Look, I’ve been sitting here for 30-minutes trying to figure out what to put in this intro. I got nothing. So let’s all just assume I wrote something awesome about my Dead or School review and move on with our lives, shall we? Good? Good. Let’s do this.
Dead or School has actually been out in Japan for a while on PC. Its success leads to PS4 and Switch ports, too. But now its finally come to the UK and the US in all of its side-scrolling, slashing glory. So, with big games just on the horizon is it worth playing before Doom Eternal smashes into our lives, rams its meaty hands down our collective throats, and yanks out our insides before using them as comfy cushions.
The game takes place in Tokyo where a young girl named Hisako lives underground due to the surface having been devastated decades prior to the sudden arrival of mutants. As a member of the third generation of underground dwellers, Hisako knows nothing of the surface world, her entire existence having been spent in underground railway tunnels and stations. One day Hisako’s grandmother tells her about the surface world, especially about schools where kids could play and learn.
Hearing of this magical concept Hisako vows to go to the surface and build a school, and along the way picks up a number of like-minded people who are tired of living in the darkness of the underground. Realizing the determination in Hisako’s eyes the elderly lady gives Hisako her old school uniform and her blessing.
If it sounds crazy that’s because it is. Dead or School takes its inspiration from barmy Japanese animé and Saturday morning cartoons where the narratives can include some crazy ideas. However, once you accept the weirdness there’s actually a surprisingly heartfelt and fun story with a couple of interesting characters and a decent mystery.
The downside is that to enjoy the story you have to be willing to accept a lot of…roughness in the dialog. The issue I have is that I could never tell if it was a case of bad writing, poor translation or if it was meant to be deliberately bad in order to capture the way that many subtitled anime shows can be a bit clunky in English. Or possibly a mixture of all three of those things. There are numerous grammar errors, incorrect spelling, and loads of odd sentence structuring going on, too. It honestly reads like someone with a basic knowledge of the English language translated the whole game from Japanese, possibly with the questionable “help” of Google translate.
Ultimately I assume that the stilted writing is meant to reinforce the tongue-in-cheek tone of the game. The over-use of phrases like “super technologies” makes me wonder if it’s meant to come across as a poorly subtitled anime. If that was indeed the goal then it succeeds, but personally, whether it was intentional or not doesn’t negate the fact that I often found myself re-reading sentences because I wasn’t sure I had read it right.
Most of the story gets told via static images of characters chatting away entirely by text, but occasionally the game tries to throw in a cutscene using its 3D models and environments and OH MY VARIOUS GODS, WHAT THE HELL IS THAT!? These in-game cutscenes are horribly blurred like they’ve been rendered at 240p resolution or something.
Indeed, the first thing that struck me about Dead or School was how confused its visuals are, almost as though it’s a few different games awkwardly shoved together. The main character, for example, is drawn in a sharp, vibrant anime style, but she also appears to be 2D, like a piece of paper running across the landscape. It only gets worse when the camera shifts from its straight-on view to an angle. Meanwhile, the background is fully 3D, looks blurry, and is incredibly boring. It’s a jarring contrast, one that isn’t helped by the fact that Hisako moves and interacts with the environment like she isn’t part of it. It’s difficult to put it into words, but you can see it in the odd angles Hisako stands at or the way you’ll constantly snag on bits of the environment. And the environment itself looks distinctly cobbled together, like how a massive rock will have a railing passing straight through it, or the way that rubble placement makes no sense. To be fair, a lot of people may not notice these details, but I couldn’t stop seeing them once I started.
Ultimately Dead or School would have fared much better if the lovely style of the characters had been applied to the whole game, rather than going for the bleak, low-res 3D world we got.
But let’s get down to how this side-scrolling slasher feels to play. Hisako somehow manages to hide a total of three weapons about her slim person, starting with a basic pokey/bashing thing. There are powerful axes that swing slow but hit hard or nimble swords that don’t burn through your stamina too quickly. Then you get a ranged weapon such as a shotgun, assault rifle, or sniper rifle. Finally, Hisako can whip out her explosive weapon which comes in the form of a rocket launcher, grenade launcher or something similar explode in nature. Can’t go wrong with ‘splosions. And I’m not going to even speculate as to exactly where Hisako was storing a big-ass launcher.
When it comes to employing these weapons in the careful dissection of enemy limbs Dead or School manages to impress, though at first, it can feel clumsy. The key to it all is the dodge system because if you manage to leap out the way at the perfect time then you get a few seconds of slow-mo and a stamina recharge in which to beat the ever-loving shit out of stuff. Speaking of stamina, that’s the second key (can you have more than one “key” thing?) to the combat, because if you run out you can’t jump, attack or dodge until it recharges. Weapon add-ons and skill points can increase your stamina or reduce the amount you burn through, but you’ll always need to keep an eye on it or risk having to stand around like a confused penguin while predators close in.
Changing between your three weapons isn’t as smooth as I’d personally like, but overall the combat feels fun. Enemies just pop into existence and you get locked into a small area with them. While it can be a bit too easy to lose track of what’s going on in the bedlam which in turn makes dodging attacks awkward, the level of chaos usually feels nicely balanced so that you’re put under pressure without being totally overwhelmed.
A lot of glitches and problems show up in the combat encounters, such as enemies getting stuck in the scenery, tumbling into chasms or just standing around doing nothing like they’re waiting for their mum to pick them up outside the local shop. And I’ve got to say that I got stuck a couple of times, too, forcing a restart of the game.
Your skill level can make a difference in fights, but there will be quite a number of times you find yourself being decimated by higher level foes, and that’s where looting and grinding come into. By kicking ass, rescuing silly people who have got themselves stuck and completing one of the very few side-quests you can earn XP that in turns grants you skill points to spend in one of three that correspond to your three weapons. There’s nothing very exciting in these skill trees, but you can boost stuff like your stamina and health, or improve the durability of your sword or the fire-rate of your gun. Solid stuff.
The loot side of things is a little more interesting to chat about because there’s some fun stuff that works and some weaker stuff that doesn’t. Basically weapons come in a few different rarities, and then using Reinforcement Gears and Modification Gears you can bolster their attack power and randomly generate special perks for them, like summoning up an attack drone or just dishing out extra damage. On top of that each weapon can be equipped with two add-ons that will provide more stamina, decrease reloads times or something along those lines. The only limitation is that each weapon and add-on has a weight, and the total weight you can carry is determined by your level, though you can also boost it by a couple of other means.
On the one hand I appreciate how much there is to play around with the system. You can spend plenty of time just tinkering with stats and buffing your gear. What I don’t like is how building a weapon up takes a lot of grinding, but once you find a new rarity level you pretty much have to abandon improving the older version and instead focus on the newer one because. That’s because the new weapon will typically start with lower stats than your current favorite, but will be able to exceed it through upgrading. And you really do have to favor the better versions in order to keep up with the strength of the enemies. This causes a continuous grind throughout the game that can become tiresome. At one point I had upgraded my Common Great Sword to the max level before finally stumbling upon a level 1 Latest version of it. I had admitted that I unleashed a loud sigh because I knew I was going to have to start building up the new sword. I’d like to see some updates introduced to either lessen the grind of improving gear or to have the level of new drops be a bit higher.
The map gives Dead or School an open look but it’s actually fairly linear in nature with one specific path, often requiring some backtracking to get a keycard or explosives. But there’s some opportunity for light exploration with big baddies to find guarding chests, a couple of light puzzles to solve and some daft people to rescue. It’s a nicely balanced offering: focused with a few distractions along the way, spread out across a pretty lengthy game.
You’ve likely already noticed from the images adorning this review that Dead or School is a little…titillating. There’s absolutely no sex, nudity, GH, or even innuendoes in the entire game, but every female character features sizable breasts and there are a few gratuitous images of cleavage and booty to entice the weak-willed among us. To me, that isn’t a problem, but if you aren’t a fan of such things then be warned. Plus, it’s worth keeping in mind that the sexy female characters are very much in keeping with the tongue-in-cheek Japanese anime tone that Dead or School is aiming for.
Dead or School is a weird game, and one that I’ve come to realize probably isn’t in my wheelhouse. Despite that though, there are a lot of things I appreciate about it. In a strange way, it’s like one of the many drawings my six-year-old niece hands me: it’s messy, incoherent, and could never be described as good in a traditional sense, but I love it anyway and I happily display it to the world. That’s Dead or School: it’s visually messy, rough around the edges could probably never be described as being good in a traditional sense, but I kind of like it anyway. The tiny crew of just three developers clearly put a lot of passion and love into Dead or School, and I think it has the potential to find a small, dedicated audience who can love it for what it is.