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Whereas the majority of people who used the RPGMaker PC design tool were content to busy themselves making Zelda and Final Fantasy clones (as well the occasional, unfathomably clever Tetris variant), Corpse Party put the program to unusually creative use. First made in 1996 by Japanese homebrew developer Team GrisGris, the game draws specific attention to its deep horror narrative, whilst employing every trick in the book to unsettle the player. Some fifteen years on, the western world finally got a taste of this oriental obscurity, in the form of a PSP, download-only release that is not so much a remake as a gentle enhancement.
When it comes to horror yarns, the Japanese really know how to spook us. The litmus test was whether they could do so in sprite-filled 2D, and as it happens, the answer is yes. It isn't quite Dead Space of course, but it says a lot for Corpse Party that it's able to instil, retain and build such a sensation of unease, so that by the closing stages, the atmosphere is palpable. The story sees a bunch of high-school kids and their teacher performing a "friends forever" ritual in Kisaragi Academy, only for it to backfire and leave them stranded, in fragmented groups, within a version of Heavenly Host Elementary, which used to reside on the grounds before being pulled down after a spate of grisly murders. Weird space/time phenomenons are keeping the group from reuniting, while vicious ghosts, occasional psychopaths and the looming threat of depression and insanity loom over the intrepid bunch.
Corpse Party is a horror adventure where the bulk of the entertainment comes from exploring the school, soaking in its powerfully dark, heavy atmosphere. Each of the five chapters features multiple endings; progression simply requires that you find the one that doesn't involve the student in question being drowned, maimed, buried alive, tortured or otherwise terminally incapacitated by the undesirables of the school. You'll die in lots of ways, but a lot of the appeal lies in being able to go back and right your wrongs.
It has one of the most fully realised horror narratives available on any format. Refreshingly, it uses the gaming medium to broaden rather than restrict its storytelling; making wrong choices and causing friends to split often reveals their nastier sides, and a hidden depth to their neuroses that wouldn't otherwise have been appreciated in a single strand. The story has been altered to incorporate more characters, and though I haven't played the original, the inclusion of partners (you typically explore in twos) means individuals can voice their troubles more articulately, which is a positive. The story has seen a little modernising around the edges too, with mobile phones and texting not such a big thing in 1996, they're slipped in as clever plot devices here.
There's real depth and quality to the characterisation as well. It proves to be the driving force behind the game and the reason you'll be glued to Corpse Party until the end credits. As early as the first chapter's haunting conclusion, you'll feel affected when anything happens to a member of the group. The mixture of sad and shocking demises keep you on your toes, wondering if someone you've grown fond of has really been killed off or if you're simply on track for another "wrong end". It's helped greatly by the retention of the full, crystal-clear Japanese voice track (with dialogue boxes) - it lends the game a serious edge, wisely avoiding going the route of many cheesy English voices-dubs.
Indeed, a large part of Corpse Party's success lies in its magnificent audio. The music compositions colour scenes with all different shades of depression, panic and expectation. Blood-curdling screams, squelching blood-splatter, pianos playing on their own, dozens of creaky floorboards and jump-inducing lightning effects - all bar the kitchen sink has been thrown in with regards to sound effects and the game is all the better for it.
The PSP redux also sees slightly smoother transitions from room to room; sharper presentation and picture quality in general, whilst cool animated sequences and stills add a bit of class to certain sections. But it still very much looks its age; corridors and rooms appearing basic, whilst virtually all of the sprite animations are horribly blocky.
With no traditional battle/action system, GrisGris had to be a little creative in engaging the player, and though there are periods towards the end that could have been livened up a touch with a couple more of those pesky ghosts, they give it a fine shot. Just to be extra cruel, a couple of nervy time-limited events are thrown into the mix, the best being a memorably nervy two minutes within which you have to rescue a student from drowning, by finding the point at which they became submerged. One of the tensest bits sees the player having to evade a violent psychopath, who chases you through parts of the school, all the while gleefully cackling and shouting threats.
There are issues, however. Some puzzles, such as working out directions as a means of guiding the player to items hidden under creaky floorboards, prove right on the money. Less effective however are the elaborate teasers that seem to get lost in translation. One instance sees you piecing together various three separate sequences of letters, and having to use another set of numbers to supposedly help decrypt a message - general consensus however suggests that even after the event, this didn't make a whole lot of sense. Elsewhere, a couple of chapters are easy to get stuck on because (more in early stages), you have to activate certain events are specific times, or end up getting wrong endings. Whilst the myriad of death/wrong end scenes are enjoyable, perhaps the game's biggest oversight (particularly as they've had a lot of time to do fix it) is that you can't skip cut-scenes you've already seen (and the game can be a bit wordy at times, especially in the final chapter) or death sequences. The worst example of this being when you're caught by the marauding ghosts; having to go through the same extensive scene every time you die becomes a bit of an aggravation.
Then there are lingering the issues with the original programs limitations. Certain menu elements don't really fit; character HP and the inventory system in general are only really included because RPGMaker made them something of a necessity. The use of "player homing" tactics for the ghosts remains a simplistic but effective means of creating tricky A.I., even if they do end up getting themselves stuck now and then as a result.
New to the 2011 version are ten new, unlockable "Extra" chapters, and these become available when you witness a variety of endings in the main game. The first couple pit you as other ill-fated students who got trapped in the school, and give you what is in essence a mini chapter in a similar vain to the main story. All well and good, but unfortunately they rather flatter to deceive as at least 7 of them end up offering no gameplay at all, just brief backstories to some of the main game's chief figureheads. Nice little curios, but somewhat disappointing if you were expecting a shot of longevity.
Still, Corpse Party kept me welded to my PSP for a week, and for £11.99 it represents decent value. It may appear rather harmless looking, but that's no reason horror fans shouldn't still get something out of it. Whilst some may rightly point to the crude visuals and lengthy, non-skippable cut-scenes as points of concern, the overall result shows that even working with modest tools, a little ingenuity can go a long way.