It's a shame that the humble visual novel so rarely sees a release outside of Japan. Games like those in the Ace Attorney series have helped generate interest out here in the west, but they are still far from commonplace. However, companies like XSEED Games are helping resolve this issue via localisation. It's something, as a huge fan of visual novels, that I can get behind.
Corpse Party (PlayStation Network)
Developer: Team GrisGris
Publisher: XSEED Games
Release date: November 22, 2011
The game opens to a group of kids at their school, late at night. They are telling ghost stories and having a good time, commemorating the last day one of the girls will be spending at this school. After a short while they are discovered by their assistant teacher, who supervises them rather than sending them home. At the conclusion of the nights events, one of the girls proposes they create a charm to remember the night by. After the creation of the charm, the school is hit by an earthquake, separating the group. They each begin to realise that they are in the long since demolished Heavenly Host Elementary School, which used to exist in place of their current school. They can't seem to escape, and something in the school wants them dead.
While the game is certainly a visual novel, there is much more to the game than the dialogue. You will control either a single person or a small group at a time, where you will search the school for friends and a method of escape. However, things will never be as simple as that, so you will have to actively deal with the situations that Heavenly Host is throwing at you. Items can be found to aid progression, but the inventory system isn't as complex as you might imagine. This isn't a bad thing, however, as Corpse Party is most definitely an exploration-type game at heart. It's the terrifying situations and lonesome walks down quiet corridors that really put you on edge. That isn't an exaggeration either.
One of the most intriguing features of Corpse Party is that the actions of one person can affect the surroundings of the others. While everyone is trapped in the same school, they are trapped in 'closed space' variants. This means that while two people could be standing in the same area, if they are in different closed spaces, they won't be able to see each other. This does mean that something you see while exploring the school will later actually occur while you are controlling another student or group. An example of this is seen with a boarded up toilet. In one story it's open and accessible, but in another, set before the time you visited it previously, you have to remove a barricade. Changes to the school itself are reflected in all the closed spaces, so when you notice something different, it always leaves you guessing as to what has caused it, as well as the safety of your friends.
The visual style features a very sleek use of pixel art, not dissimilar to titles like Disgaea. Scenery looks great and fits the tone of the game, with the level layout helping create a barren and utterly terrifying school. The characters themselves look a little strange to begin with, as they are rendered a little lighter and somewhat rougher. Over time, it becomes obvious that this is to make the characters stand out, and with various character sprite animations to help drive home the dialogue, it's a pretty effective combination. Of course, you wont always be looking at sprite art. As with most visual novels, key scenes will be displayed with some stunning anime-style artwork. It really helps with characterisation, as the emotional attachments you gain while playing the game and learning all about the characters make the 'bad endings' all the more brutal.
Those of you who watch a lot of subbed anime might recognise some of the voice actors in this game, as they've managed to bring in a lot of big name seiyūs. Hiro Shimono (Keima from The World God Only Knows), Rina Satō (Misaka from Toaru Kagaku no Railgun), Satomi Arai (Kuroko from Toaru Kagaku no Railgun) and Tomokazu Sugita (Kyon from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya) are less than half of the top-notch actors behind the voices. They really haven't skimped on quality, which shows in the plentiful scenes that will be tugging on your heart strings. To put it simply, they do an absolutely fantastic job.
There are many, many scenes in which something is going terribly wrong. Something so severe in which you simply respond by mashing the 'x' button, as you frantically read through the text and hope that everything is going to be all right. While the dialogue and scenery are key players in putting you into such a rabid state, it's the music that seals the deal. Most of the music will start with a retro sound, slowly building up to a frantic and atmospheric piece that really keeps the anxiety flowing. There's no way I can speak justice for it, so listen to the following track and make sure your jaw doesn't hit anything on its way down:
Don't expect to be simply breezing through the in-game text. At certain points in the game you'll have to pick between two different options, with the subsequent scenario often changing based on your answer. While there is a 'true' story that must be followed to see the game to its end, wrong turns and actions can lead to the infamous 'bad end'. As the name of the game subtly suggests, they don't end well for the characters involved. A 'bad end' can be met by doing an obviously bad move such as touching a hostile enemy, but sometimes decisions such as leaving a room can trigger them. The game does keep track of the unique endings you've seen, so you'll feel like going out of your way to trigger them in order to learn what might happen, however gruesome it ends up to be. I'm not usually one to shy away from gore in video games, and I'm a pretty big fan of both the Higurashi and Umineko visual novels, but some of the 'bad end' scenes in this game really got to me. Not in a bad sense, far from it in fact, but it's damn rare to have a game literally slap you round the face with an event you knew was going to be bad.
This leads me on to one of the very few issues I have with the game. While you have to go out of your way in order to achieve some of the 'bad ends', there are a few points in the game where it is hard not to get them. There's a particular section in chapter two in which you have to avoid contact with someone that is chasing you, and until you can figure out the best places to route around the guy, you'll hit him and trigger the bad ending. This isn't the issue though, as the problem lies with not being able to skip the bad ends after seeing them through before. The bad end that this particular scene in chapter two offers, while it is fantastic, is far from short. When you mess up a few times at this part, it's hard not to get frustrated over it. That said, this is the only time that I ever really encountered getting the same ending more than twice, so it's not a persistent downer on the game.
A straight playthrough of the game won't take you too long, and judging by my play time it should take around four to five hours. However, there is plenty of bonus content that will push your play time further. Besides the aforementioned multiple endings (of which there are staggering thirty-seven), there are also ten 'extra' chapters to unlock and play through. All of this considered, the game will probably eat in excess of ten hours of your time, should you play it to completion, and it's most certainly a game worth replaying. Subsequent playthroughs are going to be shorter once you know what to do, but playing again after knowing the events of Corpse Party offers its own experience. It's kind of like watching a film a second time and spotting all of the subtle details that hint at later events.
Perhaps the reason why Corpse Party leaves you stunned at every turn is because the game creates such distinct and seemingly deep characters. In a game where death is a recurring feature, it needs to work fast at building an emotional connection between you and those involved, so that you actually feel like you care when something bad happens. We've all seen games where death is shrugged off or even laughed at, but the small drops of information that are given about each character are sufficient enough to avoid this problem. For example, we can learn that a girl is an acting-mother to her young brother, that even though she's worried sick about him she can put on a brave face when there are skeletons and gore strewn across a school that shouldn't exist. You start to feel sorry for her, and when you really start to enjoy the character and want to learn more, the game picks the prime moment to snatch her away. You are left stunned and want to carry on, to learn of the backlash it will cause and how people will cope. Then the game drops in a tiny, minute long scene about this brother being all alone. I haven't cared so much for a set of fictional characters in a long time, and it's something that both the writers and the translators need to be commended for.
To summarise, if you fancy embarking on a roller coaster ride of ups and downs in the emotion department, this is certainly worth the asking price. It's a definite purchase for fans of horror games and/or visual novels, but I think that should you have a PSP and aren't against buying one of the top games I've had the pleasure of playing this year, you really should try it out. I sincerely hope that the sequel will soon find it's way into the English language.
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