Corpse Party is one of those experiences that's an acquired taste; you won't be entirely sure if you like it or not at first, but keep trying it. A game such as this is less about raw gameplay and more about an engrossing story and atmosphere, which it has in spades. There may be some frustrations in the gameplay formula that can rip you out of the experience from time to time, but it's ultimately worth it for the scares and thrills that the narrative brings.
As an E3 rep once told us, Corpse Party is like a "JRPG without battles". You navigate your character through the mazelike corridors of a dilapidated school, examining things in the environments, solving puzzles and collecting key items. In all seriousness, that's about it. If you're looking for a game with interesting or complex gameplay, you certainly won't find it here; this is essentially the 16-bit equivalent of a point-and-click adventure game. That doesn't necessarily work against it, though, just think of this as a visual novel made in RPGMaker.
The story opens with a group of high schoolers telling ghost stories at night in one of their classrooms as they prepare to say goodbye to one of the girls, who is moving. The gang performs a ritual so they can remain 'friends for eternity', but are quickly separated and transported to an alternate dimension. Here, they awaken to find themselves trapped in Heavenly Host Elementary School, a school that was torn down after multiple students and teachers were the victims of kidnappings and murders. As the kids desperately try to escape the place, they slowly unravel the mystery of what's going on.
A game such as this lives or dies by its plot, and fortunately it's quite compelling. The writing is fantastic, fleshing out the various characters to a degree not often seen in gaming. You'll find yourself actually invested in the characters, and when the bodies inevitably begin stacking up, it matters to you. The plot certainly isn't afraid of going to some dark places, as well; the tale quickly takes a turn for the gruesome and this escalates as the characters get more tangled up in the goings on of the haunted building. There are five chapters to get through, averaging an hour(ish) each, and 14 unlockable side chapters that expand on the backstories of the various characters. All told, it should take you around a dozen hours to see everything, but this is where the game's only notable flaw comes in.
Each chapter has a 'True Ending', and there are multiple 'Wrong Endings' you can trigger along the way. Be it by touching an enemy ghost or walking into the wrong room, there are several ways that you can mess up, resulting in a horrifying death for the character you're controlling and a game over. The thing is, you don't know this on a blind playthrough, and save points are scarce. You may have forgotten to pick up an item or complete a puzzle sequence wrong, die, and then see twenty to thirty minutes of progress go up in smoke.
This can lead to some frustrating trial and error bottlenecks in the plot, where you must work through mountains of unskippable cutscenes and text just to get back to the point where you can have a chance to guess again. Get it wrong, and you get to do it all over again. Sometimes, you may do everything right and still fail, simply because you forgot a missable key item earlier. This issue is a real shame, as it can wrench you out of an otherwise engrossing narrative at the drop of a hat. Though it's not an ideal aspect of the design, thankfully the positives outweigh this negative.
From a presentation standpoint, Corpse Party absolutely nails it. Character sprites are well drawn and brightly coloured, contrasting nicely against the gloomy environments. Key cutscenes featuring anime-style art rendered in 3D are interspersed throughout the narrative at key points, providing for some excellent jumpscares and grisly imagery. It's rather shocking how much atmosphere the developers can tease from the simple looks, but the atmosphere owes a large part of its scare factor to the wonderful sound design.
You'll definitely want to play this one with some headphones in, as it's an experience unlike any other. All the audio has been recorded binaurally and in 3D, immersing you in the plot in a way that few games attempt. Ghost whispers in your ears and noises such as wood creaking or soul-ripping shrieks sound uncomfortably real, keeping you on the edge of your seat the whole way through. Though it's not dubbed, the Japanese voice cast does a fantastic job, effectively communicating emotion and terror throughout. The soundtrack is quite effective as well, filled with plenty of creepy and catchy tunes, though the moments of silence generally tend to be much more tense.
All told, we loved Corpse Party. Its narrative focus naturally means that this isn't a game for everyone, but it's nice to experience something a little different like this. Still, Corpse Party does show its age in some parts (as it's an expansion of a PSP original); the irritating instances that torch long sections of progress are unwelcome and a bit too frequent, bogging down an otherwise effective plot. Yet despite this we still give this game a strong recommendation; it should be tempting to anybody who's interested in reading a great horror story in a more hands-on, interactive fashion. It doesn't get much better than Corpse Party in that respect - this is a well-crafted, creepy tale you won't want to miss.