With Shantae and Story of Seasons filling XSEED's E3 booth with so much colour and cheer this year, there was one title that stood out starkly with its bloodstained logo and bleak look: Corpse Party on the 3DS. This inimitable Japanese indie horror game has been scaring people silly in various forms since 1996, and is now making it to Western 3DS players for the first time this Summer. Starring a group of high schoolers who enact a ritual called 'Sachiko Ever After' to seal their friendship, Corpse Party sees its cast transported across time and into Heavenly Host Elementary School, where a spate of murders haunts both the school's past and the party's future. Making it out alive is a matter of uncovering the truth, with dark, physical and psychological horrors standing between the group and their freedom.
This 3DS Corpse Party is an updated version of a PSP remake of the original, and in addition to all the content in that release it includes four additional chapters — these are substantial extras, lasting around 30 minutes each. It also marks the first time there's been a physical release of the original Corpse Party game in the West, and XSEED's put together a package with two amiibo-sized figurines and a massive soundtrack CD to celebrate. We rolled up our sleeves and steeled our nerves to go hands-on with the English version at E3, and after playing for nearly a half-hour, we can definitely see why it's worth celebrating; Corpse Party's particularly Japanese blend of bleak, hopeless horror won't be for everyone, but for players who are all in it will be intoxicating.
As we picked up the 3DS to take Corpse Party for a spin, XSEED Localization Specialist Thomas Lipschultz described the gameplay as a 'JRPG without battles', and that felt spot-on from what we played. Much more interactive than a visual novel, but much less mechanically demanding than a typical JRPG, our time in Corpse Party's weary world involved moving our characters around from an overhead perspective, talking to fellow classmates, inspecting corpses, finding clues, and solving simple environmental puzzles to advance. We explored battered corridors, heard terrifying noises, and learned the gruesome backstories to several deaths — one of the gameplay elements involves collecting name tags from corpses, which let you know when and how they died; a "morbid 'gotta catch 'em all'", as Tom so aptly put it.
Corpse Party is split into several discrete chapters, and while there are plenty of ways to get a 'Wrong End' — a Game Over of sorts culminating in the violent, often off-screen death of your character — these dead ends play out a bit like checkpoints tied to a chapter, and you can jump right back in afterwards to try for a different outcome. Once you get the 'True Ending' to that chapter you can move onto the next, which encourages a trial-and-error gameplay loop.
We tried out two different chapters to get a feel for the horrors of Heavenly Host and, more than anything, what stuck out was the masterful sound design. We put on a pair of over-ear headphones for our time with the game, and even with the noise and rowdiness of the E3 show floor it was clear how much audio makes the Corpse Party experience. The game's 3D sound — recorded binaurally — was a real highlight, and unrelentingly unsettling; in the opening chapter we heard dialogue (fully voiced with the original Japanese track) drifting in from both sides of our headphones, thunder breaking out unpredictably in the left or right ear as rain bucketed down, and footsteps moving across our audio field of vision as characters — and angry spirits — drew near.
Corpse Party's sound design is especially effective because, when it's at its most powerful, it isn't competing with any graphics at all. When Corpse Party gets into really gruesome territory — like when we triggered an extended 'Wrong End' death scene by looking directly into the eyes of a ghost — the screen goes black, and the audio is accompanied only by dialogue boxes and occasional full-screen flashes of red. In one unfortunate case, we heard our character being buried alive bit by bit in agonizing detail, and it was absolutely all the more terrifying for its lack of visuals; we were left to imagine the worst, and the stark black screen and encircling audio kept us glued to the 3DS until the end. It was genuinely jarring (and such a relief) to look up afterwards and see the bustling E3 floor, and we emerged true believers in the power of Corpse Party's less-is-more approach.
Of course, if you're doing things 'right', you'll spend more time watching characters walk around Heavenly Host than you will staring at the terrifyingly empty death screens, and Corpse Party has an interestingly unique approach to its graphics here as well. Characters are represented by smallish sprites, and backgrounds are simple; it looks more like a 16-bit RPG than anything else that's come out of the horror scene in recent years, but that's not a bad thing by any means. As with the lack of graphics in death scenes, the lo-fi look focuses players' attentions elsewhere: on the drippingly detailed audio, on the story and dialogue, and on the imagined worst-case scenarios laying in wait for our heroes. There are some really charming animations, as well — we loved seeing one character tumble onto their butt from a jump scare, with a toppled-over sprite to match, and another hop up onto a desk to talk to a classmate.
Over the PSP version, this 3DS port brings in redrawn sprites, limited use of stereoscopic 3D to lend depth to cutscene stills and interstitial art, and a few interface upgrades, like touchscreen menus, a character encyclopedia and message backlog. It's also worth noting that the translation is up to XSEED's high standards, and the dialogue is significantly more entertaining than we would have guessed; along with plenty of creepy conversations and vividly disturbing descriptions, moments of classic high-school anime humour popped up several times.
Corpse Party certainly won't be the feel-good game of the summer for everyone, but Japanese horror fans who know what they're getting into look to be in for a treat. While we wouldn't say we're exactly eager to jump back into Heavenly Host, given how terrifying our 'Wrong End' was even with a convention centre's worth of lighting turned on around us, we're definitely intrigued. If you've got the stomach for it, get ready to pop in some headphones and dim the lights for Corpse Party's Summer 2016 release in North America.