They say you should never judge a book by its cover, but in reality, sometimes you can absolutely judge a book by its cover – just take Studio Nanafushi‘s 2.5D adventure Dead or School for example. What assumptions come to mind upon seeing the determined anime girl in school uniform clutching a large sword gracing the cover art? A super-powered woman on a quest to save humanity? Cutesy, overtly sexualised anime women at every turn? Unrelenting, over the top action? For better or worse, that’s Dead or School alright.
Taking place in the tunnels beneath Tokyo 78 years after humanity lost a war against an army of mutants and was forced to live underground, the story follows a young woman named Hisako. Following a conversation in which her grandmother explains the idea of a school and shares stories of going to school before humanity was forced underground, Hisako becomes enamoured with the idea and pledges to fight her way to the surface and start a school, all while wearing her grandmother’s old uniform. It’s a paper-thin premise utilised to turn our protagonist into an otaku fantasy.
As the journey continues, Hisako will encounter various NPCs who immediately fall in love with the idea of attending a school and promise to join her once she reaches the surface. Despite the silliness of the plot, there is some interesting lore to pick up as you travel, usually conveyed through discussions with comrades that detail the goals and priorities of different groups and how they have survived since going underground.
Perhaps the most hard to believe part of the whole story is that humanity could have ever been bested by these bumbling mutants, assuming the enemy AI is anything to go by. As Hisako tears through enemies, it’s not unusual for these vicious oppressors to get stuck on a piece of scenery or stop still and politely wait to be shot in the face, or even get distracted and wander off mid-battle. It’s sloppy, but it undoubtedly injects random spots of comedy into the adventure.
The gameplay is best described as run n’ gun n’ hack ‘n slash n’ loot n’ shoot some more. There’s a lot to praise to be aimed at the game’s core mechanics – the combat is mostly fluid, collectibles all give permanent stat boosts so it feels important to find everything in each stage and the upgrade and customisation options are impressive.
Enemies drop an abundance of weapons, upgrade parts and attachments so every time you reach the next save point and enter the customisation menu, you’ll find that Hisako has accrued enough munitions to arm a small nation.
While Hisako can only carry three weapons with her at any time – generally variations of a sword, machine gun and rocket launcher – the flexibility in customisation allows you to adapt to the situation in front of you. Whether you need to focus on experience and money boosts, extend clips and durability for long sections between save points or exploit the weaknesses of a challenging boss – there’s always the chance to experiment and find what works best.
The game’s biggest weakness is that there’s very little content to break up the copious combat sections, so the it gets repetitive pretty quickly. This problem is compounded by the fact that enemies respawn often, so finding yourself facing inescapable waves of generic enemies that you just bested minutes earlier can make you feel like banging your head against a wall.
In terms of visuals, Dead or School is a mixed bag. While the colourful cast of characters and anime cutscenes look great, many of the environments and animations are far less impressive. Additionally, the small budget that this game was built on makes itself abundantly clear throughout, be it occasional translation errors, a piece of the environment breaking Hisako’s run animation and causing making her float slightly above the ground until a new action is taken, or character shadows looking like a pixely mess that barely resembles its caster’s shape.
The soundtrack is a mound of ear-worms that will keep your head bobbing while you send heads flying. These tracks always compliment the situation well, be it a catchy electronic jingle for more relaxed sections or a classically orientated piece to add a sense of grandeur of Hisako’s fight.
This otherwise excellent audio design is let down by certain sound effects being very grating. For example, one of the attachments you can add to Hisako’s weapons allows her to launch grenades at regular intervals, but the constant high pitched ringing that these grenades give off can deter you from using the upgrade at all.
Dead or School is a fast paced, exciting action game with solid combat and customisation mechanics at its core. While this gets the game off to a great start in the opening hours, the repetitive combat and constant reminders of the developer’s shoestring budget prevent it from achieving excellence.
Dead or School is available for Playstation 4 and Nintendo Switch on 13 March 2020