Horror is an incredibly finicky genre that rarely gets done right. Most games tend to throw in an excessive amount of bad lighting and cheap jump scares before tacking on the horror label, while others just gross you out with gore. Of course, there are some exceptions to this, such as the Dead Space series or the recently released SOMA, but those games are truly gems in a sea of muck. Following this analogy, Team GrisGris’ 2008 remake of the 1998 Corpse Party is akin to a diamond in the rough.
Corpse Party tells the story of a group of friends and their teacher who are spirited away to an alternate reality after an occult ritual goes wrong. The tale of their struggles and escape is told over five chapters; each chapter slowly reveals the motives of the spirit that whisked them away while unwrapping the mysteries of the extradimensional hell they find themselves in.
The narrative is, without a doubt, the strongest aspect of Corpse Party. The tale isn’t particularly innovative or original overall, but the presentation is top-notch. The pacing is phenomenal given the game’s relatively short length, and the plot twists hold the rare distinction of being shocking yet well-developed, thanks to the extensive backstories that are provided. Honestly, if Corpse Party was made into a crime thriller novel, I’d gladly shelve it amongst my favorite books.
The audiovisuals for Corpse Party are top-notch as well. Characters are surprisingly well designed and animated given the age of the game. Each one is distinctive without having to rely on the age-old anime hair color trope, and you can actually see the subtle facial movements when characters talk to each other, something that came as a pleasant surprise given the nostalgic 16-bit art style. The cutesy, pixelated graphics contrast starkly with the abject horror and gore, creating a truly despairing atmosphere as you watch cute-looking sprites get slaughtered in ways reminiscent of a Saw movie. However, the resolution of the PC version is capped at a measly 800×600, which is a shame considering how hauntingly pretty the game can be at times.
The score is deliciously cheesy, yet superb. Dramatic keyboard riffs backed by an orchestra of strings make up most of the music, but it never feels overbearing or excessively gloomy. It simply complements the slowly rising tension as you approach the finale, and I think it speaks volumes about the sound design that the scariest moments in the game are when the music is blasting at its loudest.
Unfortunately, the gameplay doesn’t fair nearly as handsomely as the above mentioned aspects. Corpse Party basically plays out like a dungeon crawler, so most of the time you just amble along from room to room trying to figure out what to do in order to reach the next step of your journey. You might pick up an item with some unique interaction here and there, but for the first four chapters or so the gameplay is very bare bones. Combat is basically nonexistent, as you run away from all hostile encounters, but you are given some leeway for mistakes with a meager HP bar. Dialogue choices are also fairly prevalent throughout the game, but they are mostly just there for flare rather than as actual important choices. If scavenger hunts are your kind of thing, then you can also go around doing the morbid task of collecting the name tags off of other students’ grisly remains, but that doesn’t give any real depth to the gameplay itself.
Even in the last chapter when the game starts putting in actual “puzzles,” I can’t say that they are well done. You just wander around like before and sometimes you come across a switch that opens up a path two rooms away, other times a note on the ground gives you directions (which are incomprehensible by the way; the only way I solved these puzzles was by just mashing the interact button in the area around the note), and sometimes it’s a random pixel or two on the wall that the game somehow expects you to recognize as part of a puzzle. There’s very little intuition at work here, and for how much guesswork is involved with actually trying to progress forward, the game punishes you to an unfair degree for messing up even the slightest things. Didn’t read a tattered note on the ground? Bad End. Went into a room and started some banter with one of your friends? Bad End. Picked a wrong dialogue option once among the countless speech events? Bad End. Out of the twenty-nine endings available to you, only seven don’t end up with you staring at a game over screen.
I’m not saying that I want the game to hold my hand all the way through, but being stuck in an endless loop of bad ends because you missed a tiny detail two minutes into a chapter is just being obscure and difficult for the sake of it. There’s nothing flavorful about it, and my frustrations were only exacerbated by the spotty save system. Perhaps it’s because the original game is almost two decades old, but the fact that there are zero auto saves makes for some pretty miserable moments when you have to play through an hour’s worth of content again because you missed a save spot.
I like Corpse Party a lot, just not as a game. Its strong storyline and polished aesthetics would have made it a great visual novel, but the clunky gameplay drags it down from being great to just good. Gameplay is the be all and end all of any game that isn’t a visual novel/graphic adventure after all, and in that regard, Corpse Party is a disappointing experience.