DEAD OR SCHOOL / DEVELOPER: STUDIO NANAFUSHI / PUBLISHER: MARVELOUS INC. / PLATFORM: PC, PS4, SWITCH (REVIEWED) / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
78 years ago, war forced the residents of Tokyo underground, settling in subway stations and sealing themselves away from events on the surface. After learning of something called “school” from her old grandmother, Hisako decides to head above ground in search of an education. But it won't be that easy. She'll need to travel through seven districts of real-world Tokyo, completing missions and sub-quests, rescuing refugees and battling legions of undead monstrosities both down in the subway and up on the surface. In true anime style, events take a turn for the worse and it all gets very silly very quickly, but the story never fails to be entertaining (despite some shaky English translations from the game's native Japanese).
Each self-contained level is based around a subway station, with Metroidvania-style layouts that prevent access to certain areas until keys or specific items are found. Levels are full of enemies that can be dispatched with either melee or ranged weapons – you can carry three at any one time, and there are plenty of different swords and guns to find throughout the game. Each weapon has its own unique stats and effects, and all can be upgraded (if you have enough of the right currency) and further enhanced with mod chips. Adding some variety to proceedings, several areas move away from hacking and slashing altogether, instead revolving around riding a mine cart, dodging and weaving through the streets on top of a tank, figuring out puzzles, and climbing buildings while being chased by saw blades. Experience points are earned by defeating enemies and completing objectives, and levelling up rewards players with skill points that can be spent on upgrading their abilities.
Dead or School might look like an HD upscaled version of something from the PS1 days, but its anime-style cutscenes – both static and animated – are very well-drawn indeed, although the animated ones are often strangely blurry. The soundtrack is absolutely top notch, to the point where suggesting it deserves some sort of award isn't too much of a stretch – there are some fantastic tracks across a variety of genres, from ambient electro to full-on metal.
Originally conceived several years ago, a failed Kickstarter campaign threatened Dead or School's existence before it even really got started. It's admirable that the project was completed without managing to amass the necessary funds, but budget constraints have lead to a slight lack of polish. The camera often zooms out so far that it can be difficult to see where you are on screen, enemies will sometimes spawn in and stand around doing nothing at all, items get lost under the floor, and combat sometimes feels a bit stilted due to not being able to swap weapons mid-combo. The presence of a stamina meter feels a bit superfluous too – being forced to stop attacking for a few seconds every now and again isn't ideal in a game with such fast-paced combat.
It might sound like it's got more than its fair share of shortcomings, but there's some seriously addictive gameplay going on at the same time. If you're willing to look past a few rough edges, there's every chance Dead or School will grab your attention and not let go until the final bell rings. We'll all be calling this a “hidden gem” in years to come.