Dead or School first came to the public’s attention via an ultimately unsuccessful Indiegogo campaign which began in 2016. Thankfully developers StudioNanafushi were able to find enough yen down the back of their sofas to finish their work, and it seems to be paying off as hype continues to build around this zombie-themed 2D action RPG. How does it fare against other titles in the already over-crowded Metroidvania genre?
Dead or School mirrors Metro 2033 in terms of its basic plot. Many years ago mutant/zombie things overthrew the world, and the survivors took up residence in the Tokyo subway tunnels to avoid becoming dinner for the undead. You play as Hisako, the granddaughter of the village elder, who has long-since dreamed of visiting the surface. She has heard of wonderful places called schools, where children play and learn together. The village elder senses the yearning deep with within Hisako’s soul and gifts her old school uniform, which seems to be Link’s tunic for anime waifus. Hisako then sets off to battle her way to the surface. Along the way, she meets various other misfits who also want to be back at school for some reason or other.
If you think this seems like a weak excuse for the main character to be dressed as a schoolgirl I’m afraid you’re not really wrong. StudioNanafushi have sexualised the female characters in Dead or School to the max, with their clothing either skimpy, ripped, seemingly painted on or all three. A particularly iffy moment comes when a character asks you to find her a dress in one of the derelict clothing shops. Once you locate it a mutant intercepts the dress and rips it into something which could have come out of an Ann Summers catalogue. It’s all a bit weird because Dead or School does seem to want to tell a story in its own strange, sexist and confusing way. The main characters even have something approaching motivations and there are fairly legitimate reasons for visiting each location.
Thankfully Dead or School‘s gameplay is easier to recommend. As previously mentioned, Dead or School is a Metroidvania, albeit a pretty simple one. You will never be wondering where to go. This is partly due to chatty side characters and also a map which is pre-populated with places of interest.
In terms of combat Hisako immediately has access to three tools of destruction; a melee weapon, a gun and an explosive launcher. There are a lot of controls to get your head around but controlling Hisako feels great. It’s easy to switch between different weapon types on the fly and movement is precise.
There is even a decent loot system, with loads of weapons to collect and experiment with. Even within each category, there are multiple weapon types. When selecting your gun you might choose a shotgun for crowd control or a machine gun for more targeted attacks. In terms of explosive launchers, the rocket launcher can target enemies in your line of sight, whereas the grenade launcher has a limited range and damage but higher ammo capacity and a potentially more useful firing trajectory. You can upgrade each weapon at save points by increasing its level, adding random perks and also by bolting on up to two modifiers. These might increase the chances of a critical hit, boost your stamina recover or even offer you back-up via a drone which follows you around. There’s loads of room to experiment.
Hisako can be upgraded too. Killing enemies nets you experience, which in turn allows you to level up. Reaching a new level awards you skill points which allow you to upgrade yourself at any time via a skill-tree system. Each of the three weapon types has its own set of upgrade paths.
Each level is set in a different subway station, again sharing similarities with Metro 2033. Levels are pretty linear and corridor-based, although there are platforming sections which work reasonably well due to a forgiving double jump mechanic. In some areas, there are even environmental puzzles to figure out.
There is a fairly wide range of enemy types. You’ll typically be juggling multiple bozos simultaneously, although unfortunately you’ll be coming up against the same basic mutants in their various flavours in most interactions. Frustratingly enemies re-spawn after you visit a save point, meaning backtracking involves killing the same bad dudes all over again, including mini-bosses. You can walk past some enemies but others need to be put down before you can get moving again.
It can be irritating working through multiple sections only to die on difficult enemy and have to start all over again from the save point. Another minor annoyance is that each level has a “Home” save point. This is where you re-spawn each time you die, even if you have visited other save points since you last went there. You can warp to any previously visited rest stop via the save point menu but started you closer to where you died could have saved a bit of hassle.
The durability system adds further challenge. Fighting enemies reduces the durability of your melee weapon, and once it hits zero you may as well be attacking with a rolled-up newspaper. Your gun and your explosive launcher use ammo. Visiting a save point refreshes your durability and your ammo, but there is no other way to top your weapons up so you won’t be able to roam around fighting mutant hordes for too long without touching base.
I found the gameplay got repetitive after a while but StudioNanafushi have tuned Dead or School pretty well. Some of the later encounters are pretty challenging and require you to choose the perfect weapons and time your dodges and jumps perfectly.
Dead or School doesn’t look amazing on the Switch. The frame-rate during cutscenes seems off and there’s a fair bit of aliasing around the edges of objects. Set dressings are pretty plain and the classic subway setting isn’t exactly a feast for eyes at the best of times. That being said I found the action to be pretty slick. It’s as though Studio Nanafushi had prioritised making sure the gameplay was right in lieu of any other optimisations.
The animators have done a good job with the anime drawings between levels. Unfortunately, Dead or School‘s dialogue is so utterly brainless I found it hard to enjoy them anyway. I suspect a lot of the nuance is lost in translation, so I don’t really blame the developers. My only other objection is that it can be hard to see where you are in handheld mode due to the zoomed-out view. The upside of this is that there is a large play area to move around in. This is fairly essential given the need for maintaining good spacing between yourself and your enemies.
Dead or School has an excellent symphonic rock soundtrack, and my only complaint is that some tracks don’t loop seamlessly. The voice acting is minimal and par for the course. Expect startled squeals and semi-orgasmic murmurs during combat and dialogue sections.
Sound effects sound meaty enough and convey the chaos which is unfolding on screen pretty well.
Dead or School has a fairly lengthy campaign with multiple difficulty levels. I found the normal mode perfectly pitched. I died a lot but I found myself learning from my mistakes and progressing. The loot system means losing a life isn’t usually that upsetting.
I wanted to dislike Dead or School, given the iffy plot and the developer’s reliance on well-worn anime/zombie tropes. The fact of the matter is that it is a competent Metroidvania with tight controls and a nice progression system. Dead or School won’t blow you away. However, if you enjoy games like Contra, Castlevania or Super Metroid I think you’ll probably have a good time.
I give it the Thumb Culture gold award.
Disclaimer: PR sent a code so we could this review.
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