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[personal profile] obscuritan
Since I just talked about Yume Nikki and .flow I figured now would be a good time to talk about Corpse Party for the PSP, which just came out in November and also started out as an RPGmaker style game. But in terms of comparisons, if those other two were "lost in a garden at night" style nightmares, this is a "forced to watch an endless seal-clubbing" nigtmare. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say this is not only one of my favourite horror games, but also one of the few to consistently and variedly scare me. And this wasn't like being scared of the dogs in Resident Evil when I was 12 or having no idea how to survive the bosses in Silent Hill when I wasn't much older - I'm 23 and get a sinking feeling in my gut when I know there's something awful about to happen in this one.
The start of all their problems

In Corpse Party we start out with a group of classmates cleaning up after a school festival. They've stopped to tell a ghost story, and in the cheerful atmosphere one of the girls suggests that they do a folk-charm she found on the internet so that they can be friends forever. One of the girls is moving away and the whole class is approaching their final year, so they -including one of the boys' little sister and their well-liked teacher- agree. Suddenly there is an earthquake, and the whole group black out. Awakening in the same ruined classroom, yet somehow seperated into ones and twos, the children and their teacher learn that they are in the ruins of the junior school that used to be on the same grounds until it was torn down after four of the students were kidnapped and brutally murdered in the basement. In this shadowy world time and space have folded, scattering the group across the school and on different planes of reality all occurring simultaneously. And there is no way out. Ever.
One of the increasingly horrific messages you find scrawled on the walls.

One of the first things you'll realize is that this game combines the 2D sprite graphics of Yume Nikki with visual-novel style animation and text, as well as a full cast of voice actors in the original Japanese, that you would get in games such as Higurashi. Combine this with an atmospheric setting remeniscent of Silent Hill and you can see what being polished and released by a professional studio has done for this game. So since this is a mass-released game about a group of 14-17 year old kids trapped in a haunted school you would think you weren't in for much of a scare. And you'd be dead wrong.

In fact, this game is relentlessly, unflinchingly horrific. As I said before, the defining feature of this school is that there is no way out. The doors and windows are wooden dummies and cannot be opened, and those few outside areas are surrounded by endless nighttime forest. Many more students have disappeared since the old school was demolished, and others have been transported by the same charm the protagonists used, and all of them until now have died. One haunting diary you find tells of two students playing rock-paper-scissors to determine which one has to kill and eat the other one to survive, and the bodies of the past students you do find have as often starved, dehydrated or died by accident as been killed by vengeful spirits, suicide or insane classmates. Not all the deaths are accompanied by the visuals, however, and it is a testament to this game's atmosphere that the deaths shown only by voices and text on a black background are as chilling as those shown onscreen.
One of the many 'wrong endings' in the game

Adding to the tension, there are many ways for your player or others to die 'incorrectly' (IE not the way the story dictates) by doing things wrong. These 'Wrong Ends' as they are called keep you on your toes and could happen at any time, thus making the equally shocking 'canonical' deaths all the more haunting when you realize that there's no going back. When I realized that the students were going to be dying en-masse I was worried it would be some hackneyed Battle Royale-style setup, but what gives the horror its meaning is that you really believe in the friendships on display and the despair at these characters seeing loved ones succumb to madness and death.

So what is it like to actually play. The gameplay is a lot like the Silent Hill or Resident Evil style of survival horror, of finding items and solving puzzles. There's a lot to find and do, too - the game has an added layer of seeing all the alternate endings, and when you find a past student's body you collect their nametag, which tells you how they died and in some cases, along with some of the endings, open up bonus chapters featuring the backstories and offscreen actions of your characters and many others who appear. While some of these bonus chapters seem silly at first, they in fact demostrate the tragedy unfolding, as you realize these are the lives that ended in this school, and the characters you see conversing are among the bodies you found earlier.

One would think that the sprite-based gameplay would deatract from the horror, but thankfully not noticeably. When a character vomits up blood, is found hanged or is pulverized against a wall it's not too distracting that they are tiny pixelated figures. There are two things that do detract, however, but not enough to ruin things. Firstly the music is at times inappropriate. I get that this is a wandering around game, and that can take an indeterminate ammount of time, but would it have been too much to use a violin instead of a guitar at some points. Secondly, although not often, the influences of previous horror franchises are noticeable. One character I found a little similar to one in the novel of Battle Royale and all but one of the original victims are inevitably 'creepy little girls'. Thankfully those are the only two I found egregious, and any others I saw were causes for squees instead of groans. Yes, squees - I'm a sick, sick man.

Overall then this game does many inventive things, challenges the player and is one of the few horror media that not only scare but deeply move the player. And since it's somewhat cheaper than other PSP games (download only), it is well worth buying, even if only to encourage games to take further risks like this one.
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