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From The Archives: Darkness and Scissors – The Horror of Corpse Party

If you have a PSP (or Vita) then you really owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of the magnificent Corpse Party from Team GrisGris, localised by XSEED. (Editor’s note: Since this article was written in 2012, you can now also get a version of the game for 3DS and PC, though note that these are slightly different to the version under discussion here.)

While initially resembling a top-down SNES-era role-playing game more than a traditional visual novel, it quickly becomes apparent that this is a game where story — and, more importantly, atmosphere – is king.

This article was originally published on Games Are Evil in 2012 as part of the site’s regular READ.ME column on visual novels. It has been republished here due to Games Are Evil no longer existing in its original form.

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In Corpse Party, the player oversees a group of students who, after doing one of those obscure Japanese charms that always go wrong in horror movies, find themselves trapped in another dimension in what appears to be a ruined school that is absolutely crawling with ghosts.

And, of course, an awful lot of these ghosts aren’t particularly friendly, either.

Thus begins a genuinely harrowing tale of these children struggling to survive against otherworldly horrors, and a game that is refreshingly uncompromising in how utterly horrifying it is willing to be using the very simplest of tricks.

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Despite the fact a lot of the game (close-up CG aside) looks like a late SNES-era Squaresoft game, Corpse Party is very much a visual novel with a linear path through its storyline. Well, actually, that’s not strictly accurate — there’s one “correct” route through the game, yes, but as you progress through each of the game’s five chapters an increasing number of “Wrong Ends” become available, generally involving some kind of horrific tragedy.

Some of these Wrong Ends are fairly straightforward “you got caught by a monster, you die” affairs, but the most interesting examples are the ones where you don’t necessarily know you’ve messed up until it’s far too late. In one memorable example towards the end of the game, there’s upwards of an hour of gameplay between a sequence that determines whether you progress the story or get a Wrong End, so just because the story continues doesn’t necessarily mean you’re on the home straight.

To further complicate matters, there are a number of sequences in the game where negative things (I’m trying to remain spoiler-free here!) are supposed to happen. Not only that, but each chapter you play only has a limited number of save slots available, meaning that you have to be very careful about when you save and in which slot.

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I won’t lie, it is a little frustrating to have to replay a bunch of story just because you did one thing wrong — and the lack of the “skip/fast forward” button that is a fixture in more traditional visual novels doesn’t help dull the pain — but at the same time, you’ll find yourself feeling a strong degree of morbid curiosity over what strange and horrible ways these kids can meet their ends in the Heavenly Host school.

You see, the Wrong Ends in Corpse Party are in many ways the highlight of the game — if you’re a horror fan, anyway. While, as previously said, there are a couple of simple “you die” endings, the vast majority are extended sequences that toy with the player to a borderline sadistic degree.

Players raised on more traditional adventure and role-playing games who are used to characters getting into a pinch then automatically getting out of said pinch as part of the story will be very surprised to discover that sometimes no, people don’t get out of the apparently hopeless situations they find themselves in. Sometimes people die. And more often than not, it’s immensely unpleasant.

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Corpse Party knows that death isn’t glamorous. It knows that sometimes it’s painful, sometimes it’s drawn out over a long period and sometimes it’s horrifying. In its death sequences, it skilfully manipulates the player’s emotions using the most minimalist approach possible, leaving the hard work to the player’s imagination.

In one memorable sequence — the details of which I’ll spare you — a spectacularly unpleasant mental image is created in the player’s mind using nothing more than a blank screen that occasionally flashes red, a text box, voice acting and a few sound effects. There is no image on the screen at all — the most unpleasant details are entirely of your own depraved brain’s creation.

If you’re playing by yourself in a darkened room while wearing headphones (which, incidentally, I strongly recommend you do, as the game’s use of quasi-3D sound on headphones is spectacular), screaming like a baby and/or soiling yourself is a perfectly understandable reaction.

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The powerful emotional response that Corpse Party evokes both from its unfolding “correct” narrative and its shockingly gruesome Wrong Ends is largely due to the fact that the characters in it are not heroes. They are teenagers and children.

And they’re not “JRPG teenagers and children”, either — they’re realistic teenagers and children. They’re scared, they’re emotional, they’re irrational, they’re hormonal — even when not trapped in a ghost-infested school beyond time and space.

The game isn’t afraid to show these characters gradually losing their tenuous grip on sanity as the story progresses and it’s probably not a spoiler to note that not everyone makes it through the harrowing experience with their mind and/or body intact.

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It’s also surprisingly uncompromising when it comes to seemingly mundane problems making an already horrifying situation even worse — one of the female characters suddenly realises that she’s started her period while exploring the school, for example, and curses her body for letting her down at the worst possible moment.

Japanese scenario writers are uncommonly skilled at producing characters like this, and we see it a lot in the visual novel genre as a whole. Many (though not all) Western video game characters are designed to be “wish fulfilment” vehicles, particularly for men, but in the case of Japanese characters — especially in the visual novel genre (and in anime too, for that matter) — they’re often realistically and/or tragically flawed in some way.

This helps to make them infinitely more interesting to spend time with — which is exactly what you want from a style of game where the main thrust of the “gameplay” is in interacting with characters and following an unfolding story.

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It doesn’t always make for an easy experience, but it certainly makes for a memorable one. Such is the case with Corpse Party, by far one of the most memorable horror games I’ve ever had the dubious pleasure to play.


This article was originally published on Games Are Evil in 2012 as part of the site’s regular READ.ME column on visual novels. It has been republished here due to Games Are Evil no longer existing in its original form.

If you enjoyed this article and want to see more like it, please consider showing your social support with likes, shares and comments, or financial support via my Patreon. Thank you!

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