Platform: PS Vita

I’ll start off by saying I’m not a fan of visual novels. As someone who lived in Japan for several years, you kind of get sick with this genre once you see the patterned formulaic nature of it. With that, if you're a dedicated fan of the genre, you should leave now, as probably I’ll infuriate you with what I have to say about Corpse Party: Book of Shadows. However, not all is negative and maybe I can indulge some enlightening hints to how my conclusion came about with this game.

First off, let’s get the story out of the way without spoiling anything for anyone.

Corpse Party: Book of Shadows is a sequel to the 2010 PSP game Corpse Party: Blood Covered Repeated Fear. As someone who hasn’t played the previous game, I’ll say right off the bat that its somewhat a prerequisite that you play the previous game to understand what the hell is going on in the game’s story, however Corpse Party: Book of Shadows is nice enough to ease you in at first and give you a vague sense of what the game's universe is all about.

 photo corpse-party-01_zps4a0a34f1.jpgThe game opens introducing you to the main characters of the story in a somewhat peaceful picturesque environment with the odd creepy softcore hentai moment shoehorned in now and then. Through the plethora of meandering dialogue, we find our main protagonists; a group of school students, celebrating the transferal of one of their classmates to another high school via a ritual that they think will let their friendship with each other last forever.

One of the students for some reason knows that if this ritual goes ahead, all the students will be submitted to a sequence of predetermined horrors. Through this, some of the characters feel déjà vu as if they have been through these events before. Unfortunately for them, the students decide to go ahead with the ritual anyway.

Suddenly, from the happy, peaceful environment that the game starts off in, the player is ripped away and tossed into what is the main game, filled with horrors, grotesque disturbing imagery and a forebodingly frightening atmosphere that I haven’t felt honestly since the very first Silent Hill game on the PSX.

I won't spoil the rest for you, so on to the gameplay.

As I said before, the game is in the style of a visual novel. Basically, you navigate the game with the use of a map and simple square panels that represent each room or hallway. Once you choose where to navigate on these panels, you are presented in first person with a representation of the area you are in. In this sense, the game is somewhat like a Myst-come-old-school FPS dungeon crawler.

There are two basic sequences of gameplay that dominate throughout, one more than the other. The first is the search mode that I briefly mentioned, represented via a FPS view, where the player is allowed to use a cursor to scan the environment to see if there are objects to pick up or important clues to examine.

The other important gameplay aspect that absolutely dominates this game is the dialogue sequences, and my god there a lot of them. I am fully aware this game is a visual novel and that games of this genre have to be based on a strong narrative and conversational sequence of events. However, my main gripe with these sorts of games from Japan is there is far too much faffing about in the dialogue between characters, with unnatural / unrealistic conversational flow that comes over completely immature and many times embarrassing to read, most of the time retreading the same subject and point over and over as if the characters are stuck in a loop.

 photo corpse-party-02_zps80d7453d.jpgWhen you realize this genre of game is in no way innovative and has always been aimed at a niche market of teenage gamers (Yes, even with this game’s violent and disturbing imagery), you start to realize that this particular visual novel style is connected entirely to the same Japanese pop-culture that worships gothic horror based bishōnen manga, visual-kei / J-Rock music and other “coming-of-age” type entertainment distractions for those inclined towards sub-cultural apparel – Although of course this genre is widely read by adults too, I feel most of the conscious decisions made on making this product marketable were focused on that former demographic.

The classically irritating thing I find with Japanese products in this genre is that they have the consistent need to copy each other, adding nothing revolutionary in the sense of execution or concept. When you realize that games such as Gakkou de atta Kowai Hanashi (English: School Terror Story) basically did this genre and story concept to a degree back in 1995 on the Super Famicom, you just find yourself being completely dumbfounded.

When the game tried to throw in horror elements borrowed from films like Ringu and The Grudge (Possessed hair and little annoying demonic children), I just wanted to snap the game in half …however then I realized it was a digital download …Oh god, the horror!!!

The conclusion to this dilemma is that it's a marketable gimmick to a niche market in the pursuit of a quick cash grab. No way can anyone sit me down and convince me that this game or any of its ilk contain a literary narrative that will take you through the emotions, surprise you or will even be worth your time in the first place. The writing, characterization and development of the story is something that just doesn’t have weight to it, it’s frankly far too easy to write or pretend to be something that originated from a lengthy concept or passionate mindset.

So yes, I hate the story and everything it’s probably based / influenced on. However, that said there are some fantastic implementations to this game that actually keep its head above water.

The sound design for Corpse Party: Book of Shadows fantastically well done. The voice acting is in Japanese, so it will please gamers who want to experience game in its native language, however overall the voice acting, for this standard of niche game, is just ok overall.

What adds major score points to the game is the atmosphere created by the sounds and occasionally the music. Like I said before, there were times I actually felt a little frightened (I’ll even admit I jumped when my computer’s mouse accidently fell off my desk during one of the game’s more tense sequences). I really did feel again that old claustrophobic and morbidly foreboding atmosphere felt in the very first Silent Hill game on the PSX – Major kudos has to be given for the games manipulation and creation of an horrific atmosphere.

The musical score on its own, however, is about 50/50. Yet again it plays to the conventional tropes predetermined by the niche market genre this game is firmly catering to – We hear this with piano sonatas and …well, more piano pieces (as if Japan couldn’t satiate its fetish of sombre and/or predictable major-to-minor chord cadence laden ballad-like lounge hits, nearing “Elevator music” levels of quality). Other tunes juxtapose the tense nature of the atmosphere completely, bringing the game to an almost comedic level of disjointedness, similar to an old Hammer horror movie, thus accidently extinguishing any level of fear the player may feel. However, when the game’s music isn’t ruining your experience unintentionally, when it hits home perfectly it can be absolutely oppressive, frightening and downright bone chilling.

I couldn’t help but feel that if this game was even slightly more animated, it would have amplified the horror to all new heights. Instead we have to use our imagination through the weak dialogue sequences that describe what's happening – Sometimes it is effective, however most of the time I felt an extra hint of animated gore could have given the game that extra edge.

 photo corpse-party-03_zpsdd9b88e3.jpgIn saying that, the game is the type of horror that focuses mostly on the fear of being decapitated or losing copious amounts of blood from your body through a series of sharp objects and other obtuse zany methods. The “horror” we are supposed to feel is through the disturbing ways in which characters die or are harmed, and although “horror” is completely subjective, I did think the game missed the mark.

The atmosphere in the search sequences, combined with the sounds and music that congealed into a mass of intensity created the bulk of Corpse Party: Book of Shadows positive aspects. The creepiness of some of the rooms you enter and the dialogue text, sometimes created a very tense experience that made you as a player fear what you would do next in the next few sequences, depending on the choices you made. That I felt was the true horror of the game, not the overblown obtuse methodology of how the characters will meet their demise – It was like trying to combine a SAW movie with Silent Hill, which for me just didn’t work. I’ll can't deny it was sometimes disturbing, but with equal amounts of stupidity to cancel them out.

Overall this is a game that you have to be a fan of to be zealous in your decision to play it. For those who want to try visual novels, I can’t say the level of narrative in this is really satisfying, with a script that jumps from one minute reading as if it were written by someone with a simple grasp of language, then suddenly like an obvious abuse of a thesaurus. It's jarring (though, admittedly quite entertaining for comedy value).

If you're a fan of horror itself, especially gore-based horror, or a die-hard Japanophile, then this game is for you. For those who want a psychological horror experience – Keep away.