Back in 2011, I had the good fortune to review a little PSP game called Corpse Party for the dearly departed 1UP.com. Despite its strictly lo-fi graphics, the combination of well-crafted text and all-too-realistic sound effects—not to mention an atmosphere of abject dread—made this obscure release one of my favorite horror games of all time.
It's a shame the sequels don't really understand what made the original Corpse Party so great. The series' debut is nothing short of a labor of love: A devoted team of "garage developers" crafted the original with nothing more than the RPG Maker tool set at their command. The result? An economically-told tale of children trapped within a hellish version of their school, one that doesn't have any reservations about offing them in the most nightmarish ways possible. Though the puzzles are simple and the "action" takes the form of dodging the sprites of spooky ghosts, Corpse Party kept me playing if only to see who would survive this impossible scenario. (SPOILERS: Not many.)
The first sequel, Book of Shadows, pumped the brakes on the debut's intensity more than a little bit—and without understanding the lack of interesting things for these characters to do outside of the "haunted school" setting. Where Corpse Party cut to the premise almost immediately, Book of Shadows forces you to suffer through hours of anime teens having fun before getting to the actual horror. Blood Drive—an amazing pun, by the way—doesn't meander quite as much, but it still misunderstands the fundamental appeal of the series as a whole. And while these issues would merely result in a mediocre game, the shoddy technical framework Blood Drive is built on kills any sense of atmosphere, making the overall experience downright rotten.
Of course, Blood Drive is engineered towards a very specific demographic, as you need to go into it with a lot of background knowledge—there's no attempt made to help new players catch up, and the similar faces/hair/outfits of the characters you meet make them all blend together. So explaining the premise in detail here wouldn't do you many favors; I've played the previous two games, and had to do some wiki deep-diving to remember just who was who. The important thing is Blood Drive's cast of tortured teens have found another reason to return to the halls of Heavenly Host High School: to restore the lives of the friends they've lost. In an especially creepy twist, those who died within its walls aren't just dead—they're erased from existence.
Though it isn't nearly as poorly paced as Book of Shadows, Blood Drive suffers from the same "When are they going to get to the fireworks factory!?" kind of issues. Writing compelling horror is a much taller order than, say, writing exposition, so most chapters start off with a heaping helping of the latter. Again, the original Corpse Party didn't feel the need to go this route; it gives players a brief taste of the characters' personalities before dropping them into a scenario that exposes their true selves behind the mask of civility. And even if you'd like to skip these needless scenes and head right to the horror, you can't. In a move unusual for a text-heavy game like Blood Drive, story scenes have to be viewed in their entirety. But the problems don't really go away once the talking stops.
Blood Drive is made on the Unity Engine, which gets its share of flack, but has also brought us games like Ori and the Blind Forest, Wasteland 2, Her Story, and Jazzpunk. It's clear the developers of Blood Drive didn't have the time to get as much out of Unity as others, as their game is host to many technical issues that honestly made me surprised it even passed certification. Corpse Party has always had a lo-fi look to it, and Blood Drive moves this approach to the world of polygons which feel more at home on the N64 than the Vita. Even with these low-quality assets, at its worst, Blood Drive moves at an unbelievable chug—to the point where even having too much text on the screen can cause slow-down. And though the environments look fine—even if their textures are inconsistent—there's just something about the dead-eyed, expressionless, moe-style characters that doesn't play well with the horror setting. The old sprites might not have been able to gesticulate, but there was something a lot creeper about being chased down by a blob of pixels than something that looks like it fell out of a crane game.
At this point, it's clear Corpse Party is now made primarily for the Corpse Party faithful, which explains why the sequels have felt so pandering. Instead of providing an interesting scenario similar to the first game's, these follow-ups have fixated on characters more than the actual horror, presumably to delight fans attached to the cast. The real problem is these characters aren't inherently interesting, so there's not really much for them to do outside the context of surviving a haunted school. It's a lesson I wish they'd learn with the sequels, especially because American horror games don't get nearly as dark as the original Corpse Party did—often to the point where it felt like they were really getting away with something. And if you haven't somehow missed the series' debut, consider this an official reminder to do that immediately. It's still seasonally appropriate, after all.