Okay, so there were two major factors that initially drew me to Dead or School. Firstly, it's a 2.5d Metroidvania type of experience, a genre I rather enjoy and have grown extremely fond of over the years.
And secondly, it's got a lot of scantily clad anime chicks in it. What can I say, ya boi loves himself some animated waifus! ;-)
Now I'm not gonna beat about the bush here, Dead or School has a lot of janky-ness. It has some problems with stuttering at times, especially in handheld. Sometimes the camera zooms and, along with enemies flashing and explosions going on, it's difficult to see the action. Graphically the game isn't exactly a looker (especially in motion), with backgrounds and environments being ugly and outdated looking. However, I found the game was still able to draw me in, despite its flaws, and I ultimately had a reasonably good time. The actual gameplay is fun, the combat is weighty and enjoyable, all while the world was rather interesting to explore. But, before we get into that, I guess it'd be easier to get the story and setting out of the way first.
So, the events of Dead or School take place in a dystopian future version of Tokyo city Japan. The human race has been driven deep underground after the entire surface was overrun with mutated zombie monsters. Forced to live in the ruins of the underground railway networks, it's been three generations since humanity lived on the surface with only the oldest amongst them even remembering what "normal life" was like. You play the role of a teenage girl called Hisako, one of the third generation to be born underground and, like many her age, she isn't as fearful of the surface as many of the older generations are. While their grandparents and parents are happy with the status quo, the kids dream of something greater and of seeing the sky with their own eyes.
One day, after some of her peers get themselves into a spot of trouble, Hisako finds herself having a heart to heart with her very elderly grandmother. She listens as the old woman recounts her youth and tells stories of a mysterious and magical sounding place called "School", and is instantly enchanted. Irresistibly attracted to the idea of a place where young people could gather safely, while playing and learning in a peaceful environment, Hisako decides she must bring this lost institution back from the dead. Donning her elderly grandmother's old school uniform, she's given control of one of the last functioning trains and uses it to travel through iconic locations of Tokyo, battling zombies and mutants all the way, gathering allies and finding a place that they can turn into a place of learning.
Will Hisako be able to find salvation at SCHOOL, or is the entire surface world just plain DEAD?
The story is told through a series of still images, with dialogue shown in a text overlay. The actual artwork used here isn't the best but looks better than much of the terrible polygonal backgrounds used in-game. These still images are fairly average looking for the most part but look particularly better in one type of situation, almost like this is where the most effort was put in.
It’s whenever the girls are in trouble.
Quite regularly you'll find Hisako, or her female allies, getting into scrapes where they're being restrained, or held down, or having their clothes ripped off. These scenes always include them in certain poses, with emphasis on certain areas of their anatomy. In fact, there's even a mechanic where if Hisako gets hurt too much, her clothes explode off increasing her power. These "fan service" situations don't go over the top however, going no further than cleavage and lingerie pics, but it's definitely a major focus of the game. I found them pretty harmless, and actually enjoyable, but if you don't like that kinda thing be warned, Dead or School really focuses on the waifu appreciation.
So as you can probably guess, the actual story motivation, where a sexy anime girl wants to go to school and fights through hordes of mutants to do so, is kinda silly. It helps drive the action along though, using the usual anime trope of having an energetic, naive, go-getting protagonist who succeeds through believing in themselves and trusting their friends!
And using loads of weaponry, don't forget that.
Not exactly Shakespeare, but it's still a pretty decent and fun, if silly, storyline that does a good job of keeping you entertained and of keeping the action going forward.
Which, of course, neatly brings me to the actual gameplay loop.
So, Dead or School is a 2.5d sidescrolling platform game with some mild Metroidvania style moments. The game is made up of different areas, all based around different territories of Tokyo. In one area you'll be walking through the claustrophobic tunnels of the sewers and underground railway network, while the next might be closer to the open levels of the street. You might then find yourself in the abandoned stores of a shopping mall or dodging through giant pieces of rusting clockwork. The areas change their look and features enough that things never get boring or samey, and while they do look janky and very last-gen (or even the gen before that), the different styles do give each area their own feel.
You're given a map of each location when you enter it but I found the "correct" path to be much more straightforward to play through than the open looking map made it seem. There are offshoots from the main path, don't get me wrong, but these usually led to a dead end with some sort of optional extra, rather than an alternative path to your objective. These offshoots, or optional extras, usually contain some sort of challenge that when beaten would lead to a reward of extra weapons, collectible souvenirs, or survivors who need rescued. These challenges usually ramp up the difficulty a tad and can range from the relatively simple, a battle with a swarm of powerful enemies or a sub-boss type opponent, to challenges that are a little more unique or special. Sometimes you'll be out running an ever-advancing large chainsaw, blasting out lightbulbs to reveal a path or even crazier things like playing one of the last surviving arcade machines or even rocking out with a guitar-playing friendly mutant.
But like I said, these areas are side paths (I'd recommend exploring them though as they're usually entertaining and rewarding) with the main story "path" being more linear and well-marked on the map. The usual routine goes like this: You'll arrive in the area by train, (and my god the arrival animation is BAD) and get dropped off at the beginning of the area, before heading towards the nearest objective, unlocking checkpoints as you go. As you advance through the level you'll regularly trigger enemy encounters which is one of the major gameplay elements. A sort of energy barrier will suddenly spring up, stopping you from advancing or retreating until you've dealt with the threats within. Enemies of various types will then leap from the foreground and from offscreen to attack you in waves. These encounters are scripted, and will always be triggered in the exact same area, with the exact same enemies appearing, so you can learn what's coming and, if you fail or get in trouble, you know what to expect next time and can prepare accordingly. Once you fight your way through to the next save point, the area you've just cleared gets refilled with enemies again but because you've beaten it once, the barriers will now disappear allowing you to just speed through if you want too.
However you'll probably not want to do that as combat is both fun, for the most part, and also rewards you with random weapons and upgrades too. Hisako's combat style is based around three weapon classes: a melee type, a bullet type, and an explosive type. Within each class there are many variations to choose from, all of which function or act differently. The melee weapons for instance range from rapiers at one end, which attack fast but chip away at a health bar, and Battle Hammers that swing slow but do crippling damage, at the other extreme, as well as many in-between. Gun types include assault rifles with huge ammo supplies and low damage, through to sniper rifles that are brutally powerful but have way less ammo. Explosive types have rockets launchers, grenade launchers, cluster bomb grenades and so on. You're encouraged to mix things up and try all the different weapons you come across, utilizing new more powerful variants and discarding obsolete ones. Finding the weapon choice that best suits you is the way to go as there's no "correct" loadout that will work for every situation. You also get upgrade chips that will boost stats of the weapon you attach them to or add abilities like a bullet shooting helper drone and so on. There are a huge amount of weapons and chips to consider and these upgrades are regularly dropped by defeated mutants, and while you're at the mercy of the RNG gods as to what will drop, they come thick and fast so you'll get plenty. The only limit to what weapons and chips you can use is weight: you're given an encumbrance limit and must keep the combined total below this threshold or find your weapons become much less effective. You can upgrade this limit, as well as your health and stamina bars, by spending experience at checkpoints though, allowing the use of more powerful weaponry. The only other consideration to think about is the durability/bullet limit of each weapon. Each weapon has a number associated with it that will decrease with every shot -or swing in the melee weapons case- and when it reaches zero, the weapon can no longer be used until refilled at a save point. Managing your ammo/durability is important, especially if you go up against a boss, as finding yourself weaponless is a death sentence.
As for the enemies you'll encounter, these come in quite a wide variety, with new ones appearing regularly. They range from the simple shambling zombies that slash and bite, to others that throw fireballs, or shoot guns, or lob rocks. There are flying insects, mutant frogs, a ninja-style leaper zombie and many more, all with unique attack patterns and moves. And that's not even including the various unique bosses you'll come across too.
Alongside your weapons, you have one other ability to help you in combat: a Bayonetta style time freezing dodge mechanic. Enemies will flash, giving an indication that they're about to attack. If you dodge just as the attack is about to land, Hisako will roll out of the way and time will freeze for a few seconds. You can then get in a good few hits, doing major damage or even killing the opponent before the flow of time returns to normal. However, you can't just dodge and jump around willy-nilly. All of Hisako's moves are governed by a stamina bar and every action like attacking, jumping, running, dodging, etc will all drain it to a certain degree. Like many other games with this mechanic, you'll need to manage this resource carefully or find yourself unable to dodge or attack till it recharges again.
Now combat is, for the most part, really fun with weighty attacks and plenty of guns. Switching between weapons while watching for the need to dodge and destroying opponents has a responsive and enjoyable rhythm to it. However, just like the graphics, it also has some rather obvious flaws that make it less than perfect. One of the most notable was how cluttered things can get and how it can severely obscure the action. While fighting against larger groups, they can clump together making seeing individuals attacks quite troublesome. They also flash when attacked, indicating you've done damage, but this damage flash can easily hide the enemy's attack indication flash and makes seeing when to dodge their incoming attack almost impossible to spot. Add to this fireballs getting launched, bricks and debris getting flung, explosions going off and the animation for enemies jumping from off-screen, and it gets really hard to keep track of what's going on, especially on the smaller screen of handheld mode. There's also a problem with the UI that doesn't help matters. The entire top left of the screen has a large portrait of Hisako, while the top right has a map overlay, and both let enemies hide behind them. I was caught by fire or attacks by offscreen enemies a few times because of this and it gets rather annoying. You can toggle this overlay off but it means you lose the on-screen map which isn't ideal either. Getting rid of the portrait completely and decreasing the size of the map would have been a better choice here in my opinion.
Ultimately, Dead or School is a good game but one that's far from perfect. I'd class it as a fun, but janky experience. Combat is tight and responsive, with many weapons to experiment with and different enemies to overcome. Some weird U.I choices, and some very bad graphics mar the presentation though. Most areas look at least one gen (or even 2 gens in some cases) old and this applies to enemies too, particularly in motion. If you can see past the less than stellar presentation though, you'll find a fun and entertaining title that just might be worth a punt. The Metroidvania/platforming genre is extremely well-stocked right now, with many excellent examples to choose from. While Dead or School doesn't reach those heights, it's still worthy of a little attention. If you can see past all the jank, this could be one to consider.
Note: A copy of the game was provided for the purpose of the review.
Final Score: 7/10
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