Japanese-style horror games are a dying breed.
Where once we were awash in Fatal Frames, Silent Hills and Sirens, we must now make due with a mere trickle. I find myself devouring games like The Evil Within and P.T., desperate for any morsel of J-horror. And of the three main horror franchises of the mid-2000s, only Fatal Frame seems to remain, glaring at Reggie Fils-Aimé through a crack in his closet door. However, it is my pleasure to say that Corpse Party: Blood Drive is a title that channels the spirit of those classic J-horror series, albeit with a somewhat unexpected visual novel aesthetic.
I’ve only played about one quarter of the first Corpse Party title, Corpse Party: Blood Covered, so the story in Corpse Party: Blood Drive was a bit of an enigma to me at first. The set-up is simple: something terrible happened to a group of students related to a spirit-summoning ceremony. A girl named Ayumi feels responsible for the deaths that resulted, as she suggested they take part in this ceremony. After being informed that she could potentially revive those who died and relieve herself of this guilt, Ayumi returns to the school.
Things go wrong. Spooky things happen. Students get ripped apart. Just a typical day during exam season.
It’s a simple concept, but the story is complex enough to remain interesting throughout. The characters involved are also likable and well-rounded; they each have distinct personalities and I found myself wanting them to survive and not, you know, get eviscerated physically and emotionally. However, there are a few characters that, aesthetically, stick out like sore thumbs. While the main cast have fairly realistic looks, clad in school uniforms, there are other characters who seem far more cartoonish in their designs, wearing colourful outfits one might see in an anime series made for younger kids. Perhaps the designers wanted there to be a jarring contrast between these characters and the rest, but it just seemed garish to me and took me out of the experience.
Speaking of “jarring contrast”, the 3D character models are a bit out of place in Corpse Party: Blood Drive, with their giant heads and tiny mutant bodies. This is something I didn’t mind, as the focus during frightening and disturbing scenes is on the textual descriptions rather than the action happening on-screen. The developers clearly intended for the player to use his or her imagination. And despite the character-models being somewhat strange, the level design is superb and the lighting effects do a lot to enhance the creepy atmosphere; a feat that would have been impossible on the older 2D Corpse Party titles. The tradeoff is that it loses that retro RPG-Maker charm.
The text in the game is superbly translated, with nary an awkwardly phrased sentence in sight. The translators obviously took great care to ensure that the text was descriptive enough to make up for the low-fi visuals. The sound is likewise well crafted, with excellent Japanese voice work and sufficiently ominous sound design.
In terms of gameplay, the game won’t present any real challenge. You will primarily be grabbing items needed to move on to the next area, while simultaneously running away from spirits and other creatures. I did enjoy exploring the corridors of Corpse Party: Blood Drive, but the gameplay takes a back seat to the story. You will be spending the majority of your time with this game reading text, and in that sense it is one small step away from being a visual novel. If that isn’t your thing, and you want something that focuses on interaction and abides more by a “show don’t tell” philosophy, then you should consider a different title.
If you allow yourself to get immersed, and put some effort in, Corpse Party: Blood Drive is scary, or at least unnerving, which is more than can be said about many modern horror titles. It’s especially impressive given how “cute” the characters look. However, as I said, the game requires you to use your imagination. Whereas in a game like The Evil Within you would watch as a character is torn apart, here you may get a few drawings and a well-written description of the process.
Technically, the game falls short. The loading screens are atrocious (we all love having to load into the pause menu, right?) and things could go a lot smoother given how simple everything looks. That said, at least on the digital version I used, there was nothing that halted my progress or annoyed me enough to stop me from playing. It was just a bit of a slog sometimes.
The end result is a game that I enjoyed, but that I also recognize as flawed. Corpse Party: Blood Drive has technical issues, and some questionable character designs, but it does so much right that these faults are easy to overlook. It is a clear love letter to J-Horror games of decades past, incorporating common horror tropes while also presenting its own fresh ideas, even if some of those ideas fall flat. It has its rough edges, but any Vita owning horror fan should give it a shot.