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Friday, October 30, 2015

Review: Corpse Party: Blood Drive (Sony PlayStation Vita)

Corpse Party: Blood Drive Review

I don't think I've come across a title that has proven as successful in exposing deficiencies in how games are typically reviewed in this industry as I have just seen with Corpse Party: Blood Drive. Flicking through some of the other reviews on the game and you'll see endless complaints about the technical deficiencies or lengthy loading times that make simple actions like pulling up a menu a greater chore than it should be.

Okay, great. Those complaints are quite legitimate, and the game does have a technical rawness to it that means that it doesn't look or play like a AAA-blockbuster such as Until Dawn does. And, yes, the graphical engine initially seems at odds with a horror atmosphere, because it stars characters that look like they would be more at home in a charming little JRPG than a horror game. However, those complaints are also missing the point entirely because Corpse Party: Blood Drive is, underneath its surface, one of the most intense horror games you will find. It just means you need to take the time to read the text and engage the imagination for the full impact of the story to hit you. 

Yes, those are cute little JRPG-style characters that you're watching being chased by cute little JRPG-style ghosts. But then they get caught, and there's a sickening squelch as the ghost lays into his/ her meal. Yes, the characters during cut scenes look like they would be more at home in a bright, happy Compile Heart title, but then the text delves into explicit detail as these characters have flesh sliced off them and eyeballs put out and... it's disturbing. It's creepy. It's extreme. It's a good horror novel that has a fascinatingly cute anime art style stuck over the top of it to provide a very sharp juxtaposition between the cute and the ugly. And that makes it more unsettling.

Horror game review

And this is what is great about Corpse Party; even with the ghosts and uglies that are trying to slaughter your characters at every turn, they're not the focus of the experience and the horror is instead found in the scenario itself being deeply unsettling. The extreme descriptions of what is going on is cerebral. The setting and allusions to a wide range of Japanese horror films is additionally uncomfortable for people who have seen enough Japanese horror to have a background in it. The image in the mind, set against the literal image on screen, is where Corpse Party finds its horror, and it's both subtle and intense, and really quite unique for the genre. 

It's also one of the most pure examples of the Japanese horror that we've seen in video games to date. Unlike western horror, with its love of jump scares and fixation on turning the ugly into the monstrous, Japanese horror has traditionally been at its best when it weaves that aforementioned atmosphere of discomfort into a story of tragedy. When we watch films like Ringo or Ju-On, it's not that we're necessarily scared by the ghosts or monsters; they barely play a role until the punch. Rather, it's the tragic circumstances that lead to their state of being; the horrors that they have been through (typically as innocents), and the empathy they develop with the audience through their fear and pain that brings out the emotion of terror within us. It's not a sense of horror I believe resonates as well with western audiences, which is why western remakes of these films tend to miss the mark by such a wide margin. 

Ignoring the question on whether a game like Corpse Party should be localised as a result of it being so strictly an example of Japanese horror convention, I do believe that this franchise falls into the same boat, and much of what we expect to see from our other, more mainstream, horror games is not present in this one. There's a very limited capacity to fight back against the monsters of the haunted school that forms the setting of the game. Stalker horror is not that unusual for video games - as the likes of Haunting Ground and Amnesia demonstrate - but with limited capacity to hide or trick your way though encounters, the bulk of enemy encounters with Corpse Party is even more limited than in those stalker horror titles, and typically involves simply running away, avoiding obstacles, and hoping for the best.

PlayStation Vita Game Review

Puzzles are also exceedingly simple, and I can't see anyone needing to flick over to GameFAQs to figure out how to get past any of this game. And cut scenes tend to be really long. I suspect that secretly the developers of the series wish they were making visual novels, but lacked the confidence to do away with "gameplay" completely. I found what was in here serviceable, but largely irrelevant to the love that I have for the rest of the experience. 

And boy do I love the rest of the experience. In terms of tone, Corpse Party: Blood Drive seems pitched at the horror aesthetic of the 80's; there's more than a light touch of the cheese running through the still art, character motivations ("yes, let's go back to a haunted school we barely survived because some mysterious, nameless, creepy boy promised us it was okay!"), and music. Coupled with the extreme descriptions of horror that go on within the text and Corpse Party shapes itself as an experience that really revels in its excess, almost to the point where it takes on an edge that the Marquis De Sade himself would be proud of (sans the sex). 

That excess in itself is, of course, both transgressive and uncomfortable to behold. In fact, Corpse Party would almost be the perfect horror narrative were it not for an absolute reliance on assumed knowledge with the previous titles in the series. A couple of brief, disjointed sequences to explain what came before aside, stepping into Blood Drive is to step into the second half of the conversation. It all makes sense in a manner, but it's hard to shake the feeling that you're missing key characterisation and background story, and considering that to the best of my knowledge this is the first Corpse Party title to be released in Australia, this is disappointing.

Stalker horror game

But putting that disappointment aside, Corpse Party: Blood Drive is, as far as I'm concerned, what horror games should be. Genuinely unsettling, smart, and intense, it is rare that a horror game aims to break past the jump scares and combat-heavy gameplay and simply tell a creepy story, so it's a small miracle that not only does Corpse Party try, it also largely succeeds.


- Matt S. 
Editor-in-Chief


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Review: Corpse Party: Blood Drive (Sony PlayStation Vita)
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