So a warning about this non-review, based on three hours with the gory visual novel from Team GrisGris: at some point in the second chapter, I saved myself into a loop of death and despair, trapped in a sequence where my character would fall down a hole and subsequently watch in terror as his friends were hacked to pieces and thrown down onto him. It’s a fitting experience for the game, an existential nightmare which traps a group of high school students inside of a mysterious and deadly school, where they’re not only stalked by restless spirits, but a spiral of horrific, bloody fates.
After a chilling opening featuring a mother despairing about the mental state of her teenage daughter Naomi, the first chapter, “Seal” takes a hard right turn into yuri-style high school comedy as Naomi enjoys a first-time PG-13ish sleepover with her best friend Seiko, who harbors less-than-chaste feelings for Naomi. By the way, Seiko should be a problem character here: in both the voice acting and the script, she’s played broadly as a lecherous goof and it’s easy to dismiss her as some kind of creepy idealization of a lesbian character. But let’s get back to that and how Team GrisGris overcome this initial characterization in a minute, because there’s a lot of high school hijinks, blood, guts, and vomit to get through.
I should mention at this point, that about 20-30 minutes of game time have passed without interaction–again, that’s par for the course for the format, but it’ll be a while meeting Naomi and Seiko’s friend before you have to make any kind of choices in “Book of Shadows.”
Following their night of girly bonding, Seiko and Namoi join their classmates at an outdoor school festival, which concludes with an ill-advised going-away ritual for one of their friends, sending everyone into a kind of black pit of despair version of a high school. It’s here, in these dark, decaying halls littered with rotting bodies and point and click adventuring, and the horror of a slowly approaching, impossible to escape fate of death for you and all of your friends, along with a save system that’s designed in a way that could completely break your experience with the game.
When you’ve read enough text/gone through the 45 minutes to an hour of VO, you’ll find yourself in the rotting nightmare school, and you’ll have to navigate its lifeless (but not empty) halls as Namoi to find Seiko (just in the first chapter–later chapters offer additional characters from the ceremony who’ve been likewise dumped into this hellhole). Navigation is controlled through a series of tiled locations, and the ones that aren’t blocked off will occasionally offer clues and possible escape routes as you try to prevent Seiko from ending her own life. It’s not a game of challenge–instead it’s one where you follow the different story threads as they unfold and try to simply survive to the end. The limited puzzle gameplay is of the fetch quest variety, interrupted by scripted encounters with vicious spirits and the sadistic little girl who (seemingly) commands them.
“Book of Shadows” offers some limited dialog and action choices, but they really come in two varieties: either they’re yes/no choices where selecting no will simply block your progress and multiple choices where one of the two available options will push the story forward while the other will lead you to a fatal “Wrong End.” If you’re unlucky enough to stumble across one of these Wrong Ends, it’s game over, return to start screen, so be smart about where you save.
I can’t offer any effective advice on where to save: my last save on the second chapter, “Despair” saw my character stuck in a dead-end scenario, absent any available choices, just a repeating series of dialogs before my companions met their terrible demise. The prospect of replaying the entire section (even with the ability to fast-forward through much of the VO/text) was simply too dire and I quit.
It’s unfortunate, because in spite of its overblown writing and very bad foley work (no matter who’s running, you’ll hear the same male “clop clop clop” of shoes on a linoleum floor), “Corpse Party: Book of Shadows” offers up some effective characterizations and troubling situations for its characters. The Naomi/Seiko story in particular is cleverly about one character being too selfish to handle the honest emotions of another, and the tragedy that flows from that. The blood and guts (and you’ll see/read about a lot of both) are no match for a young girl weeping because she couldn’t trust her best friend with her feelings.
Of course, I’ll return to “Book of Shadows” (I always do with these things), but thanks to the save system, I’ll drag my feet on it until I can build up the will to return to those dark, haunted hallways.
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