If you thought the '90s action flick Face/Off had an identity crisis, wait until you meet Corpse Party: Blood Drive. Part visual novel, part survival horror, Blood Drive is the third game in the Corpse Party series and features the surviving cast of the prior two games. While the original Corpse Party – originally released in 1996 and rereleased for other platforms (including 3DS) later on – is something of a cult classic, the series never really took off in the West and has a relatively small but loyal audience.
In addition to its relative obscurity, the game style that the Corpse Party titles employ has also morphed over time; the original game kicked things off with a top-down view and its sequel uses a full visual novel style. Corpse Party: Blood Drive, the final entry in the Heavenly Host Elementary School saga, uses a mixture of survival horror exploration and visual novel, though you’ll not be pressed to do much exploring at all in the game’s opening hours.
Instead, you’ll kick off Corpse Party: Blood Drive wading your way through hours of voiced visual novel scenes, with slight pepperings of exploring for small periods of time as you begin the story in earnest. While this might work for those who have already been invested in the Corpse Party series, the game is certainly not welcoming to those who have yet to go through the initial games in the franchise – which is something to consider if you were just browsing the eShop looking for something to play.
However, there’s a unique feel to the type of plot and survival horror that Corpse Party: Blood Drive employs; it’s a mixture of grotesque, supernatural elements, with that unique creepy lick of the obscure that makes it so distinctly J-Horror, and makes the entire mood and tone of the game feel incredibly unique – something that you don’t often see in many western horror games. This also translates over to some of the character development seen throughout the game, and we see characters like Ayumi enjoy shining character moments that make Corpse Party: Blood Drive stand out.
While it’s not the most tactful game in the world when it comes to topics like self-harm, Corpse Party: Blood Drive is not serving to portray these topics in a serious light, and the intent is instead to serve up a dose of shock and the grotesque. Is it the right way to portray something that affects millions of people? Probably not. Does Corpse Party: Blood Drive still get the intended effect on the audience? Absolutely. As strange as it sounds, it is a part of what makes the J-Horror genre so memorable; the audacity to shock an audience by subverting expectations is something that made pieces of media like Yume Nikki or Suicide Club so impactful.
For all that Corpse Party: Blood Drive does right when it comes to characters, drama and capturing the mood of its genre, it falters on very basic levels when it comes to the exploration side of the gameplay. The game will introduce you to the area to explore with a rudimentary challenge; this can range from finding items to hiding from spectres.
The gameplay never really finds its feet, and never offers a satisfying loop as you’re almost always given some sort of whiplash, be it from the game suddenly switching back to a visual novel format or a rendered 3D scene showing horrific events unfolding in front of you in the form of a cute 3D anime characters vaguely doing something that might look a little bit terrifying if you squint a little bit. The environments look flat, and the characters can be difficult to differentiate on occasion. The low-poly models mean that you’re often left wanting a bit more from the game in terms of presentation, as it just sits at odds with the style and tone that the rest of the game presents.
It would have been fantastic to see Corpse Party: Blood Drive capitalise on its strong character development and writing chops with a strong gameplay loop supporting it, but what you’re ultimately left with is a game that feels like it’s trying to spin too many plates at once. Had it been a straight-up visual novel style outing, it may have ended up feeling slightly more consistent.
Corpse Party: Blood Drive is the very definition of a mixed bag. Its 3D exploration aspects never quite work and just when you’re finally able to settle into playing the game, it suddenly switches back over to another visual novel stretch. Combined with poor pacing in the game’s early hours and a lack of any options to help explain the events of the prior games to new players, it feels like Corpse Party: Blood Drive struggles to decide what it wants to be, and despite the occasional show of strength in its writing and characterisation, it ultimately results in a frustrating, inconsistent experience.