Looking back on our school years, many of us upon reading the title "Dead or School" would probably already have a firm choice of which of the two options they'd prefer to take. That said, this is a review of an indie game due to land on PS4, not a critique of our formative years. Here's what we thought of this 2D side-scrolling platformer from Studio Nanafushi.
Sometime in the not too distant future, mutants start appearing and before long thanks to a virus (think something akin to The Walking Dead), humans go to war to wipe them out. Soon, the mutants are victorious and the remaining humans scurry underground to live in the metro system beneath Tokyo.
That was 78 years ago. Three generations have lived down there, with the latest two never having known the surface. There are very few people who remember life above ground left alive, and all knowledge of the surface world seems to have been forgotten. One day, a kid finds a secret lift to head up top.
Upon being attacked by mutants, they are saved by a girl, the daughter of the chief of the village. She too decides she wants to live on the surface. Her grandmother, who seems to have forgotten everything, tells the girl about a magical place called 'school' where kids make friends and play (which was exactly like our memory of school too).
Upon being handed her grandma's old uniform, Hisako heads off on a quest to find other people who want to go to school - yes, that's the story. She then goes to different stations on the underground saving people.
What we have here is a side-scrolling 2D platformer with JRPG elements. The story is delivered in cutscenes that are drawn in a manga style - pretty much like Valkyrie. We have to say the story was rich and interesting, but we're warning you now that there was one big contentious point for us (more on that later).
The game originally came out in Japan, and for the most part the translations are pretty accurate, with just the occasional misuse of grammar. That said, the issues are hardly noticeable.
In-game, at first feels like the camera is slightly too far away, but before long you get used to it, and actually start to appreciate the positioning. The graphics themselves have an almost retro vibe to them, and while at first, we weren't overly impressed, soon we started to really enjoy the game. We found ourselves wanting to continue, with the graphics suiting the overall tone.
We have to say we had a lot of fun in this hack and slash platformer. The action relies on four buttons - R2 to attack, X for jump, L2 to enable a stronger attack (when you unlock it), and O to dodge. Generally speaking, the combat feels pretty satisfying, even if it quite often descends into a bit of button bashing.
There are three different weapon types you can take into battle: blade, gun, and launcher. You can only equip one of each type, but there are a variety of different weapons to use. For example, you can choose the quick and light damaging rapier, or you might instead opt for the heavy damaging but slower katana.
We liked this strategy element to planning your weapon loadout. You can also upgrade your weapons by using gear and Yen you get from killing monsters or selling old weapons. Not only can you upgrade these weapons, but you can mod them with gear to make them stronger or add things like drones. You can also mod them in a second way by adding special powers such as extra drones or stronger durability ('cause when they break in the field, you're a bit screwed). All told, we really liked the levels of customisation for the different weapons. You can also level up your heroine to add new skills relating to weapon types, like new attacks or stronger damage.
There is also a good variety of mutants for you to take on, with a boss fight on every level. This all harked back to a feeling of those old Mega Drive games we loved so much back in the day. The combat can be hard at times, and often you need to go and level up before you can take on a certain area, but that never feels like a grind. If you do take on more than you can chew, you'll probably end up getting battered. When you hit a certain level of low health, your attacks do more damage. This effect is symbolised by your precious school uniform getting damaged. If you die, you just go back to the start and lose some Yen, at which point you can then warp back to the nearest save point.
Finally, what we didn't like. While the story was interesting, and we liked the female protagonist - some of the dialogue was sexist, and a few of the stereotypical references didn't land well for us. One character's casual comments to a female engineer about how he was surprised that she likes machines made us wince too. Maybe it was an attempt at making a social commentary on the sexism in society by highlighting it, or maybe it was an attempt at humour, or perhaps it was just some tone-deaf writing - either way it was a bit much for us and we thought the whole thing could have done without these aspects.
Those concerns aside, Dead or School is a good game that offered quite a bit of fun. We liked the customisation and combat, and the story was interesting, it's just a shame that tonally it missed the mark. It's game suited to Castlevania fans, certainly, but only those who don't find this sort of questionable content troubling.