It's pretty surprising to see games released on the PSP right now, even more surprising is that these games are actually good. At the tail end of 2011 XSeed unleashed Corpse Party
on an unsuspecting North American market and immediately I was sold, I was hooked, I was disturbed, I was terrified. It was one of the best horror titles to come along since Amnesia, and it accomplished this with 16-bit graphics, incredibly detailed story-telling, and amazing audio work that came together to make one of the most terrifying games I had ever played. When the sequel, Corpse Party: Book of Shadows was announced I immediately plugged in my PSP, I had to get that battery back in the swing of things, and I sat ever so impatiently. Now that I've had extensive time with the game, completed its campaign, shouted in frustration at the ending, and had some time to reflect. I've never been more conflicted about a game.
The kids who escaped Heavenly Host Elementary School in the original Corpse Party find themselves drawn back to the accursed school once again in a story that offers a number of alternate realities and complementary story-lines about other kids who fell victim to the Sachiko Ever After ritual. Those who survived found that everyone who passed away in the haunted school was erased from existence, with only their memories proving that they were even there to begin with. From the get-go it's carnage with Naomi reliving the nightmare that was losing her best friend Seiko. Would she be able to alter her fate? Would Mayu Suzumoto be able save herself from being possessed by the ghost children roaming the halls? What would Kizami do to Yuka if he caught her in the eastern wing of the school? A great deal of these mysteries will be answered and even more will questions will be asked as players return to that school of the damned.
There's been a massive shift in how Corpse Party: Book of Shadows is played. In what is a massive point of contention for me, the developers at Team Grisgris decided to forego the old SNES styled visuals that allowed players to explore the entirety of the school. Instead there's a new first person view that gives players a point-and-click interface to explore the school with. This cuts down on a lot of the exploring as items that are meant to be interacted with will change the on-screen cursor from red to blue. What this does add unnecessarily to the game is load times between each location and actually made the game somewhat of a chore to play at times, especially when I would get lost trying to find one little thing to advance the story, but would examine each possible room to find it. The other problem here is that there are a great number of hallways that look exactly the same, and if players want to be completionists and find all the name tags of the deceased then they will have to deal with this change.
This change also really hammers home how much of a visual novel this game actually is. While that's not necessarily a bad thing it just means that there is a lot of reading, and thankfully any dialog that has been previously read is skippable with the push of the start button, for those times where you want to play through a chapter again to see all the endings. But it takes almost an hour for the first chapter to get to the point where players are actually in control of the game and aren't just reading a long exposition of story, and this happens multiple times throughout the game. I don't want to make it sound like the story is bad, because it is certainly anything but. In fact the story is great, but will be lost on anyone who hasn't played through the first game. XSeed continues to have stellar translation work in Corpse Party: Book of Shadows, even though some of the dialog feels like it has a few too many forced internet memes in it during one particular chapter. But when they need to get to the gruesome details that befall some of these characters they are at their absolute best. It takes roughly fifteen hours to find every branch in the story before reaching the end that I really didn't see coming, leaving me shaking my PSP in disbelief, and anger, wondering how the team could live with themselves ending the game like that, and I mean that in the best possible way. It's my hope that XSeed and their excellent localization team can get a quick turn-around on the next game because I need to know what happens next.
Visually this game feels like a step back by going with the still-shot screens that players mouse over. There are still references to the old 16-bit styled visuals used when navigating the map, but the disturbing visuals lose some of their impact by not having a medium to display them. A lot of those 'bad ends' are left to drawn stills or incredibly detailed text, which works, but feels a little less powerful. One portion of the game in particular where exploration would have been better for the player comes in chapter 3, where I was attempting to flee from a ghost that was chasing me through the halls of the school. Sure the binary choices of the visual novel approach gave me a more direct path to the story's conclusion, but it still felt like it was missing impact because I wasn't in control of my own fate.
The audio for Corpse Party: Book of Shadows is just as good as it was in the first game. The development team took some of Japan's most popular and prolific voice actors and put them in what has to be some of the most messed up work they've ever taken part of, and they all do a fantastic job of it. Every shriek, every scream, every cry for help makes use of 3D sound, and playing with headphones is an absolute must to get the most out of the experience. The soundtrack is pretty good for the most part, but doesn't seem to contain any memorable tracks like the first game did, but really it's all about the atmosphere of the game and hearing voices at low volumes that move from left to right while exploring a room make for much better atmosphere than any musical track could. The added bonus of testimonials by the voice actors and unlockable musical tracks to listen to is a nice added bonus, along with an art gallery of all the still shots that can be found throughout the game.
Playing through Corpse Party: Book of Shadows, I was having a hell of a time trying to figure out what it was that kept me from really enjoying it, and I think not having direct control of the characters is what ultimately disappointed me. Not seeing them move of my own volition, coupled with loading screens to get anywhere really let me down. This is still an enjoyable experience from start to finish, but some of the changes don't seem to have been for the better. I'm really hoping that Team Grisgris can go back to the format of the original Corpse Party for future games, as running for my life as Yuka in the first game was one of the most tense yet enjoyable experiences I've ever had in a horror game. With Book of Shadows the story is the real star of the show, but having a majority of the tales being side-stories kind of cheapened the experience. I was able to look past these flaws and still had a great time, but I can only imagine what could have been. Either way, I'm waiting with bated breath for the next game, XSeed, get on that, I need my next Corpse Party fix right away.