Corpse Party takes the choose-your-own-adventure genre, adds a little 16-bit RPG, and then drips on a decaying dose of Japanese horror. It isn't filled with high-fidelity scares, but its evocative anime and pixel art plays on the imagination in wonderful ways.
Many ways to die
All children are fascinated by horror stories, and the students of Kisaragi Academy are no exception. In school late one night, a group of friends are telling each other ghost stories from the school building’s past, when it was Heavenly Hope Elementary School.
After setting the mood, and scaring themselves half to death, the group decide to perform a charm known as "Sachiko Ever After" to cement their friendship. However, far from creating a lifelong bond, the charm thrusts the unsuspecting students into an alternate version of the school – forcing each of them to relive terrifying events of the ill-named Heavenly Hope.
The foundation of Corpse Party is its slowly unfurling and branching story. How you react to each event in the world will determine whether you make it through all of the game's five chapters, and which ending you receive. It’s an intricate system, and often trying to see everything is not the best course of action, with the various side plots and characters leading you away from the main task of getting all – or as many as possible – of your school mates home.
With hundreds of lines of dialogue, staying on track is not as easy as it sounds, even with the threat of death dangling over you. Tragic characters that you meet in the world regularly inspire sympathy, curiosity, fear, or all three. Some of these are vital to your goal, while others simply distract. Though, on the plus side, interacting with these bit-players does unlock additional side chapters to play after you finish the game - a very welcome bonus if you allowed yourself to become immersed in the chilling history of Heavenly Hope.
The unfortunate result is that you quickly become acclimatized to seeing your friends die before your eyes and you find yourself becoming increasingly excited just to make it through a chapter with the same number of characters you started with.
The 16-bit style, top-down exploration allows you to freely roam the school's different areas and eras. However, this rarely acts as much more than a way of moving between puzzles, with only one occasion that really demands any dexterity.
A gruesome port
First let me be clear, this is not a good port, but it does represent a convenient way to experience this dark masterpiece.
Originally a Playstation Portable game, the shift to iOS has necessitated a few changes. Without physical controls, Corpse Party uses an on-screen virtual pad to control the action. This actually works well, but its glowing blue visual feels quite jarring against the haunting world.
The other odd thing is that it is a straight port, with nothing added to the game itself. This means there is no tutorial, or even instruction screen, to help you get used to the new, unintuitive touch interface. To find the controls you have to actually look at the game's product page on iTunes to see what selection of swipes, taps, and double taps are required to control everything.
All of this far from ideal, but again, if Corpse Party sounds like your kind of game and this is your only way to play it I recommend putting up with these interface irritants.
The highlight of Corpse Party is its audio-visual design, which proves that sometimes less can be more. Much of this story-heavy game is relayed through static anime images of the characters and reams of text that slowly scroll along the bottom of the screen. Despite their static nature, as each character's expression changes between images, they manage to convey emotion with subtle effectiveness.
This carries through to the characters' 16-bit persona. As they walk around the pixel art world, their tiny forms convey their feelings and fear in an adorably touching manner, as they emote and shrug their way around the screen.
Equally, Corpse Party's audio is suitably spooky, managing to keep you on edge throughout. Eerie, haunting music ensures the tension is high throughout, with more powerful pieces on hand to accompany key events.
The voice work is also good – though it is in Japanese. While the whole game isn’t voiced, what there is builds characters' personalities well.
Dying to play it
Corpse Party is a game that is hard to talk about in certain terms, as giving examples of the horrors it holds would ruin its many surprises. Every one of the game’s little vignettes and stories fold together wonderfully to create the interactive equivalent of a book of ghost stories.
Its slow pace, Japanese roots, and interface foibles may turn some players off - but if you want a good game to curl up under the duvet with and scare yourself then there is no better choice.