The last time I visited Heavenly Host Elementary School, four of my friends died. The school is cursed, you see, and the souls of my friends were only the most recent to be added to the countless number of spirits doomed to walk the halls of that haunted building for eternity.
Now I find myself once again trapped within the dark and decrepit corridors of Heavenly Host and, while many of the places I must venture carry an edge of familiarity, the horror has never been this close and personal.
The first time I found myself trapped in Heavenly Host was while playing the original Corpse Party for the PlayStation Portable. Corpse Party offered a bizarre, yet delicious concoction of seemingly harmless 32-bit graphics mixed with beautifully illustrated cutscenes and 3D sound that had little trouble crawling under my skin. The world I explored featured aesthetics that would have felt right at home on the Super Nintendo. But once things took a turn for the worst and the various playable characters found their lives being threatened (an upsettingly common occurrence in such a horrific place), the scene shifted to painfully beautiful depictions of the characters in turmoil or, even worse, meeting an untimely demise.
In Corpse Party, a group of high school students and their TA find themselves transported to a parallel dimension. Their school, as it turns out, rests on the grounds of a former school that was demolished following a gruesome string of murders. The vengeful spirit controlling Heavenly Host has been drawing in unsuspecting victims for many decades now and, as a result, the school is now haunted by countless vengeful ghosts with both the desire and the ability to make these newcomers join their ranks in the most violent of fashions.
Long story short, most of our rag-tag group of students managed to escape…Or so we thought.
In Corpse Party: Book of Shadows, the heroes (or victims, rather) of the first game find themselves caught in a time loop, doomed to repeat their visit to the world’s worst institute of higher learning. Time has shifted around them, however, and it looks like there might be a way for everyone to make it out alive this time around.
Rather than just rehash the same old story, Book of Shadows is actually broken into eight chapters that occur before, during and after the events of the first game. We learn more about what makes these characters tick and thus grow more attached to them. This, of course, makes it even more painful to stumble upon one of the game’s multiple “wrong end” events, which depict various characters’ deaths to the tiniest, goriest detail. While the visuals aren’t too over-the-top, mostly consisting of blood and creepy imagery, it’s the descriptions of these characters’ final moments that will make your stomach turn and force you to consider sleeping with the lights on. I did.
What really sets Book of Shadows apart from its predecessor, though, is the way the story is presented. The original Corpse Party featured quite a bit of text to plow through, but it was also heavy on free exploration and puzzle solving. Book of Shadows, on the other hand, nearly abandons any sort of gameplay in favor of a more traditional visual novel approach. If you aren’t familiar with that genre of game, it’s because they are very rare here in the States and, even in Japan where they are most popular, don’t come out very often. The fact that U.S. publisher XSEED was willing to even take a chance on porting the game speaks volumes for the evolution of gaming culture and, in my book, that’s an outstanding development.
Along with the pages upon pages of text you’ll be reading, Book of Shadows breaks up most of its chapters with gameplay more akin to an adventure game. You’ll move from room to room, hallway to hallway, looking for various items and solving light puzzles. You’ll be thwarted by booby-traps and vengeful spirits along the way, driving the fear home every time you accidentally make a wrong choice and have to read as your character suffers an unsavory fate. Each room and section of hallway is now presented in the form of beautiful stills, making you feel more like you’re actually trapped in the nightmare rather than playing a game about it.
While it’s neat to see these recognizable settings from a whole new perspective, my familiarity with the series drove home one very basic parameter: Newcomers are not welcome. While fresh meat might be able to piece things together well enough, the stories being told here are an extension of the first game’s tale. When the story jumped around in Book of Shadows, I had no problem following the thread because I already knew the bits of pieces that filled in the gaps. It’s also important that you already know and care about these characters before opening Book of Memories, as the purpose of these new chapters is to further flesh out who they are and, yeah, further pulverize the ole’ heartstrings when something terrible happens to them.
But no matter how you slice it, Corpse Party: Book of Shadows is an enjoyable experience for fans of Japanese horror or niche titles that, in years past, would have never made it to the U.S. in the first place. If you’re interested in experience over gameplay and don’t mind sinking your time into what is essentially an interactive novel, then you should find plenty disturbing goodness within the pages of Book of Shadows.
Corpse Party: Book of Shadows is a notable title in its genre.
This review is based on a PlayStation Portable/PlayStation Vita download of the game provided by the publisher.
About the Author:
Ryan Winslett is an Arizona-based journalist and freelance writer. He is a contributing writer for Gaming Blend and his work has also appeared on Joystiq, Gamasutra and Joystick Division. His only crime is loving too much.
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