Review: Corpse Party: Book of Shadows pens a novel of blood and gore

The original Corpse Party for PSP abandoned players in a haunted school of death and torture, leaving them to explore its rooms by walking sprites around Pokémon-style. Team GrisGris has since scrapped that approach, creating a first-person point-and-click visual novel adventure for Book of Shadows (also for PSP), the second game in the series to enjoy a Western release. The title mostly takes a right turn, but it’s impossible to visit Heavenly Host Elementary with hitting a few wrong ends.

Corpse Party: Book of Shadows presents 14 hours or so of gameplay spread across seven chapters (eight if you carry over your save data from the first game, which is a cheap way of obligating new fans to buy it). Most of these splice together a combination of story and exploration. Your lens into the school is the first-person “search mode,” where you move a red cursor around a room or hallway and interact with objects when it turns blue. Tapping the left shoulder button brings up the map, which shows each floor’s layout block by block (green for hallways, blue for rooms, and brown for stairways) along with the name of each space. You can click on any of these, advancing as far as you like in one go, but you can’t access or pass through grey areas automatically. These are usually places where the floor has dropped out or you need a key to progress.

Moving around this way as opposed to controlling a sprite is less hands-on and a bit slow, especially when you want to traverse one end of the floor to the other. But Book of Shadows lets you save anywhere — even during conversation parts, which consume a good chunk of your time. You regularly sit through a half-hour or more of text, but pressing the Triangle button pulls open the menu, where you can save as well as view other options, including your inventory (items take effect when the situation demands them, so you don’t “use” them in a traditional way) and a record of all recent dialogue and narration. The latter is a handy feature for when you forget an important clue or accidentally speed through the text, and the ability to save when you like, as much as you like, makes picking up and continuing your game (after you quit or trigger a “wrong end”) a lot easier. Even with the convenient fast-forward button (right shoulder), which zips through scenes, this lets you cut to the gameplay faster.

Corpse Party: Book of Shadows 1

Excess saving doesn’t guarantee foolproof completion of a chapter, though. Unless you keep multiple save files, you might accidentally make a wrong decision or move, save, and then continue on only to get a game over. Uncertainty follows every step and action, and that’s part of what makes Corpse Party so irresistible. It’s not as horrifying as other games — it puts more effort into extracting fright from the characters’ reactions more often than it attemps to scare you — but it is enjoyably tense at times. It’s even more fun to play at night in the dark, when you’re susceptible to all the creepy, unidentifiable little noises your house makes.

Each chapter adopts different characters’ perspectives and often switches back and forth between them. Book of Shadows gives more screen time to characters whose names were only referenced in the first game, and it generally does a good job of fleshing them out and building your interest. Some chapters combine a lot of story with equal amounts of gameplay while others, like “Encounter,” consist of making decisions — a choose-your-own adventure scenario. They mix up the pressures of play. In “Encounter,” I had only seconds to make each choice (whereas other chapters let me take my time), and “Mire” put me on the run from the Giant Man. They might focus on bypassing traps (“Seal,” for instance) or avoiding deadly ghosts (“Demise”). These all stand out well in their own way although many feel short, especially toward the end of the game. “Demise” is the most well rounded, but “Shangri-La” rehashes a lot of what you see in previous chapters.

If you’re not comfortable reading a ton of text, you might want to stay away. It may be a survival-horror point-and-click adventure, but Book of Shadows is still a visual novel. The game reuses a lot of the same area backgrounds from chapter to chapter, but the context and details tend to change, adding variety. Most chapters provide crossover with other characters’ events, so you might learn the reason for a particular blood stain or a lone, lit candle on a stairway.

Corpse Party: Book of Shadows

What the game could use more of, though, is fewer corpses of dead students to examine and more general weirdness, like the child’s drawing of a girl eating a watermelon. The “darkening” meter, which fills the more agitated the characters become, is supposed to distort the graphics and alter decision-making abilities, but it rarely took effect for me. It wasn’t a prominent part of gameplay — it’s something you notice on the menu screen and don’t think much about. This can account for some differences in playthroughs, however. One room might turn completely bizarre after a few repeat visits.

Since it makes sense narratively, you do have to play the seven chapters in order — you can’t skip around if you’d rather enjoy more gameplay-oriented segments than those immersed in story. The biggest hindrance involves retracing your steps until you find something different — seemingly at random. That, coupled with the slow rate at which you move between blocks on the map, can drag down the pace considerably.

Sometimes Corpse Party: Book of Shadows is more about describing the scares — and glorifying the responses to them — than actually seeing them happen. It’s a fun adventure with great detail, but not all chapters are equal in length or substance. And of course, some of it is more “anime” than you might care for in a horror game (teenage girls splashing around in a bathtub). At least the deaths are appropriately gruesome.