Corpse Party: Blood Drive
Developer: Team GrisGris, 5pb, Mages, Grindhouse
Release Date: 10/13/15
I don’t even know where to begin.
Corpse Party, when it initially came out four years ago in the US, was a game that I was astounded by. Its visuals had a distinctly low-tech vibe to them, but the game did the absolute most with them, turning pixel art and text into an artist’s canvas of violence and death. As a horror game, it was instantly memorable, featuring some grotesque imagery and writing that made the game one of the most memorable to come along in years, and I was instantly a fan upon playing it. While the sequel, Book of Shadows, felt like it was more of a love letter to the fans, featuring characters that were popular in Japan (and shunning unpopular ones) and a lot of side stories over actual plot development, there was just enough development to the narrative that the idea of a final game in the series seemed like a good idea. As more details came out about Blood Drive, it seemed like it’d be the game to finally bring the franchise into the next generation, as well as a game that would continue the spirit of the first game. How could one not be excited for that? A return to form for the franchise, but updated with a modern engine and visuals sounded like exactly what Team GrisGris needed, and considering what they’d done with the original in RPG Maker, there was no telling what they could do with more power and time behind them.
Well, what they did was create a game so frustrating that it can make you wish you’ve never played the original.
Literally the only good things I can say about this game
Blood Drive retains the art style of its predecessors, featuring both the full body character portraits one expects during conversation and the full-screen images during important events that frequent the series, and in both cases they look excellent as always. The 3D visuals of the game also occasionally have an interesting aesthetic charm to them, particularly during the later sequences of the game when Heavenly Host becomes far more corrupt in appearance and function. The audio is also quite good, as always, as the voice cast is completely on-point once again and the aural effects chosen feel appropriately horrific in tone. The soundtrack, while not the best in the series, also sounds pretty good all in all, and while it doesn’t have any powerfully memorable tunes that make it a must own on its own, everything here fits well enough that you’ll enjoy it while playing. The plot is also at its best when it’s focusing on the character driven moments that made the original game work so well, as simple interactions between the group and quiet moments of reflection do a lot to make the plot work far more than it has any right to. Finally, from a technical perspective, it’s also nice to see that the game reorganized the Name Tag handling system so that players can sort them by chapter as well as school, so that those who love collecting things will find it much easier to track them down.
If you’re not into heavy criticism, you can simply know that literally everything else about the game is not good at best, but if you want to specifically know why everything else doesn’t work, let’s get down to business.
On why this isn’t a good game in general
Blood Drive’s first immediate problem becomes apparent once you get into the game proper, about halfway into Chapter One: it’s a technical and artistic nightmare. The game runs off of the Unity Engine, which is entirely capable of producing good games, but takes a strong developer and lots of testing to produce things that don’t needlessly tax a system’s performance. No one on the development team really seemed to get that, however, as this game suffers constantly on the technical side of things. Turning your flashlight on during play dips the framerate noticeably, and there are several sequences in the game that almost drop into single digit framerates because simply too much is going on at once. Loading is also a severe concern, and while the game supposedly received a one gigabyte patch in Japan to resolve such things, you’d never know it from playing. The game has Legacy of Kain level loading, from the minute plus it takes to initiate chapters and new play sessions to the five seconds of loading each time you access any menu in the game, and you’ll often end up avoiding going into the menus whenever possible because of it. The game is also crash prone, so much so that it not only generated the very first crash bug I’ve ever seen that made my Vita pop up an eight-bit error message and reboot, but has also done this to several other players as I’ve discovered during investigation. From an artistry perspective, it’s not much better; almost all of the new characters introduced into the game look like Kingdom Hearts or The World Ends With You characters, striking an obvious and unappealing contrast with the fairly grounded cast of the first two games, and the game mostly looks absurd. Oh, and the super scary big monster in this game, Red Mask, looks less like a scary monster and more like a generic Pyramid Head knockoff, which is never a good thing. Characters are now represented via chibi models, which are absolutely adorable, but not even a small bit scary, and sequences where characters are being attacked or murdered look more like two Nendoroids being bashed into each other by a small child, which is the antithesis of “scary.” This also translates, at times, to the environments, as while there are some horrific elements, there are far too many obviously repeated setpieces, and the broken debris and dead bodies in the game world break the atmosphere more than they help it.
The mechanics also quickly become a frustration point as often as not, as there’s simply too much going on that doesn’t work on its own, let alone with its component parts. Environmental hazards are often more frustrating than scary; early on you’ll make an effort to avoid them to conserve health just in case, but in later levels you’ll just power through them because you’re healed up instantly from candles and avoiding them is often more of a hassle than its worth. Tripwires hurt too much to ignore, though, but due to their limited visibility they’re often such a pain to deal with that seeing one becomes a pain point. The game is also littered with Phantoms, AI controlled monsters that chase you down, but their AI is garbage, as they just rubber band themselves to keep pace with you and their attack animations are so slow that dodging is hardly an issue, unless two or three are on you (which does happen). On the other hand, there’s a specific Phantom that always uses the same voice sample who will chase you forever, which is doubly annoying, because it makes exploration a chore and because saving and loading resets its position anyway. The game also has a love-hate relationship with exploration; on one hand, while many objects twinkle in the environment, some are hidden so as to make you search around for them, but on the other, searching the environment jacks up your sanity and the landscape is so littered with crap and monsters that it makes exploration unenjoyable in general. Also, since the game has to stop and load constantly, the pace of play is completely broken; you’ll move three steps, load, watch a cutscene, load, walk ten steps, load, watch a cutscene, load, then leave the zone, load and watch another cutscene, which is just disjointed.
Well, with this being a visual novel, even if the visuals and mechanics are messy, surely the plot works, right? Well, no. For one thing, the plot is far too interested in its own technical discussions of the world, as in-universe terms are constantly tossed around but never really given any weight or substance, making them hard to follow or care about. For another, the plot is one gigantic idiot ball plot, as the main character, Ayumi, is constantly screwing things up or trusting people who look wholly untrustworthy just because they exploit her emotions. The game also has a lot of tonal problems; the characters who are grounded in reality frequently make the over-the-top characters feel absurd, for example, and the game makes huge tonal shifts between absurdist, unbelievable comedy and horror, to the point where neither works effectively because the game can’t pick a tone and stick with it. It also doesn’t help that half the cast is grossly underdeveloped; one character is introduced, disappears a chapter later, shows up again later in a twist that’s implied to have been in place from before the start of the game, then (aside from one Wrong End) is utterly meaningless to the plot for literally the rest of the game, and of the three significant antagonists, all three are completely written out of the plot before the last chapter, leaving the final actual antagonist as a character we’ve never seen before and know next to nothing about. Finally, the plot has far too many plot holes for its own good. As an example, there’s a whole to-do about how something happens and a whole new spirit takes over Heavenly Host once Ayumi enters, which the plot makes into a big deal, but the whole catalyst for why the characters enter is also attributed to this spirit. The problem is, the bait to lure her in was provided before they entered Heavenly Host, so… was someone else baiting them (and if so where did that plot thread go?), or are we attributing this baiting to a spirit who didn’t have the ability to do this thing at the time we claim it happened? There’s also an undercurrent of ancient witch trials that pops up here and there in the plot, but whatever the game is trying to do with this concept never comes across in the text; it isn’t made to mean anything, it’s just creepy for the sake of being creepy, which does the game no favors. Even taken on its own merits the plot is below average, at best, is the point, and as a game driver it’s a poor one.
On why this isn’t a good Corpse Party game
The bigger problem, though, is that while this game on its own merits might still be somewhat enjoyable, as a Corpse Party experience it feels like a game made to pander to the fanbase and open the series up to the mass market, made entirely without an understanding that neither concept was what brought the series to the dance. For one thing, the game takes great pains to incorporate characters that the Japanese fanbase love into the plot, and comparing the events of the game to fan polls speaks volumes. Ayumi and Yoshiki are the first and third most popular characters in Japan, so they’re given the lion’s share of the plot. Naomi and Satoshi are the eighth and tenth most popular, meanwhile, so they’re given a much lower narrative rank and no satisfactory closure to their plotlines. Seiko is the second most popular character, so she’s given some strong focus and a couple cute scenes. Miss Yui didn’t rank, so she gets two lines in a Bad Ending. Yuuya is the fourth most popular character (because who doesn’t love dudes who want to perversely murder ten year olds?) so let’s give him two side stories, one of which breaks continuity, just to make people happy (even though he’s not “raving lunatic” Yuuya, which probably wasn’t what fans wanted anyway). Hell, one of the chapter villains in this game is a character from Corpse Party 2U, which was a side story parody game written like a romantic comedy. It’s just such an insular experience that it’s almost insulting how much this game is screaming LOVE ME at the player. Corpse Party was at its best when it was a small-cast ensemble piece; focusing on a small handful of characters out of a cast of over twenty characters isn’t its strong suit, though, and while I’m sure that it seemed like a good idea to the developers, there’s a reason that’s a trope associated with loss of quality.
Further, the game seems to love its new characters, which is problematic, because absolutely none of them are any good, and none of them fit into the world at all. The core cast and storyline worked because they were realistic characters tossed into an unreasonable world that wanted them dead, and the player could understand their dread. Now, though, we’ve got magical cults, Naho has retroactively been turned into a magical warrior for some reason, there are multiple Xanatos Gambits going on here and we have characters dressed like Square Enix protagonists fighting with pocket scythes and plastic umbrellas for God knows what reason, and it’s literally a completely different game tonally speaking. Hell, even the big monster, Red Mask, is an inferior replacement; Yoshikazu was presented as a tragic villain and every appearance he made was terrifying, but Red Mask has no backstory or meaning and is just treated like a monster, with little meaning and even less value. There’s no permanence to the plot either; in the original game characters died and their losses were treated as a big deal, but in this game people “die,” then pop up again two chapters later for one reason or another, leaving deaths as meaningless when they actually do happen. The plot also isn’t helped by the fact that Ayumi is the core protagonist and gets the majority of the screen time; even if you did like her in the prior games, she’s presented as being a colossal idiot here, as she’s constantly manipulated and constantly fails at everything until the last couple chapters, to the point where it’s extremely difficult to be satisfied by her character arc in the end, and it almost feels like the writers are trolling Ayumi fans at times. The EX Stories don’t even make up for this, either; outside of the two that focus on Yuuya, the remaining six all focus on the new cast, and of those, four of them are maybe five to ten minutes long at most. Even the ending is a letdown, as a sum total of three characters get anything approaching closure, the actual ending proper is massively depressing for everyone (and in a bad way, not in the good way the first game was), and when the game implied that another sequel was coming I audibly groaned.
This also isn’t helped by the fact that the game is mechanically far removed from its parent franchise either. Take, for instance, the borderline pitiful “Wrong Ends,” which were masterfully creepy and squick-inducing events in the prior games, but are (with about six exceptions) some of the most boring things you’ll see here. Many of them are just Nendoroids beating other Nendoroids to death (which is as goofy looking as it sounds) or said Nendoroids just falling over with a “WRONG END” message, and when they do have descriptions, if they’re not repeating the “my head fell off and I watched my body as I fell” concept, they’re just short and evocative of nothing. It also doesn’t help that seeing one means you’ll be waiting a full two minutes to load back into the game, making earning these Wrong Ends (which were a draw in prior games, mind you) frustrating as hell. Finally, it also really bears noting that the prior games always made death mean something, while this game just treats death as a lose state. In the prior games, only specific events or entities could kill you, and each death was treated with gravity and grotesque imagery to make death mean something and matter. Here, death is just a pain point, and you can die by stepping on boards or broken glass, and the end result is that dying is annoying, not scary or evocative. The game just feels like a game now, in other words, and it almost never evokes a feeling from the player except, possibly, for annoyance.
That, perhaps, is the biggest failing of Blood Drive outside of its narrative problems (which are many): it feels too much like a video game, in the worst sense of the term. The prior games certainly had their mechanical hiccups, but they were generally streamlined enough to work despite those issues. Here, however, you’re left managing four different resources (health, Darkening, battery power and stamina) and the best ways to deal with them is to exploit the system, not work within it. Corpse Party works as a gameplay light series, but this game piles so many gameplay systems into the framework that the core experience is lost because you’re too busy saving and loading to reset Phantoms, or exploiting their rubber band AI, or hunting down candles to heal up, or making sure you’re managing your stamina as you run. Hell, the developers apparently realized that this sucked and gave players an infinite flashlight option (that you have to remember to turn on every time you start up) because managing battery life sucks, which is not something you need to do when your systems work as intended. It also really doesn’t help that the developers clued into the fact that players were actively trying to collect everything, because they put so many “hidden” collectibles into the game that make no sense that it just kicks your suspension of disbelief while it’s down even more. I’m sure it seemed cute to the development team, but having to spend five minutes backtracking to collect one Name Tag in a game where stamina is easily lost and hard to replenish is stupid frustrating, and it just punishes the player for wanting to get the most out of your game.
Look, in the end, I really hate to say this, because none of this was XSEED’s fault, and they did an awesome job translating this game, but to be frank, I wish they’d just said, “We’re not porting Corpse Party: Blood Drive because it sucks,” because honestly, it sucks, and I feel kind of bad for them because of it. That said, Corpse Party: Blood Drive is just a mess from start to finish, and while it still has the great art and audio presentation of its predecessors, literally everything else in the game is below average at best and a mess at worst. The game is technically broken between loading and frame rate problems, the plot is bad on its own and worse in context, the mechanics are an affront to everything the franchise is built on and simply aren’t even fun on their own, and the game just feels disconnected from everything that made the franchise good. If you play and end up enjoying this game, bully for you, but I cannot think of a single reason to recommend the game to anyone, and honestly, Corpse Party: Blood Drive is so frustratingly bad that it makes me wish I’d never played the first game.
Short Attention Span Summary:
Corpse Party: Blood Drive is a mess in every possible respect, and it’s the kind of game that can make you hate the franchise for playing it. The game is technically flawed, between heavy and constant loading, frame rate drops and crash bugs so bad they cause the Vita to go into safe mode. It’s a below average game in a vacuum and a terrible one in context, as the plot is geared toward fan pandering and mainstream attraction, but it fails understand what made the series good and ends up turning the series in a completely different, unsatisfying direction, made all the worse by unlikable new characters, character assassination of the protagonist, and a lack of satisfying conclusions for all but three characters. The mechanics don’t even work well, as the game is far too interested in being “video gamey” instead of making mechanics and death meaningful, and most all of the mechanical changes are for the absolute worst. The bottom line is, Corpse Party: Blood Drive is a game you shouldn’t play, and it’s a horrendously depressing note for this part of the series to go out on. Just pretend the franchise ended with Book of Shadows (or the first game if you only liked that one) and you’ll be better off.