A cabinet full of human hair. A room with two doors and a row of windows, none of which open. They aren’t even really doors—they look like models. Same with the book on the floor. In the back of the room is a rotting body. Corpse Party is good at setting an unnerving scene, which is even more impressive considering how silly it looks. Team GrisGris’ horror game, a remake of its 1996 cult title built using RPG Maker, has the chunky cartoon graphics of classic Super Nintendo-era games like Final Fantasy VI, but in the early going, it’s as unsettling as actually wandering around your old elementary school at night.
Eight students of the Kisaragi Academy are having a goodbye party for their pal Mayu. Occult-obsessed Ayumi decides to cap the evening of telling ghost stories by having everyone perform the Sachiko Charm, a paper-doll-ripping ceremony that will keep them friends forever. The ritual accidentally sends all the students and their teacher into hellish alternate dimensions that take on the appearance of Heavenly Host Elementary School, which in the real world was plagued by horrific crimes, most notably the murder of four children at the hands of the principal’s son.
Of course, that isn’t clear from the outset. Part of what makes Corpse Party such effective horror is that it instills real confusion and uncertainty through restrictive play and the power of suggestion. What you actually do is simple. Across the game’s five chapters, you search rooms for items, go through an occasional chase sequence, and run into scarce environmental puzzles. The only real challenge comes in determining the sequences for your actions. It’s often unclear why the game halts with a “Wrong End,” typically with one character dying a horrific death. Being forced by the ghosts of children to swallow a pair of rusty scissors after cutting out your own tongue, for example.
The game’s raison d’être isn’t giving players crazy interactive feats, though; it’s freaking them out with its bizarre world. Provided you’re the susceptible sort, the game’s pairing of text with mundane graphics is at times startlingly effective. Like all horror, though, as you come to understand what’s happening and why, the fear falls apart. The game’s atmosphere relies so heavily on unpredictability and hopelessness that by the time the surviving members of the gang meet up in the fifth and final chapter, all the tension has been surrendered in favor of plot development. Rather than assaulting you with terrifying scenarios, the game tasks you with solving a murder mystery. As a result, the gore becomes just gruesome rather than bewitching. That’s when Party’s seams show most clearly; the soundtrack starts to sound less atmospheric, and more like a compilation of Aqua remixes played at an Express in Dubai. The dialogue becomes overwritten rather than brusque. At first though, when you have no idea what the hell is going or why, Corpse Party is spooky like few other games.