Game Reviewby Dave Riley,
Corpse Party: Book of Shadows
Book of Shadows is a follow-up to 2011's Corpse Party: Blood Covered, which mostly retells the events of the original game through alternate viewpoints or "what if" scenarios.
Corpse Party is troubling.
But a lot of art is troubling. Spec Ops: The Line, a videogame about killing that turns out to be about killing, is troubling. It evokes feelings of despair and disgust, things we do not necessarily attribute to videogames, though maybe we should, or we should at least aspire to do so. This game evokes many of these feelings too, though not in equal measure, and certainly not with equal intent. Corpse Party: Book of Shadows is a difficult game to play.
Corpse Party: Book of Shadows is a game about watching children get murdered.
The story of the previous Corpse Party, Blood Covered, is about a group of students who perform a Bloody Mary-esque ritual and get themselves trapped in the hell-dimension version of a condemned elementary school. There, the living are doomed to be murdered by vindictive spirits, or go insane, or die of starvation. The students are in peril. Some of them die. They concoct a plan to escape. It fails. They concoct another plan. It works! They are home, and safe, but forever changed. It's an interesting enough story and a fun enough game to pass muster, though it's not without its caveats.
The story of Corpse Party: Book of Shadows is "wouldn't it be fun to murder all these characters again?"
There's eight self-contained vignettes, mostly to do with scenarios set in the same time-frame as the original game, as this game is more of a retelling than a prequel or a sequel. The mystery of why the murderous child-ghost Sachiko is so murderous has already been solved, so this game has nothing to do with getting these characters out of a dire situation alive. No, Book of Shadows is about graphically re-showing the deaths from Blood Covered and about "what if" scenarios wherein characters who did not die in the first game get to die in alternate timelines here. There is no guiding thread or ultimate objective, just a slowly mounting gloom as nearly every chapter with a scene of horrific failure followed by a brutal death.
What is the point? Without the driving force of a plot, or the possibility of survival, the whole thing becomes far more gross. Or it is more evidently gross, anyway. Blood Covered certainly had its moments, notably an infantilized fourteen year old whose entire character arc revolved around not peeing her pants. It was also dark because it was also, at its core, a game about killing teenagers, but the point of the game was to get the rest of the teenagers out alive, not to bask in their misery.
Here, the only thing to do is bask in their misery (or be repulsed by it). The change to a visual novel format (Blood Covered was more of an RPG) gives the characters internal monologues and these monologues are filled to the brim with oozy, overwhelming, unnecessary detail. Descriptions are replete with terms like "sappy mucus." A girl details how she is peeing herself uncontrollably. Every inch of every bloody mouth of every decapitated head is defined in as explicit language as possible. And yet, there's no horror here because the descriptions are weirdly objective in their viewpoint that it all might as well have been summarized by a robot. It's difficult to think of any junior high student who could casually describe something like a giant pool of blood filled with corpses and maggots, yet all of them do so with a strangely scientific, strangely fact-oriented bent, and the only way we know they're scared is because the nearly-blase text is superimposed over a still image of them gasping in abject terror.
It would be corny if it weren't so gross. It is corny in the brief moments where someone is not being directly murdered, such as when the game sees it necessary to describe a sick character's "wet, productive coughs" leaving a "film of saliva" or a knife that "struggled to glisten in the dull light of the room, but it did ultimately succeed."
It would be funny if it weren't so unremittingly stomach-turning. The first chapter dangles the scantest, barest shred of hope that a dead character from the first game might be resurrected. It is a lie, of course. We expect it to be a lie, because nothing said by a doleful nine year old ghost could ever possibly be true, but still, ultimately, we want these characters to succeed. So we forge onwards through gritty, gross dialogue, with the expectation that there is a point to all this. There has to be. This is a game, which implies there is a goal. It is a horror game, which implies that there is some way to end the horror.
There isn't. That becomes more obvious with each passing chapter. Things reach the breaking point right about when a side-character from the first game, now promoted to a starring role, utters the words "it was an act befitting a psychopathic pedophile" while gleefully imagining some heinous misdeed. He appears to be the only person who doesn't realize he's a sociopath, despite his joyful cataloguing of corpse pictures. And we are meant to take this seriously? Or to believe there is meaning behind it? Or to act as if it is okay?
Book of Shadows treats its characters like garbage. A mid-game episode spends a half an hour with forcing a teenage girl to find a place to hide her piss-soaked underpants. After that deed is done, she guilelessly leads an evil ghost through grisly torture rooms until her unwitting head is smashed in. It seems an exceptionally cruel sort of voyeurism, to create these people for the strict purpose of graphically humiliating and then murdering and re-murdering them. It all feels very nihilistic. It all feels very cold.
And don't think it goes unnoticed that the victims are almost exclusively women, whose brutal dismemberments frequently occur with panty lines showing. In the rare instances where a man is killed it is never garnished with the same loving details. One girl is shown to be so stupid, and so deferential, that she tentatively considers offering pain medication to the man who is about to disembowel her because he complains of a headache. It is difficult to imagine a writer who delights in this sort of mistreatment, and it is difficult to imagine what emotions it's meant to evoke from an audience. Certainly none of them are good, whatever they are.
So what is it that separates this from the similarly misanthropic Friday the 13ths and Nightmare on Elm Streets? Well, a difference in the level of detail, for one, but perhaps it's depth of characterization that's most important. The characters in Book of Shadows are not very deep, but they are deep enough. These people have likes, dislikes, hobbies, aspirations, boyfriends and girlfriends (prospective ones, anyway). They are more than cardboard cut-outs, though they are all relentlessly archetypal. To see them murdered so dispassionately, and so frequently, and in such a vulgar fashion is necessarily discomforting.
Book of Shadows is troubling. It is hard to bear. But it is those things for the wrong reasons, which is to say it is those things for no reason at all. Its writing is suffused with that unbearable combination "prurient with the thin veneer of chastity" that is so familiar to anime fans. When they are not being killed, characters spend long minutes chastely complimenting each others skin and breasts, seemingly the only ones unaware of the inherent sexuality of the scene. The audience can't help but be aware of it. Surely the intended audience craves it. Do they also crave the juxtaposition of senseless, horrific violence with absurdly-virginal-yet-ridiculously-lewd eroticism?
Blood Covered was not immune to these problems, but it is the contempt and inhumanity with which this game treats its characters that makes it so deserving of scorn. That this is done for no overarching plot or to evoke any sort of introspection, just for a horrible sort of titillation, makes it almost too difficult to bear. By the time the game ends -- with a final chapter that manages a half-decent mystery until it screeches to a halt with a smash cut to an advertisement for the next game -- it feels as though nothing has been accomplished except for a slow hollowing of the player. It's difficult to think of a reason to play something so callous, so malevolent, and so lacking in good taste.
Overall : F
Graphics : C+
Sound/Music : B-
Gameplay : D-
Presentation : F
+ The occasional, brief, hint of the supernatural scares and dogged investigation that made Corpse Party: Blood Covered so satisfying
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