Before I get started here, I need a moment. Just a moment. I am sitting here, in a fairly comfortable reclining chair, preparing to write a critique piece on a game that I honestly did not expect to be able to play. My Vita, resting on a table for the time being, contains not only a digital copy of Team GrisGris’ anime-inspired splatterfest Corpse Party, but also one of its follow-up: Corpse Party: Book of Shadows.
Both localized and published by XSEED Games. I can, right now, sit down and play these games. In English. There’s no need to go through with the arduous process of learning Japanese to play these games, to which any publisher would assuredly turn their noses up. What I’m trying to say here is that Corpse Party is a thing that happened, a great risk of a thing, and it sold well enough for XSEED to be able to justify taking on the next game.
This kind of thing can still happen in today’s industry, and that’s really great.
That aside, Corpse Party really is an anomaly. We live in a cultural climate in which video games are under constant scrutiny as an easy scapegoat for the unfortunate outbreaks of violence among young people, yet here we are with a series that largely comprises a bunch of schoolchildren being horrifically brutalized by what may as well be other children. They’ve been dead for several decades, but they’re still essentially children. It really is something that shouldn’t be around, but here it is, waving buckets (literally) of gore, bile, spare body parts and you-don’t-want-to-know-what-else right at your face.
How can something like that be so great? Well, In an industry in which “horror” tends to mean “third-person action game with monsters,” Corpse Party makes brilliant use of everything that makes the medium unique — sound, visuals, physical interaction and challenge — and hits you like a truck with moments that are guaranteed to make your mouth involuntarily hang open in shock.
Book of Shadows is not quite a sequel, but a canonical follow-up to the original PSP title that changes the game in many ways. Some are kind of weird, and some are interesting, but the resulting product is in many ways the same blood-chilling experience that created a new fan base in late 2011. The game bucks linearity like a wild horse and acts as more of an expansion; it takes place before, during and after the events of the first game, offering further background information, expansion upon ostensibly less important events during the first game and even bizarre alternate timelines serving as slivers of hope for previously-deceased characters that inevitably show their true colors by the end.
It seems confusing at first, even for those who got every ending in the first Corpse Party (don’t even think of going into this one blind; you’ll be lost with no chance of being found), but it gradually comes into its own as a unique alternative to a straight-up sequel that adds a ton of new insight into the world of Heavenly Host Elementary.
While Corpse Party was a 16-bit adventure reminiscent of the RPG Maker history of the series, Book of Shadows opts for a more traditional visual novel style with a touch of Zero Escape-ish investigation and an incredibly awkward method of navigation. It sounds pretty rough on paper, and it definitely removes some of the tension when it comes to nasties popping out at you. It’s easy enough to get used to, though, and when it comes time to bring on the real horror, it makes grotesque use of its first-person viewpoint to make the legendary “wrong ends” even more intense and personal than before.
Book of Shadows relies a lot more on text and sound than before, but when the CG cutscenes do come into play, some real winners are present. Depending on how much of a B-movie-loving gore-hound you are, you’ll either be cackling in delight or trying not to hurl, but they’re always a fun break from the less visual endings, which will make even the sturdiest of Evil Dead fanboys uneasy. The game also has a mechanic known as “darkening”. If you goof around instead of focusing on the task at hand, you can spook your character in the process, and the environment itself begins to turn against you. (Also, you die.)
There is even less to Book of Shadows than its predecessor when it comes to interactivity, but you can bet your Hellraiser DVD collection that it more than makes up for it in sheer, unapologetic awfulness. I mean that in the best way possible.
Pros: Absolutely horrible (in a good way), skippable text makes ending fishing much easier
Cons: Pacing suffers from weird movement system, format shift takes some adjustment