Unexpectedly, the PC has become a savior for PSP games that would have otherwise been lost to time. Ports like Trails in the Sky and Danganronpa have done more than just expose these games to a wider audience: In some cases, Steam has been the last hope for releases that entered the world just as the PSP's viability in America faded away.
Fittingly enough, Corpse Party snuck onto PSN just before the final nail had been driven into the PSP's coffin. (Though don't tell Summon Night 5 that.) I reviewed this digital-only release nearly five years ago, and while I really enjoyed the whole experience, my feelings of appreciation were tempered by the thought, "Wow, this is going to make XSEED approximately zero dollars."
But five years is practically a geological age in our industry—and since 2011, horror games have become a pretty big deal. And not just your Resident Evils and Evils Within and what have you: If you haven't noticed, smaller, stranger horror games have been getting a tremendous amount of attention, thanks to the colorful characters who stream them and feign pants-shitting terror whenever something approaching PG-13 content appears on the screen. (Then again, this content isn't really made for me.) In a post Five Nights at Freddy's world, Corpse Party feels much more welcome than it did in the cold and unforgiving year we once called 2011. Granted, its a much different game—one that relies on pervasive dread instead of jump-scares—but Corpse Party still stands as a must-play for anyone who considers themselves a horror fan.
Corpse Party's plot borrows from a pretty well-worn Japanese horror trope—that of the haunted school—but the developers at Team GrisGris manage to really make the most out of what could have been a tired premise. After an occult ritual sends a group of classmates to a dilapidated, decaying version of their alma mater, the kids have no choice but to find each other and figure out how to escape—if escape is even possible. Without a doubt, Corpse Party is a game that doesn't pull its punches: The narrative takes glee in offing characters in new and terrible ways, and most of the experience involves watching unprepared characters deal with the absolute hopelessness of their situation.
Corpse Party's effective, low-budget horror feels even more impressive once you realize the game hasn't changed all that much since its debut in 1996 as a PC-9801 release—one made with the RPG Maker software suite. Given the primitive tools its developers were using 20 years ago, Corpse Party had no choice but to rely on words, sound effects, and rarely, static images to sell its most horrific scenes. This approach has aged incredibly well: In a smart move, Corpse Party effectively makes you imagine the visuals of some of the more intense moments, since they're communicated with text alone—and the images you create in your brain are bound to be more powerful than anything an artist could whip up.
For the most part, Corpse Party plays out like a visual novel, though you'll be doing a bit more than simply reading dialogue throughout its 8-10 hours. Most of the gameplay takes the form of an overhead-perspective 16-bit RPG—sans enemy encounters—which makes a lot of sense considering its RPG Maker roots. Exploration helps break up its non-interactive bits, with some areas offering environmental hazards and the odd, deadly ghost to avoid. And while the school may at first seem like a confusing maze, Corpse Party's tack of switching perspectives gradually helps you get to know the layout of Heavenly Host Elementary School—and wrap your head around the timeline of terrible events.
Really, the only thing detracting from Corpse Party's greatness can be found in the often fetishistic approach to violence it takes—in some cases, it leans more towards titillating than grotesque, which turns my stomach for the wrong reasons. On the bright side, this version of Corpse Party definitely looks a touch better than the PSP version, which added an ugly, blurry filter to its sprites. In the PC port, the characters are presented in all of their pixelated glory, which makes them feel much more at home within the equally pixelated backgrounds.
Above all, Corpse Party manages to sell a simple-but-effective horror tale using some fairly primitive tools, and its story of teenage tragedy sticks with me all these years later. Especially when compared to its poorly done sequels (not developed by the original team), which take the form of your pandering, meandering visual novel, dropping the white-hot intensity of the original for an extra dose of titillation. But these attempts to capitalize on the debut haven't dulled its sense of horror. With any luck, this PC version—with the assistance of streamers and YouTubers—will expose Corpse Party to a whole new audience who likely wasn't alive during its original release. (Now how's that for scary?)