We love to be scared. There’s something so primal and universal about fear, and a good horror story can really bring out the best of it, making our hearts race and our minds veer toward the darkest recesses of the human psyche. And we just keep going back for more!
Yet by the same token, horror has become so passe that we barely even react when we encounter imagery of skeletons, zombies, witches, bats, vampires and ghouls. True primal fear is hard to come by in the modern world, and this applies to video games as well. When you hear the term “horror game,” what’s the first thing that pops into your mind? Probably “zombies” since that seems to characterize much of the horror genre nowadays. Most modern horror games assault you with wave after wave of zombies, and you can typically one-shot them back to their graves. They may look scary, but when’s the last time you were actually frightened in a zombie shooter game? Maybe you had an exciting time playing one, and jumped at a handful of startling moments, but the mere fact that you’re able to defend yourself – that you have a means of fighting back – makes just about every entry in the genre less horror than action.
In many ways, classic Japanese horror is much purer. For movies, think The Ring or The Grudge. For games, think Clock Tower or Haunting Ground. They’re all about unavoidable, inevitable death. You can run, but you can’t not die. You have no weapons. Your foes are immortal. All you can do is struggle in vain to survive, and pray that each door you open – each corridor you traverse – isn’t your last.
Most of each of the aforementioned movies and games achieve true terror through sheer anticipation. You know something horrible is lurking nearby… but you have no idea when or where it will strike. When nothing happens for an extended period of time, your anxiety grows until you reach that point where you begin to think you’re out of the woods. And then — BAM! — that’s when it hits you.
Corpse Party is one such horror experience. It plays out like the best of Japanese horror films, locking your nine main protagonists in an inescapable, otherworldly school building where vengeful spirits seek to end their lives in the most grisly, inhuman ways imaginable – all the while directly infiltrating their minds to drive them to paranoia, madness and suicide. The longer your characters stay in Heavenly Host Elementary School, the more utterly exhausted, certifiably insane and ravenously hungry they become, causing students to turn against one another, resort to cannibalism, hang themselves or simply suffer nervous breakdowns. Death is inevitable.
Any hope of rescue becomes less and less likely with each passing second, causing some to resign themselves to their fates and simply accept the first chances at sweet release that come their way – which usually take very unpleasant and deeply disturbing forms.
Make no mistake, there is a way out – for some, anyway. But finding it takes more time than you have, and more effort than you can reasonably expect most high schoolers to muster under such ludicrously taxing circumstances. There will be casualties, no matter what choices you make. The question is, how many will live, and how many will die? With over 20 endings (most of which are aptly-named “wrong ends”), you can expect to see (and hear) every single character in the game suffer greater cruelty than you’d ever considered possible… and try as you might to be disgusted, you will be morbidly intrigued. These deaths are so creatively sadistic, so drawn-out and convincingly acted, that you’ll hang on your unfortunate protagonists’ every knell – and will never forget the horrors to which you are subjected.
Oddly enough, Corpse Party’s 16-bit-style 2D visuals contribute to the terror. This visual style provides a sense of distance between you and the characters under your control, which has a rather chilling consequence. Effectively, you’re given more than adequate visual feedback to comprehend the exact situation that’s occurring, but since most everything is shown through animated character sprites, you’re left with the task of envisioning the gory minutiae on your own. And as any true horror fan can tell you, the human mind is capable of imagining pain and torment far more potent than anything a screen can display.
Sound plays a major role in this as well. Every line of dialogue is expertly voice-acted in Japanese, and many of these lines were recorded binaurally – using two microphones instead of one, to create the illusion of a 3D soundscape. Play with headphones, and you may suddenly hear the spirits of long-dead children whispering directly into your ear. Some scenes relish in killing the lights, too, playing out entirely through squishy, unsettling noises and screams of indescribable agony that sound all too believable.
Corpse Party is scheduled for release on the North American PlayStation Store this November as a PSP download. We’re sorry to have missed Halloween, but we wanted to make certain everything was perfect before unleashing this demon upon the English-speaking world.
If you’re a fan of true horror, Corpse Party will most definitely be worth the wait. But do prepare yourself: This is no hayride.