- Developer: Studio Nanafushi
- Publisher: Marvelous Entertainment
- Genre: Role-playing, action, adventure, platforming
- Released: 12/3/2020
I don’t really have many good memories of my time enrolled in mandatory education. School really was a place to just cram curated information into our heads with the ultimate aim to pass memory tests in unusual and extraordinary circumstances. Perhaps I would have appreciated such a system if I had been isolated from it for most of my developing years and additionally been under constant duress from an ongoing mutant invasion forcing surviving pockets of humanity underground. How convenient then that the setting of the Dead or School happens to be thus.
Developed by Studio Nanafushi, Dead or School was created as a sequel to the manga Machine Doll Nanami-Chan. Apart from one or two recurring characters, it isn’t entirely necessary to read through it to fully enjoy the game. It does add perspective to the history of events in Dead or School, but it is wholly optional. The cross-media presence did admittedly perk my interest enough to take the plunge.
Insert ‘late for school’ joke here
Dead or School stars the protagonist Hisako, a young girl born into a war-torn world that has left the surface overrun by zombies leaving only the deeper parts of the underground rail system safe enough to shelter for survivors. She only has stories of better times from her grandmother, fueling her curiosity and desire to see the upper world for herself. Seeking greener pastures and absolutely enamoured with setting up a school, Hisako dons her grandmother’s old school uniform and sets off, sparking the start of your adventures.
The game will have you explore Tokyo’s underground railway systems, in a style not dissimilar to the Castlevania franchise. Each station has quite a substantial labyrinth that hides secrets and collectibles in various nooks and crannies. A mini map tucked away in the corner of your screen keeps track of the rooms you’ve explored, allowing you to fully uncover each station’s shroud while not getting lost yourself.
In keeping with the theme of the game’s surroundings, Hisako’s main base of operations will be a modified subway train that acts as the central nexus of each station you travel to. Additionally, scattered around the stations are save points that also act as healing/restock stations, teleport points, as well as respawn points for Hisako should she bites the dust. These are quite a good amount of them and they provide a much needed respite, especially after dragging yourself through the game’s many danger-filled corridors.
Along the way you will meet (and search for) survivors who will tag along, either enticed or intrigued in your quest for the reestablishment of order through the societal concept of a typical high school. The survivors themselves have seemingly interesting backstories as can be seen in short profile blurbs when you rescue them. For example: one survivor is attempting to pull off culinary experiments using particular mutants walking about. However, at most they act as glorified fetch quests points and overall they contribute very little to the overall plot as you slice and barrel your way through the game.
Let’s get to the meat of the game. You’ll be packing heat as you traverse the game’s nightmarish landscape. Hisako will be able to wield three types of weapons: melee, guns and explosive launchers of various kinds. Right from the get go, the combat feels satisfying. Guns and launchers will have you use the second stick to aim your sights at enemies before you let loose volleys of death. Melee weapons, on the other hand, will have you running up to enemies landing blows and dodging out the way from any counterattacks.
Fighting generally feels great, and this is before we take into account different weapon types and upgrading them. Later on in the game you’ll come to find more powerful and mechanically different weapons. You’ll find then that the game’s weapon system allows one to explore different play-styles; would you choose a sniper rifle with limited ammo and firing rate but crazy damage to compensate, or would you rather run about like Rambo with a machine gun? Fire one mighty powerful explosive? How about three slightly less powerful ones? Add to this different weapon abilities and attachments you can customise, and well… the only thing holding you back from utter domination would be limited ammunition.
While it may be fun to mow a path through the game’s mob of enemies, you’ll find yourself needing to occasionally grind for a bit (yes, the game has a levelling system) to be able to power through as well as be able to take the punishments thrown your way as you proceed. Fortunately leveling is not too difficult, especially if you take the time to search for the game’s secrets, and in turn its collectibles., which includes the aforementioned survivors as well as permanent upgrades to your stats.
How not to die (and cry trying)
I must point out that for some of the aforementioned secrets, you will need to perform some platforming shenanigans to reach your prize and here rears the head of one of the game’s poorer points. Jumping feels imprecise and this makes it especially frustrating in a handful of sections, a few mandatory but most optional. It isn’t impossible to pull off, sure, but the nature of such challenges does make one groan when it shows up again. Certainly made me do so when I attempted to collect everything, which I did, notwithstanding some rather nail-biting and hair-pulling moments.
As you frolic about the game, killing enemies in your way to find that health powerup or more importantly to move the story on, you will eventually meet friendly villagers who hand you flowers… not. Let’s talk briefly about the game’s bosses, and how for the most part they are basically jacked up versions of mutants you fight. There are the handful of unique bosses that do pose quite a challenge… in some cases because it isn’t clear what to do. In a few others, the jumping controls make an unwanted appearance again and you’ll find yourself taking unwanted damage just because. I was able to pull through to the end thanks primarily to the developer’s decision to always have a save point before bosses that you can zip to after you respawn from dying.
Speaking of stuff that isn’t clear, recall that earlier in this article survivors were sometimes seen as fetch quests NPCs? There is at least one survivor locked behind a weird hidden path puzzle that if you aren’t paying attention, you can easily lose yourself running around in circles over and over. It doesn’t help that the visuals for the game is… shall we say a little bit muddy? It definitely doesn’t take the more appealing sides of the colour wheel is all I’m saying.
Overall the game’s flaws really show themselves if you decide to complete the game, collectibles and all. If you can get past grubby graphics and an odd jumping feel though, then you’ll find a fun shoot-’em-up as you run about different parts of Tokyo in your quest to ultimately make a school. The story does contain some interesting twists and turns that are interesting enough for myself at least to pull me all the way through the game. Mileage may vary of course, especially if you’ve got zombie genre fatigue.
Oh, did I forget one other aspect of the game? I think my note has something scribbled here: ‘Torn-up. Uniform. School girl.’ …ah. Yes. That part. Well, the game has a mechanic that increases Hisako’s damage output the more health she’s lost. The developers have decided to visually show this (which does help in the heat of battle to remind you you’re nearing the threshold of death) by having a short gratuitous cutscene showing Hisako’s uniform getting ripped (no nudity as far as I recall) which also shows in her in-game model. All I can say is that the developers know who their primary audience is I suppose (look at the cover of the physical copy). There are also scenes where either the protagonist or her companions get in precarious situations that can be rather risqué.
If all this completely puts you off, then yeah. That’s fair. It’s a decent enough Metroidvania with a really fun combat system, but not one I will shove in people’s face if they don’t want to play it (this crass action will be reserved for other titles).
High school girl gets sword and gun and runs around killing mutants and saving people in order make a new school in a post-apocalyptic zombie-infested Tokyo. Apart from poor visual colour choices, a tricky and imprecise jumping system and some frustrating sections, the game manages to remain fun with good combat and the story was intriguing enough to pull me to see it all the way to the end. Also, the girl’s uniform gets torn to show when her health is critical, just so you know.
3/5 – Cool enough for school