As much as I love the horror genre, it can often feel a bit stale. There are only so many times I can play through a game that relies solely on my ability to hide from and sneak past enemies before everything starts blending together. I’m always looking for something fresh, and thankfully, I found that in Corpse Party. Though not a “new” game — this is a port of the Nintendo 3DS remake of the original title from 1996 with a bit of new content — the ideas presented here still feel fresh and are an absolute joy to play through.
Corpse Party follows a group of Japanese students and their teacher after a school festival. One of the girls in the group is transferring schools, and as such, it’s her last day to hang out with everyone. Concerned that the upcoming distance between the group will separate them, one student suggests performing the “Sachiko Ever After” charm, which if done correctly is said to bond each other for life. As the group attempts this charm, an earthquake hits, knocking the participants unconscious.
Upon waking, they find themselves separated and in a dilapidated school building. This is Heavenly Host Elementary, the site of a series of kidnappings and brutal murders a few decades prior. In its current state, the halls are filled with dangerous traps, ghosts, the lingering souls of those trapped beforehand, and even a murderer. Fighting to keep their sanity, the students search for a way out of this new environment to return home safely.
The story is pretty well-written and a lot of fun to experience all the way through. Every character has a unique personality, and the game is organized in such a way that each of them gets at least a few moments to shine. The pacing provides a good balance between answering existing mysteries and introducing new ones. Overall, with a game like Corpse Party, the story should be the strongest element, and it absolutely is with this release.
Corpse Party is in a bit of a unique position in terms of gameplay. Technically, it’s an adventure game, as your goal is to explore the remains of the haunted school grounds and find the items or locations necessary to advance the plot. However, it has a slight feeling of being an RPG, due mostly to the fact that the original was created using the RPG Maker engine. Movement is grid-based, and characters have an HP meter that can drain in certain situations, leading to death.
The game contains a few puzzles, but it’s usually obvious what you need to do to advance. There are a couple notable exceptions though where you’ll likely fail at least a few times. However, this lends itself well to one of the foundational mechanics of Corpse Party — repetition. Each chapter has multiple endings, only one of which will allow you to proceed with the story. The others are bad endings, usually resulting in a gruesome death of some sort. Part of the experience is obtaining these bad endings, learning from your mistakes, and trying again to get the correct one.
For the most part, this works well. The chapters are short enough where you’re usually not out too much time if you have to replay them. To speed up this process further, you can skip text, allowing you to more quickly get through content you’ve seen before. My first time through Chapter 1 took about 45 minutes, but upon replay, I was able to get to the end in only about 15-20 minutes. Combined with the ability to make multiple saves for each chapter, replaying chapters is about as easy as you can make it.
There are also a number of collectibles to find in the form of name tags from school children who were trapped in Heavenly Host Elementary before you. Each tag gives you a bit of information on who the person was, where they went to school, and how they died. None of this is essential to the plot, but it is a nice way to increase immersion, if only ever so slightly. Collecting enough of these tags can also help unlock some of the game’s 16 bonus chapters, making them more worthwhile to find.
When we think of horror games, we tend to visualize dark, grisly, detailed environments, but Corpse Party eschews some of those visual aspects with its RPG Maker origins, with the result actually adding to the unsettling feeling you get while you play. The RPG-like character sprites and portraits are pretty cute and surprisingly detailed. The background visuals are also well-crafted, and enough contrast is provided to highlight key objects without getting too lost. Of course, there are moments in which the game needs to be a bit grotesque, and it delivers that effortlessly. Often these take the form of beautifully illustrated CGs, but at times, Corpse Party will portray these scenes in its RPG-style look.
If Corpse Party’s visuals are striking, then its audio design is just as good. The strongest point here is that the game uses binaural audio to give voices some depth and to creep the player out further. Hearing a whisper in both ears may be enough to spook a player out, but that effect is drastically heightened when you only hear it on one side. I haven’t felt this creeped out by audio in a game since Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, and it’s something I’d like to see more of in the future. Outside of this, the soundtrack and Japanese-only voice acting are great, making for a strong package. Incidentally, I reviewed the PlayStation 4 version of the game because that was all PR could offer, but I doubt the Switch version has any significant differences, being a game with limited technical demands.
Despite its many strengths, there are a few issues I have with Corpse Party, including with the aforementioned repetition. You’re supposed to go through each chapter and, if you get a bad ending, retry it by taking a different set of actions. Sometimes the way forward is a bit too obscure, which can get annoying if you’ve already repeated the section a couple of times. In addition, there’s at least one timed puzzle late in the game that is pretty unfair. You are not given nearly enough time for it unless you already know the solution, which will likely take countless attempts, and prior versions of Corpse Party allegedly gave you a bit more time here, making the puzzle odder still.
The other major complaint I have is with the audio design. While it’s usually stellar, there are times when the ghosts talk where the game emits a loud, solid, high-pitched tone, similar to a censor bleep. I think this is supposed to represent a difference in the way the ghosts communicate with the characters, but it just straight-up hurts my ears. It always happens without warning too, so by the time I can react to it, it’s already over. I appreciate what they were trying to do here, but it just doesn’t work in practice.
In spite of these faults, Corpse Party is an excellent horror adventure title that fans of the genre should not miss out on. If you were to do everything correctly the first time, the main story would take 6-7 hours, but realistically it’ll be longer as you piece together the correct actions needed in each chapter to progress the plot. The repetition mechanic may seem to be a little gimmicky, but it adds a bit of responsibility to your actions, giving some charm to what would otherwise be an incredibly linear story. I’ve not played anything quite like Corpse Party before, and as such, it firmly stands near the top of my list of favorite horror games.
A PlayStation 4 review code for Corpse Party was provided by the publisher.