game. These short Extra Chapters admittedly aren’t as good as the mainline story, but they provide a welcome cherry on top, often expanding on some minor character or detail from the main storyline, frequently in a more humorous tone. As for everything else, the graphics on the 3DS are absolutely gorgeous, a mixture of pixel art and hand-drawn images, the former managing to convey far more emotional depth than you’d normally expect. The soundtrack, too, is a treat, though as I said in the intro I have nothing to compare it too. Ultimately, those who already own the game will have to decide for themselves whether this new version is worth buying.
But for those who are going in blind, as I did, I think it’s safe to say that this version of the game is the definitive edition, at least for now. If you’re a fan of horror games or a fan of point-and-click adventures, I would consider Corpse Party a necessary purchase, deserving to be ranked as one of the best of both genres. It may not be for everyone, and it may have the occasional niggling flaw (a few puzzles that are particularly unintuitive, or panty shots in scenes that absolutely do not call for panty shots), but it does exactly what it sets out to do, telling its ambitious story with such staggering finesse that I can’t help but give it a perfect score.
Final Verdict: 5/5
Available on: 3DS (reviewed), New 3DS; Publisher: XSEED Games; Players: 1 ; Released: October 25, 2016 ; ESRB: M for Mature; MSRP: $49.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of Corpse Party given to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher.