As one of the last PSP games released in the West, the original Corpse Party proved to be a pleasant surprise contained in a gruesome package; despite the 16-bit visuals and anime character designs, the story of a group of students and a teacher spirited away to a haunted school was one of the most disturbing horror stories ever to grace a videogame console. One by one the characters would meet their ends in increasingly horrific ways, and those that managed to survive would be too traumatized to ever return to a normal life.
Released as a digital exclusive on the PlayStation Store, the game proved to be a big success that earned a strong following, so it was only a matter of time until XSEED would localize the next entry in the growing series, Corpse Party: Book of Shadows. Although this game starts off following the events of the original, Book of Shadows is more of an alternate take than a full-fledged sequel (the latter description belonging to the recently announced Corpse Party 2: Dead Patient, due later this year). Through unknown means, the surviving students from the previous game find themselves reliving the fated day where they would enter the haunted halls of Heavenly Host Elementary for the first time. Imparted with some knowledge of their original trek into ghost town, the students try desperately to change the grisly fates awaiting their friends, but they soon learn that this is easier said than done, especially when the vengeful spirit Sachiko is the one who makes the rules in this hellish school.
Despite the classic RPG presentation of the original game, the lack of gameplay elements beyond examining items and progressing through the story made Corpse Party feel closer to a Visual Novel than an adventure game. For Book of Shadows, Team GrisGris has made that distinction official by swapping sprites and tiles for static background images and illustrations, as well as a heavy abundance of first-person narration. Instead of navigating in a top-down view, players will now move from room-to-room in first-person, moving a reticule to examine highlighted objects of interest. To switch between rooms, players need only open the on-screen map and select which square they would like to move to next, although you can expect locked doors, wide gaps and other obstacles to block your progress.
For fans of point-and-click adventure titles, Book of Shadows’ puzzles will seem wholly unremarkable; rather than manipulating several pieces to fit together or solve cryptic riddles, progression in the game requires little beyond wandering around until the next cutscene occurs. Since the structure of Heavenly Host Elementary tends to change at will, players will often be required to revisit and reinvestigate the same rooms over and over again in the hopes of finding something different. One unique element is the Darkening meter, which gradually fills up with every spooky encounter or disturbing moment witnessed, such as examining dead bodies, reading cryptic messages, or narrowly avoiding rampaging specters. Should the Darkening meter reach 100% before finishing a chapter, the character will meet an untimely demise. It’s an interesting mechanic with a neat visual representation, as the screen grows more and more distorted the higher the Darkening percentage, but ultimately the feature rarely hinders the limited amount of gameplay available and merely serves as another aesthetic addition to the overall tone.
The primary focus is on the story and its characters, something made very apparent by the copious amount of spoken narration and flashbacks. Though eight chapters may sound like a sparse amount, each chapter can take several hours to complete due to the lengthy amount of content focused on developing (and tormenting) each of the characters. Much of that focus is on those characters who received little screen time in the original Corpse Party due to their abrupt deaths, giving players a chance to reacquaint themselves with the condemned classmates. This concept of treading the same ground through a new pair of eyes makes Book of Shadows feel less like a sequel to the original Corpse Party and more like an alternate route with different characters, another common trait of the Visual Novel genre.
When executed properly, alternate routes can succeed in enriching an overarching story, and in the case of Book of Shadows, the game succeeds in fleshing out these previously minor characters, making their eventual fates considerably more tragic. The biggest downside, however, is that everyone who played the original game will have already seen the majority of the twists and terrors. As any horror buff can attest to, treading the same ground is not nearly as frightening as the first time around, and the story can occasionaly drag when these time-warped characters ponder questions we already have the answers to. While it may seem like Book of Shadows would be most enjoyed by new players who didn’t play the original, the amount of call-backs, references and foreshadowing makes going through the original game first a borderline priority. In fact, the game rewards players who carry over their previous save file by opening up the final chapter (which is also the only one to take place entirely after the events of the original) once all other chapters are finished sequentially; those lacking such a save file will have to go through each chapter’s multiple endings.
Despite failing to be a wholly fresh experience, Book of Shadows still retains the same exceptional levels of scares and storytelling (despite characters exhibiting the boneheaded penchant to occasionally split from the group – a classic horror cliché) that made the original so memorable. If you found yourself squeamish over the original Corpse Party’s macabre moments, Book of Shadows ramps things up to such disturbing new heights that it gives the ESRB’s M rating a run for its money. Like the original, however, the game emphasizes sounds over sights: many of the most gruesome deaths are described by narration and amplified through the positional audio (which can only be fully appreciated with headphones). Combined with the breakout performances of the Japanese cast, the end result may prove far more unnerving than the wall-to-wall splatter visuals found in games like Dead Space, and will undoubtedly leave a longer-lasting impression, if not a few sleepless nights.
This review is based on a review copy of the PSN version of Corpse Party published by XSEED