Corpse Party is one of those games that really needs to be approached at the right angle to be truly appreciated. While it boasts many features and qualities that it truly excels at, it's missing some key ingredients that make a great game, and for that reason it comes up short.
Localization and translation can be hard when dealing with heavily anime-inspired games like this, especially when you're dealing with plot-heavy narratives. Not only does Corpse Party avoid any and all translation-related pitfalls, but it actually manages to shine through as one of the better examples of storytelling in the industry. The story is deceptively simple on the surface: eight school friends and their teacher perform a simple charm to remain spiritually bound to one another in the wake of learning that one of them will be leaving for another school. After performing the charm, they are caught in a massive earthquake that lands them in Heavenly Host Elementary School: the setting for a series of grisly murders of yesteryear that has left the place haunted. As it turns out, they're actually in a multilayered dimension where the ghosts of the deceased haunt the halls and bring down any of the living to join them in eternal agony. The entire game hinges on the gradual unveiling of the story; if I was to tell you about the characters, back-story, or unfolding of events beyond that, it would ruin the surprise.
In addition to the plot, Corpse Party tends to hinge its experience on the increasingly brutal and violent deaths. It's certainly called Corpse Party for a reason; it seems every room you enter has a story to tell of how one girl came to be splattered against a wall, or how another had their skull above the jawline medically removed via a series of about six dozen stab wounds to the face. It's made that much more brutal thanks to the fact that these events happen to a group of children.
Anything less than impeccably creepy and horrific sound effects in a horror game like this would be a let-down, and Corpse Party does not disappoint - each death is made that much more effective thanks to the grotesquely realistic sound effects. The 16-bit sprite graphics don't do much to add to the scene, and in some cases are completely omitted, but you can still tell what's going on thanks to the chilling effects and emotionally heartfelt voice acting. While the written dialogue is superbly narrated in English, all of the spoken dialogue is delivered in its native Japanese tongue. I'm not Japanese, so I am not exactly an authority on quality Japanese voice acting, but for what it's worth it sounded damn good to me.
The story is divided into five separate chapters that are unlocked as you complete them, telling the story both sequentially and parallel to one another. While the plot is very deep, filled with believable characters, and mostly well told, sometimes it just gets confusing. You'll be controlling one set of characters, an event will trigger, and then you're at the other end of the world without explanation. You'll find many of the cutscenes flip back and forth between the past, present, and other groups at a whim. It's a narrative style best suited to a non-interactive medium like anime or manga with the help of expository bubbles ('meanwhile, in the infirmary...' or '12 years ago'). Even the anime images in the game, intended to give a grotesque level detail on the horrors in the school, aren't animated, further proving that this would have been better suited to a different medium.
And that's where it falls apart. While the plot is deep and involving, the characters relatable, and the environment spooky and atmospheric, the gameplay itself is barely even present. I was quite disappointed at how little the player was expected to interact with the world. Basically, the game plays out like one extended fetch quest: get this item, go here to use it and progress. This is fine for most adventure games, but a lot of the puzzles seem completely arbitrary and I ended up getting lost in the haunted school so often that the only rational way to continue was to read a FAQ to ensure I didn't put the poor kids through a series of hideous deaths. In fact, any screw up means you're sending someone to the morgue, and many of the problems are impossible to predict or avoid short of trial and error. I don't feel that 'trial and error' is a legitimate gameplay mechanic and no amount of exquisite storytelling can change that.
Most gamers will probably take close to 10 hours to complete the game and experience every terrifying alternate ending the it has to offer. While I do have a problem with the compulsory guesswork the majority of the plot expects from you, it's refreshing to see a game that's willing to basically create a special ending for each and every mistake a player can make. If you press the switches for a puzzle in the wrong order or accidentally touch a ghost, you get a unique and often gory death event, unique to that part of the game. I tried my best to avoid dying as often as I could, but there's no denying that you're going to die a lot, and I'm fairly certain that's the point of the whole experience.
In addition to the five chapters of the plot, there are 10 side chapters elaborating on the events and whereabouts of additional off-screen characters to help flesh out the story. Sadly, you have to unlock these, so I didn't manage to obtain them all, but what I did get was another in-depth look at the world of Heavenly Host Elementary and the horrors within. While you're searching and exploring the beaten-down ruins of the school, you'll also encounter a few dozen corpses lying around - victims that met their doom before you got there - and you can collect their student tags. In the end, Corpse Party could easily last someone upwards of 12 to 15 hours if they wanted to unlock and witness everything the game had to offer, but in the end it's simply a dull game to play.
I'm not sure who I'd recommend Corpse Party to. The writer in me is delighted by the prospect of a deep, nuanced storyline, and I honestly think that anyone who cares about story in games would be overjoyed at the prospect of getting lost in the world of Corpse Party, but beyond that it's just a bore. It's branded as an adventure/horror/RPG, but I'd argue there are almost no RPG elements - it's a basic live/die scenario, the HP bar your characters have seems to have absolutely no effect on gameplay, and you're expected to simply avoid all confrontations. No, this is definitely a horror game above all else. Corpse Party is an oddly affecting experience, but as a game it fails.
This review is based on a digital copy of Corpse Party, provided by the publisher.