Review: Corpse Party: Book of Shadows (Sony Playstation Portable)

Corpse Party: Book of Shadows
Genre: Adventure/Visual Novel
Developer: 5pb
Publisher: XSEED Games
Release Date: 01/15/13

Back at the tail end of 2011, XSEED Games took a chance on the original Corpse Party by bringing it to the US on the PSN store, and for the most part, that investment seems to have paid off. The game, by all indications, seems to have done fairly well, and if nothing else the game is certainly popular amongst its fanbase in the US, so it’s no surprise that XSEED would take a chance on bringing the PSP sequel to the states. Well, that’s not exactly right; while Corpse Party: Book of Shadows is the next game in the Corpse Party series, “sequel” isn’t exactly the correct way to describe it. This game is more of an expansion of the first, and while it does advance the overall storyline of the series a little bit, it’s more of a series of stories told from different perspectives that help expand the universe a bit more, while also offering up some alternate takes on the reality of the series. In simpler terms, Corpse Party: Book of Shadows is less a full sequel (that would either be the upcoming Corpse Party 2: Dead Patient or Corpse Party: Blood Drive) and more of a game made “for the fans,” and while that’s certainly not a bad thing at all, it’s a harder game to recommend as a result.

Corpse Party: Book of Shadows uses a completely different game engine from its predecessor, so while the original game was an overhead sprite-based adventure game, Book of Shadows instead uses a first-person exploration view over static environments. From a visual standpoint, this looks a bit more convincing; while the sprite-based visuals are charming, the first-person environments are all hand drawn and generally very detailed. The more common environments, such as hallways, pull from a pool of images more often than not, which can be noticeable at times, but it’s not so noticeable as to be a problem, and you often won’t stop long enough to care about this thing. The character artwork is as good as ever, both for the returning cast and the new characters who appear in the game, and the full-screen artwork that pops up for important events also looks fantastic, whether depicting happy moments or gruesome death. From an aural perspective, the game sounds as fantastic as its predecessor, thanks in large part to a strong soundtrack that combines orchestral score, ambient music and energetic electronic tracks into a fitting soundtrack that highlights every high and low with ease. The voice work is also as strong as ever, and while all of the voice work is in Japanese, the actors and actresses are very good at their jobs, almost uncomfortably so during some of the more painful sequences in the game. Anyone who can make you feel squeamish just through their voice work is a talented actor/actress, and several of the performances here will definitely do just that. The sound effects are also excellently assembled and, while they’re not on the level of the voice work and soundtrack, they’re all very fitting and nothing sounds out of place as you go along in the least.

The change in game structure doesn’t just affect the visual presentation of the game, however, as players who were intimately familiar with the controls from Corpse Party will have no idea what they’re doing here at first. Basically, you’ll spend your time either plowing through conversation trees or searching the environments. When in a conversation, X progresses and confirms statements (though so does pressing a direction on the D-Pad), Square brings up the message log to review prior statements, Triangle brings up the menu, and the Right Trigger instantly fast-forwards conversation while held down. When you’re given control, you’re dumped into Search Mode, allowing you to look around the screen you’re on as needed. Here, the D-Pad moves a cursor around on-screen for you to highlight important objects, X will interact with anything that highlights in blue under the cursor, and Circle cancels choices and backs out of menus. When you want to move to another location, pressing the Left Trigger will bring up the map of the current floor you’re on, and you can highlight the location you want to move to and press X to travel there, though the game will stop you if there’s something along the path to interrupt your progress forward. None of this is at all hard to deal with, and in a lot of cases it’s a marked improvement; being able to almost instantly travel where you want to go is a lot easier than running around the game world for a while, backtracking is less onerous in comparison, and oh yes, you can save whenever you want now, even in conversation, which is fantastic. Granted, there are certainly things about the old system that will be missed, but after a chapter spent with Book of Shadows you’ll find it to be an easy and friendly game to work with, mechanically.

The game takes place across eight separate chapters, each featuring its own good and bad endings to see, and plowing through the game will probably take you a good ten to twelve hours depending on how much time you spend trying to clear out the game entirely. As you might infer from that statement, there are a fairly substantial amount of things to unlock here, as the game features a whopping thirty four different endings to see (most of which are bad, of course) and a sizable amount of student Name Tags to collect from the bodies of the dead, as did its predecessor. On top of that, though, the game also offers a full gallery of cinematic images you can fill in, a “Cursed Phonograph” that will allow you to listen to the songs you unlock, an archive of interviews with the voice cast (featuring subtitles of course) and the “EVP Machine”, which lets you assemble conversations out of dialogue bits from the various cast members. Importing a save game from the original game also unlocks the eighth chapter immediately upon completing the first seven (otherwise you need to collect ALL of the other endings to do so), as well as additional images in the gallery, most of which are collected from the first game. As such, fans will find plenty of reasons to spend time with the game, and while a dedicated player can clear the entire game inside of twelve hours, the unlocked content should give you reason enough to come back to the game once you’ve cleared everything, if nothing else.

Also, for those who are worried, the game works perfectly fine on the Playstation Vita, and in fact I played through the entire game on the Vita with no problems whatsoever. If you wanted to import your saved data from the original and changed systems between the two games (as I did), copying your data is as simple as copying the saved data over from your PSP to your PC, then using the Content Manager application Sony offers to transfer the save to your Vita. You can’t take screenshots of the game while playing on your Vita, sadly, but the game allows you to dump CG from the Gallery of Souls to the system memory for transfer to your PC or retention on the console, so you could set one of the violent death scenes as your wake up screen on your Vita if you like messing with people, hypothetically. Hey, importing your Corpse Party data also gives you most of the cinematic scenes from that game in the Gallery of Souls to boot so you’d have plenty of options for traumatizing friends and loved ones if you’re so inclined. The main point here, though, is that the game works perfectly on the Vita, so you won’t find any compatibility issues here.

Having said that, while the game does suffer from the standard adventure game problem of “once it’s done, it’s done,” and the standard visual novel problem of “there is a lot of talking and you should be aware of this!” the most notable issue with the game is the plot itself. Now, the plot is by absolutely no means bad, so let’s not even imply that this is the case. The plot isn’t a cohesive narrative, however; it is instead a collection of stories (eight in total) detailing various events surrounding characters in the franchise, both old and new, in a variety of situations. The game makes a good effort to expand the narratives of characters who didn’t get a lot of screen time in the first game, such as Seiko, Morishige, Mayu and Naho, while also introducing compelling new characters or developing the personalities of characters who showed up for no time at all in the original. From that perspective, the game can be considered a rousing success, plot-wise.

It also bears noting that the writing and translation are generally fantastic for a few reasons, which is a big positive for a game where the writing is most of the experience. The game makes a big effort to humanize some of the less humane characters from the original, showing their emotional breakdowns and what led them to that point, allowing them to exist as three dimensional characters instead of whacked-out psychopaths, and it does an admirable job of this. The game also puts a great deal of effort into developing the dynamics between some of the characters, by expanding their relationships and their personalities, and in a surprisingly progressive touch, the game more or less comes out and admits Seiko is gay and seems generally okay with this thing, which we don’t see as often as we probably should. As such, anyone who counted themselves as fans of the first game would be well served picking up Book of Shadows because it brings characters from that game to life in a way the original didn’t, giving many of them dynamic personalities they didn’t get the time to showcase there. It fills in a lot of backstory for characters who probably deserved it, and taken as a fanservice piece or an expanded universe sort of product, it’s pretty awesome.

That said, as a sequel it’s kind of underwhelming.

A big part of the problem is that the game isn’t a functional sequel on its own. Generally speaking, sequels (good ones, anyway) will usually either expand on prior stories while giving new players a jumping on point, tell unique stories that are aware of their past but don’t need it to function, or tell entirely different stories altogether. Corpse Party: Book of Shadows, on the other hand, basically needs the player to have played the prior game in order to have any kind of idea what’s going on here, and while that’s fine for fans, it’s utterly impenetrable for newcomers. Playing this game in a vacuum, you’re left to ask questions like “Who the hell is this Satoshi who showed up for ten minutes, what bearing does he have on the plot and why the hell do I care?” or “Okay, so why am I playing as a fourteen year old who shows up not all except in this one chapter?” Book of Shadows expects you to know who several of the characters are because it does nothing to introduce you to them whatsoever, which makes it a game for fans only, right from the start.

Beyond that, the plot consists of three specific types of stories: “alternate reality tales”, IE chapters that branch off of the Eighth BAD END from Corpse Party and allow the player to see how a second go at Heavenly Host would play out; character expansion tales, IE tales that show you what was going on behind the scenes during the original game; and plot advancement tales, of which there is one. These stories are all generally well told, but… well, they’re largely just disconnected stories. The stories that focus on the underdeveloped secondary characters are good, certainly, but it’s good in a “this is good backstory to know about these characters” way, as none of what you’re seeing here can really be applied to future titles, for obvious reasons. It’s great for reference purposes but most of these characters aren’t going to be back for the next game, so knowing why so-and-so had a mental breakdown is nice from an overall knowledge standpoint, but if dude took a header out the third story window, it doesn’t matter much long term, more or less. It also doesn’t help much when, of the eight chapters in the game, one of them doesn’t end violently, and it’s not even the last one.

The stories the game tells seem kind of arbitrary, also; while it’s good that we get stories developing some of the second tier characters, others are more confusing. The fourth chapter spends its time telling a story surrounding Naho, a character who is important to the plot, through the eyes of a character we’ve never seen before and who doesn’t add anything significant to the narrative, for example. Chapter Six is literally an expanded recap of a BAD END from the first game that doesn’t adds almost nothing to the narrative, doesn’t show the player anything terribly new, and seems to exist purely for the purposes of showing the player one long sequence of a fourteen year old suffering psychological torture. The one thing it does add, an explanation of why Yuuya is the way he is as a person, is fine enough, but you could have easily done that as part of another story and given Chapter Six to anyone else. Chapter Seven seems designed to show the player how Yuuya came to be the way that he is in the game, which would be fine except that Chapter Six basically does the same thing, and you could have literally condensed the Yuuya bits from the previous chapter into this one. This is strange in comparison when you stop and realize that characters like Satoshi, one of the main characters from the first game mind you, show up in this game for about ten total minutes and do nothing of import. One could argue the point that Satoshi maybe wasn’t as popular a character as Seiko, but the point here isn’t one of character popularity (and if it were Satoshi was one of my personal favorites so the complaint would stand) so much as economical character usage. In other words: if your plot spends three separate storyline segments showcasing a character, and this happens more than once, but two plot important characters show up for a total of half of one story and a tenth of another, that is disproportionate, especially when you could have easily crammed those two underutilized characters into the last chapter. Yuuya in particular was absolutely not a character who needed three chapters devoted to showing off his personality, and his motivations aren’t especially compelling, so it’s puzzling that a sizable portion of the game featured him.

Oh, and speaking of the last chapter: Corpse Party is probably a franchise that works better without magical MacGuffins and involved explanations for why things are the way they are, if the last chapter is any indication. The whole chapter felt like a forced attempt to try and create a hope spot that no one playing was going to believe in, as well as a “TO BE CONTINUED” point for an eventual sequel, and it dragged. The rest of the stories in the game, whether their purpose was sensible or not, were well written and interesting, but the last chapter felt like an explanation for something no one needed explained, and given that you have to put in extra effort to even see it, it needed work.

So, this, then, is the point: Corpse Party still stands as a game that comes highly recommended, grotesque imagery or no, to most everyone, while Corpse Party: Book of Shadows can only be recommend to fans, and even then, with slight reservations. That’s a shame too, as the game is mostly amazing; the visuals are top notch, the audio is fantastic, the redesigned gameplay engine is friendly and easy to learn and understand, makes backtracking more tolerable, and allows for instant saving of games, so in virtually every respect it’s an improved product. It’s instantly compatible with the Vita, as well, so even those who have moved on from the PSP could drop their cash on it and have no problems playing it, and it’s a very well written piece of work that sheds a lot of light onto less developed characters who could have used it in the first game. As sequels go, however, it’s really only a sequel for fans of the first game and no one else, as it’s not a coherent narrative so much as a bunch of short stories, and anyone who isn’t familiar with the source material will be almost entirely lost early on. Further, it’s mostly just a sequence of stories about characters to flesh out their motivations over anything that moves the franchise along, the actual stories themselves, while well written, occasionally feel redundant and needless, and the one chapter that does advance the franchise is the weakest chapter of the lot. If you’re a big fan of the original game Corpse Party: Book of Shadows will be great for you because it expands on a lot of the concepts from the original in an engine that’s well designed and easy to work with, but mild fans may find this to lack the meat of a true sequel, and it’s basically inaccessible without playing the first game.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Corpse Party: Book of Shadows is a game made for the diehard fans of the original game, and for those people it’s a fantastic experience without a doubt, but anyone who didn’t love the original may find this wanting, and it’s absolutely not for anyone who didn’t play the original in the least. From a presentation and design perspective, it’s a home run, as the game looks and sounds absolutely fantastic, the new game engine works very well and is quite accessible, and the game adds in minor functional changes that make the game easier to work with all around. Further, the game is instantly compatible with the Vita with no technical issues or hiccups in the least, the stories presented here are rather well written, and the game does a good job of expanding characters who weren’t given a lot of depth in the original for one reason or another. However, it’s less a cohesive game and more a series of alternate reality short stories strung together that will only really make sense to fans of the original, so anyone approaching the game cold won’t have any idea what’s going on here. It’s also just a series of stories that flesh out the motivations of secondary characters or showcase alternate reality events rather than pushing the storyline forward, and while the writing here is as solid as ever, some of the plot points and character focus feels needless or overly devoted to characters who aren’t that in need of development. The one chapter in the game that does attempt to advance the franchise forward is also, sadly, the weakest story in the tale, for the most part. Corpse Party: Book of Shadows is a mechanically and artistically excellent game with a generally strong translation, and XSEED did a great job on it, but it’s a game that’s only a must have for diehard fans of the original; casual fans may find it to be non-essential, and anyone who missed the first game will find nothing here to work with whatsoever.


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