Well, so far my most anticipated Vita releases for 2015 have (mostly) been serious disappointments.1 First there was Persona 4 Dancing All Night and its numerous issues, and now we have Corpse Party: Blood Drive, a follow-up to the superb (and very under-the-radar) PSP horror title Corpse Party. Unfortunately, Corpse Party: Blood Drive is most certainly not superb. Quite far from it, actually.
Let’s look back at the original game for a moment. Corpse Party was a horror-themed adventure game that began life as an RPG Maker project on the Japanese PC-98 computer, and eventually wound up on the PSP after numerous remakes and revisions. It’s the story of a group of students (and a teacher) who wind up trapped in the abandoned, cursed Heavenly Host Elementary after performing what they think is a harmless friendship ritual, but is actually a rite to enter an evil alternate dimension. Heavenly Host is a long-abandoned school that was the site of numerous horrific happenings, filled with numerous tortured souls who want nothing but to inflict their pain and suffering on others in the most agonizing ways possible. Its roots as an RPG Maker game were obvious in the visuals, which consisted of 2D sprite graphics and top-down environments, as well as its simple interactions, which made it more of a 2D horror adventure game than a “survival horror” experience.
Corpse Party was unusual in many ways, but it worked wonderfully as a horror game: the sprite visuals were incredibly unsettling once the awfulness of Heavenly Host began to set in, the sound design and voice acting was nothing short of amazing (listening to characters’ death throes is nothing short of terrifying), and the technical/engine limitations meant that most of the game’s scariest scenes were told through only text and sound – making them even more effective than if they were purely visual. (You can only see so much hyper-detailed viscera before it loses its impact, but detailed descriptions and sounds of pain and suffering can be absolutely brutal.) The characters were engaging, and they interacted quite well with each other, revealing lots of weird and unique little personality quirks (some far more disturbing than others).
That’s a brief summary. If you want a more detailed review of the original Corpse Party, I shall point you in the direction of friend-of-the-site Gaming Hell!
Anyhow, despite being a PSP exclusive, the game seemed to do well for publisher XSEED – in fact, we wound up getting a collection of side stories (and a brief prologue to Blood Drive) in the 2012 release of Corpse Party: Book of Shadows, which took the game even further into adventure game/visual novel territory. Some folks found it disappointing, but I enjoyed seeing more about the characters and setting of the game as revealed through its various vignettes.
So how does Corpse Party: Blood Drive manage to screw up such a good thing? Oh boy, where to begin…
Well, for starters, this game is a technical disaster. Rather than the 2D sprite visuals of the previous games, the developers at Team GrisGris opted to bring the Corpse Party universe into full 3D polygon-rendered graphics. Unfortunately, it’s abundantly clear that they don’t really know how to make the pseudo-adventure/visual novel formula work in 3D on either a technical or a gameplay level.
The engine the developers opted to use was Unity, which probably elicited groans from more than a few of you as you read that. Unity is a perfectly fine development engine that can be (and has been) used for some really good stuff. Sadly, because of its ease-of-use, low cost, portability, and availability of pre-made assets, it’s also got a reputation for powering some of the most amateurish, technically incompetent dreck on the market.
Blood Drive certainly doesn’t do Unity any further favors. This is one ugly game, and not in the ways the developers intended. The character models are those squat little things that were all the rage around the Dreamcast era, with about as much detail (they don’t even have fingers rendered out!). They’re placed against the backgrounds of a deteriorating, transforming Heavenly Host Elementary that is simultaneously overly- and under-detailed: there are some detailed textures for things like floor/wall surfaces and weird bio-growths, but the assets get recycled constantly and are placed in such a haphazard way that you can clearly see how things fail to mesh together. Even worse, the framerate starts to chug when there’s even the slightest bit of action occurring onscreen, including when text is printing (very slowly, I might add).
The poor visuals don’t just affect the way the game looks, it has a tremendous effect on how the game plays, and ties into a host of terrible additions to the core game design. Unlike the original Corpse Party, which lay most of its traps in very specific gameplay sequences, you’re constantly facing threats as you go through Heavenly Host. Trip wires and broken glass littered about will slice you up as you go down the halls, spirits will pursue you as you wander the classrooms, and fleshy appendages will snare you should you foolishly run over a patch of biomass. You get an automatic Game Over when you run out of health, so not getting snagged by too many hazards is important. The school is also much darker than before, so you’ll need a flashlight to be able to see these dangerous obstacles more clearly – but you’ll also need to keep a supply of batteries on hand.
That doesn’t sound too bad, but a lot of this stuff is hard to see even with the flashlight on, thanks to a combination of the poor framerate and the object renders just not looking right. Collision detection is also pretty abysmal: you’ll frequently run into things you thought you cleanly avoided, and get stuck on scenery that it looks like you can pass right through. Things like the trip wires don’t have a very clear hurtbox, so you can sometimes run into them (and take a lot of damage) when you’re just trying to get close enough to disarm them.
The awful collision is most infuriating when it impedes you during crucial story sequences. There’s one scene where you have to outswim an approaching monster, but you’re stuck in a muddy pool filled with debris where you can barely see where you’re going, and you will get caught on something you can’t really discern at least once during your escape attempt. (In fact, you’ll probably fail a few times – and hey, there’s a lengthy plot sequence just before this escape, oh boy! Enjoy seeing that several times over!) The worst was a bit towards the game’s end where you need to retrieve an item in a room beside a pair of pendulous swinging guillotines. What you need to do is clear: run in when the timing is right, dodge the blades to grab the object, then time things right again to run back out. Yet the camera angle and unclear collision on the blades make the sequence an exercise in complete frustration – I must have gotten sliced and had to reload my game about fifteen times over trying to get past this part. Hell, I almost quit right there.
(And did I mention the load times? Holy shit, this is almost on Sonic 2006 level. Load times are absurdly long when entering new areas or loading a save file, and they are everywhere: Every room loads, the status screen loads, the selections from the status screen load… did nobody try to optimize this? )
Compounding the numerous failures of the transition to 3D is the fact that Blood Drive is not well designed. The biggest issue is that the game is incredibly bad about telling you how to progress, meaning you’ll often need to scour the entire school and all of its dark, samey-looking halls over and over in order to find what you need to proceed. Hell, sometimes key things will just appear in places you were in earlier with no indication that they now exist. The original Corpse Party had issues like this as well, but I sure don’t remember them being quite this bad.
Making the aimless trudging through the school worse are the hazards. I mentioned some of the issues with adding traps and pursuers above, but their problems actually run even deeper. Your flashlight batteries deplete over time, meaning that if you can’t figure out what you’re supposed to do you may eventually find yourself stumbling through the dark over all manner of obstacles that hurt you. It’s an annoying extra layer of resource management that is meant to add tension, but only delivers frustration. (You can turn unlimited batteries on with the select button, which I highly recommend doing.)
That’s not all, though. Occasionally you’ll be seen by a pursuing spirit and, if you haven’t picked up a talisman to exorcise them, they will tail you relentlessly. You’re supposed to be able to hide in certain spaces to wait until they pass by, but this will fail about 9 out of 10 times. You don’t want to have them bothering you when you’re trying to look for stuff, so you’ll just need to find a save candle and reload the game to make them go away. Yes, exploiting the system is the most effective way to make them stop. A perfect example of poor design.
Do you get the idea that this is pretty miserable to play yet? Surely, though, the plot and the many scary moments would make up for its faults, as they did in the original! Or so I told myself, many times over, as I slogged my way through in attempts to justify why I was spending my time on this.
Blood Drive picks up right after the last part of Book of Shadows, after things got royally screwed up. A massive series of dialogue dumps at the game’s beginning sets up the return to Heavenly Host and introduces several new faces to the cast. I can’t possibly imagine jumping into this without having played the original Corpse Party: there are so many characters and events that the game assumes you have knowledge of that you’d likely be totally lost starting in from this point.
Anyhow, the story makes it clear that the supernatural happenings are affecting more than just the evil dimension Heavenly Host occupies, which means that now the real world is in danger, too! Yes, Blood Drive suffers from a problem that many horror follow-ups face: it has to up the ante somehow, and in the process of doing so, it destroys our ability to believe in and relate to the story.
Why does this matter? Much of the best horror fiction works because it’s relatable to our own fears and insecurities in some way. This is also true in the games space. Silent Hill 2 is a perfect example: it deals with very real human emotions and struggles made manifest in frightening ways. Even the original Resident Evil utilizes a fearful, relatable scenario: “You might be skilled, but there are things out there that can surprise and overpower you no matter how well you prepare.” Corpse Party played on the fear of naivete leading you into a hopeless situation in which you’re powerless and alone and everything is against you, and it worked very well in that regard.
But when you introduce a character that’s basically the female equivalent of Zaizen Jotaro (complete with seemingly unlimited money and influence) and start tossing in a bunch of super-powered underground magical societies into the mix? That’s when the relatability really begins to erode. By the end of Chapter 6 the plot has taken a hard left into complete JRPG cliches, and though the situation that results is very briefly distressing, plot contrivances quickly solve problems and suck all of the scares out of the scenario, leaving just a series of fetch quests before a final boss encounter. (Don’t even get me started on how awful the last boss is.) The other games delivered plenty of hair-raising moments throughout, but all of the horrors on parade here just feel rote and expected after a while.
So, yes, the story is weak, all of the new characters are generally unappealing or too ridiculous for their own good, and the whole thing just kind of ends with a wet thud. My only feeling after the end credits (and the followup stinger) was just that of head-shaking disappointment.
I’ll just say it outright: Blood Drive is a bad game. It’s not even bad in the fascinating ways that most of the kusoge I “study” are, it’s just frustrating and completely unrewarding to play. The gameplay is awful, the story is poorly paced and quickly becomes ridiculous, the visuals are a bloody mess (and, again, not in the ways the developers intended), and the whole thing feels like it’s just barely held together with duct tape and entrails. But hey, at least the sound’s still great – plus you can unlock a voice sample playback machine featuring the utterances of Our Lord and Savior Based Sugita, so that’s a (small) point in its favor. The CD and artbook with the physical version are pretty nice, too! Shame they’re packed in with such an utterly disappointing piece of software.
What worries me is that apparently Corpse Party 2: Dead Patient, which is being released episodically on PC, will also be using this engine from this point onwards. As much as I’m intrigued by a totally new setting and characters, I really don’t want to deal with the same awful tech and gameplay issues that plagued Blood Drive again.
So while the Vita isn’t as dead as many claim it to me, my excitement for the Corpse Party franchise is now officially buried. It’s gonna take a lot to exhume my enthusiasm after this horrible horror experience.
- Ultra Despair Girls was riveting, though certainly janky at points, so at least there’s that. ↩