Platform: PSP | PS Vita [PSN, £11.99]
Publisher: XSEED Games
The original Corpse Party is an odd little proposition. Halfway between adventure game, visual novel, psychological horror experience and exploitative murder pornography, this bizarre PSP download managed to grimly captivate its players with deep inter-character relationships and shocking acts of violence visited upon helpless minors. Many of us soldiered through it, braving several frustrating gameplay sections and a constantly-building feeling of disgust, out of a desperate need to save the cast of terrified students trapped in a nightmare world... or occasionally out of perverse curiosity. Finding all of the horrific multiple 'wrong endings' became a sadistic addiction in and of itself, as was exploring the secret behind the cursed, hellish Heavenly Host high school.
So let me ask you a question. Are you a fan of Corpse Party? Did you emotionally connect with the characters, from the tragic relationship between Naomi and Seiko to the deliciously disturbed Morishige? Would you like to spend more time with them?
If you answered 'yes' to all of the above, you'll probably get a massive kick out of Book Of Shadows. Otherwise there's nothing for you here.
See, Corpse Party: Book Of Shadows isn't really a sequel or even a continuation of the series. Rather, it's a collection of short stories that expand on some of the character backstories, focusing on the bit cast rather than former protagonist Satoshi. It's an exploration, an accompaniment that tidies up a few loose ends (and creates a fairly major new one), which will mean nothing if you haven't already invested in the Corpse Party canon.
It also isn't really a game, at least in the traditional sense. Though interspersed with some very basic point & click sections, Book Of Shadows is a dialogue-heavy visual novel that occasionally offers its reader a choice between two possible decisions (one of which almost always ends in total disaster, resulting in a death scene narrated from the victim's perspective and an alternate 'wrong ending'). Seven long chapters give you a glimpse into the mysterious Naho's past and Miss Yui's school life, let you spend more time in the company of Morishige, and flesh out some of the tiniest cameo roles who barely touched upon the narrative. As you'd expect, ghostly demon-child Sachiko makes plenty of contractual appearances alongside her hammer-wielding henchman.
Two of the most effective chapters, however, are 'alternate reality' tales based on one of the bad endings from the original game (Wrong Ending 6, if you really wanted to know). I'd rather not say more to avoid spoiling things, but suffice to say that Naomi, Seiko and Mayu are thrown into a cross between The Butterfly Effect and Final Destination. Utterly riveting stuff... or horrible, exploitative, sickening filth depending on your point of view.
Most of the stories are strong as well as morbid, and will end up compelling their readers through the total six-to-eleven hour length. Depending, basically, on how fast you read. Detailed backgrounds and character sprites do a good job of portraying Heavenly Host's decaying interiors, while magnificent 'binaural' sound design uses each Vita or PSP speaker seperately to let you hear every buzzing fly and blood drop. All characters have been fully voice acted in Japanese too, with some rather nasty gurgles, hacks and moans in the darker moments alongside traditional upbeat chatter.
Beyond the audio, sadly, the storytelling tends to fall rather flat.
It's clear that the translators are much older than their teenage cast, since almost all of the script is hilariously, jarringly formal. The flowery and ornate narration continually slows down the pace of what should be tense moments, bogging the reader down and killing any sense of tempo or atmosphere. Book Of Shadows often reads like a Masters thesis, not the increasingly incoherent babbling of terrified high schoolers. The only exception to this is Naho's chapter, which seems to have been translated with an eye towards keeping the tone conversational.
And there's so much dialogue. As I said previously, this is very much a visual novel, and you'll spend a huge amount of time reading and reading and reading before you get to even the whiff of a major decision, much of which is exceedingly banal. Corpse Party fans might love it, but there was definitely scope for less talk, more action here. The fact that readers can save anywhere, even during a major decision, at least means that you won't have to trawl through it all again if you pick the wrong ending.
Laziness and cut corners also become apparent from the very start. 5pb seem to have been determined to create the smallest number of unique assets as they possibly could, resulting in an enormous number of recycled backgrounds and character art. Indeed, almost all of the rooms and corridors are just tiny variations on exactly the same image, but with a couple of added foreground sprites if you're lucky. Speaking characters frequently don't appear as a portrait, and even when they do, they're taken from an embarrassingly small pool of potential poses.
Gallingly, very few of the optional Wrong Endings come complete with their own unique artwork, which drastically reduces the payoff and drive to explore. I can't believe that I'm about to write this, but more pictures of high school kids being brutally murdered might have actually worked in Book Of Shadows' favour.
Or perhaps it would have been the tipping point between morbid fascination and genuine disgust. Book Of Shadows toes that line far more precariously than its predecessor, since the arbitrary acts of torture and violence - directed at minors, remember - are no longer supported by deep investigation gameplay. Many will dismiss or decry this latest release as nothing more than sick degrading voyeuristic titillation.
They might have a point, but then again, you could say the same thing about any number of horror films. At least Book Of Shadows will expand your vocabulary too...
- Grimly compelling short stories expand the universe and flesh out minor characters
- Some tragic twists and detailed artwork
- Magnificent 'binaural' sound design, impressive Japanese voice acting
- Reams of inappropriately formal translated dialogue scuppers tension and immersion
- Constantly recycled assets smacks of laziness
- Only diehard fans (of the series and visual novels) will enjoy it to the full, which is rather the point
The Short Version: In many ways, this is the most pointless review I've ever written. Corpse Party: Book Of Shadows is specifically designed for fans of the original game who want to spend more time in Heavenly Host High and learn more about the minor characters - which automatically alienates everyone else.
Though it succeeds in its remit and delivers a number of morbidly fascinating story arcs, some lazy cut corners and storytelling hiccups stop this nightmarish novel from becoming a perfect fan service package.