It’s my party, and I’ll die if I want to

It was just shy of 1am when I finally finished Corpse Party—or, should I say, finished it with an ending I could be satisfied with, versus the one I had received a few hours earlier that left me starting over the game’s final chapter. Having put off a necessary trip to the supermarket in order to correct my prior mistakes, I let the credits play until their end and then rushed out to my car to brave nighttime L.A. for milk and bread.

As I sat there in the driver’s seat, guiding my car along the nearly deserted road that lead to my closest shopping option that was still open, my mind drifted back to the game. I thought about its characters—who they were, what they had experienced, what horrors they had endured in trying (and, for some, failing) to survive what the game had put them through. Or, more precisely, what I had been forced to put them through.

I then realized something—this small wave of panic and despair was welling in my chest, all for some characters in some video game.

While I don’t know the exacts of the mindset of the original creators of Corpse Party—a small group of Japanese grassroot programmers known as Team GrisGris—I can imagine they wanted what so many of us want: To make a video game. Corpse Party was born thanks to RPG Maker, a software tool allowing amateur game designers to try their hand at making their own creations without the need for technical programming knowledge. Two remakes later, Corpse Party still very much looks and feels like a game cobbled together with random bits and pieces of pre-created elements.

In the first hour of the game, I was trying to figure out why XSEED would take a chance on such a project. Everything felt so—so so. Corpse Party introduces us to a who’s who of Japanese anime stereotypes: the kind but shy leading male, the short-haired tomboy girl, the hyper-peppy girl, the serious bespectacled guy, the pretty young teacher, the pigtailed “mystic” girl, the cute younger-sister type, the actual younger sister, and the blond-haired rebel guy.

Cute younger-sister type Mayu is set to move to a different town, so on her last day at Kisaragi Academy, her circle of friends—the bunch mentioned above—stay after school to say their goodbyes. Just as everyone is about to part, pigtailed Ayumi makes a suggestion: Sachiko Ever After. A ritual found on a popular occult site, Ayumi explains that by making a wish to the spirit of Sachiko using a paper doll, the group will be friends forever no matter what happens. Standing in a circle, each person takes a section of the Sachiko doll in their hand, chants an incantation the required number of times, and pulls on the paper to break off their own personal piece.

And thus, we are thrown into Corpse Party, being there as the various characters wake up to find themselves in a strange, decaying school building. At first, we are as confused as they are. What is going on? How did we get here? Why are there bodies of other students strewn everywhere, bloody and beaten and mutilated in a variety of ways?

Uncovering those secrets—and discovering the key to surviving what awaits you in the halls of Heavenly Host Elementary School—plays out in what could best be described as an adventure game. Gameplay is unremarkably basic: Search every room, find an item, figure out where it needs to be used, search for the next means of progression. Every now and then, Corpse Party will introduce elements to break that monotony, such as having to accomplish a task in a set amount of time, using two characters to solve a puzzle, or playing cat-and-mouse games with a variety of malicious spirits. On its surface, Corpse Party often feels less like a game, and more like a required level of interaction in order to get from one storyline segment to the next.

That point is where Corpse Party provides its one real level of gameplay challenge—traversing its plot. The path to the game’s ending is a minefield of dead ends, and avoiding them ranges from making the right decision when asked a question to accomplishing specific tasks before performing others. Sometimes, knowing how to not screw up can be totally obscure, but that feeling of uncertainty in your actions and decisions goes perfectly with the game’s themes.

When you’re at that early point in Corpse Party, you’ll no doubt be where I was—playing the game, finding this or that interesting, but expecting the rest of the ride to be little more than uneventful. And then, something happens. Events occur that you weren’t expecting. Characters being to show a depth that betray their initial air of shallowness. The story starts to pick up—and when it does, it smacks you over the head with a shovel, grabs you by the ankles, and drags you kicking and screaming through a nightmarish tale that never lets up.

Those graphics that make Corpse Party look like a budget release from the 16-bit era? You come to have a deep appreciation for them. On one hand, had the game been your typical big-budget high-definition Western release, its gore could have felt like every other game that overloads us with virtual violence. On the other, the simplicity of what you’re seeing on screen helps the developers craft better and more impactful scares via other methods.

Nowhere does Corpse Party excel at this more than its audio. In one of the game’s most memorable scenes, we experience firsthand the brutal murder of three victims. On screen, we are shown very little. Typically, it’s nothing but solid black with a few lines of white text; every now and then, a fullscreen piece of art shows us a first-person view of the killer, looking at us with a sadistic smile on their face. We don’t see the suffering, we hear it—and it’s shockingly brutal. We hear the sound of metal slicing through delicate tissue. It starts as a puncture, and an accompanying scream of pain. But the killer, and the sound, doesn’t stop. They stab the person again. And again. And again. As the blade enters the body over and over, the sound changes—it’s now the sound of flesh and muscle being ground into mush. The screams we heard before continue, but they too have changed. The sound coming from the victim is a desperate gurgle, a mixture of the primal cries of pain and the struggle to avoid suffocating on the blood that now pools in their throat.

The player character bearing witness to all of this begs the killer to stop—and I, as the player, did too. I’ve played a wide array of horror games, from ones that beat us over the head with brutality, to ones which try instead to attack us with mental torture. And yet, in all of my years of playing such titles, little can I remember a time when I felt so emotionally or mentally overwhelmed by what I encountered.

Going into Corpse Party, I never expected to actually be affected by something I’d encounter. Then again, I never expected a lot of things about the game. I never thought I’d become as attached to its characters as I did; I never thought its storyline could be as engrossing as it was; and I certainly never expected such a simple-looking game could provide such a level of unsettling situations. But I did come to love its characters, I did become lost in its story, and I did find myself being legitimately bothered by much of what it presented to me.

Many will no doubt write off Corpse Party before they even play it, and I understand why. Still others will play it, and write it off as a goofy Japanese horror title filled with too much text and too little gameplay–and I understand why on that point as well. For those who do try it, and do come to appreciate what it attempts to do, Corpse Party is an okay game but an utterly fantastic experience—an experience that I consider to be one of the most captivating I’ve had in gaming this year.

Developer: Team Grisgris, 5pb • Publisher: XSEED Games • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 11.22.2011
While not fantastic in terms of gameplay, Corpse Party shines as a journey in surviving a world of disturbing horror.
The Good The high level of craft put into the game’s storyline, characters, and audio; as well, a surprisingly excellent soundtrack
The Bad The lack of a text skip option makes replaying portions of the game an exercise in button mashing; character sprites that are way too low resolution—and which, strangely, don’t always match a character’s artwork
The Ugly Coming to care for a character—and then seeing them being brutally murdered
Corpse Party is available exclusively on PlayStation Portable. Review code was provided by XSEED Games for the benefit of this review.


About Mollie L Patterson

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Mollie got her start in games media via the crazy world of gaming fanzines, and now works at EGM with the goal of covering all of the weird Japanese and niche releases that nobody else on staff cares about. She’s active in the gaming community on a personal level, and an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming, consumer rights, and good UI. Find her on Twitter @suddenlymollie.