IMPRESSIONS: DEAD OR SCHOOL

Friday, May 22nd, 2020

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I’m still not entirely sure what to make of DEAD OR SCHOOL. At first glance, it appeared to be the love child of Senran Kagura, Resident Evil and Parasite Eve. After playing it for several hours, it’d be more accurate to call it a mixture of Senran Kagura, The House of the Dead series and any Metroidvania. In short, it’s a very ambitious game. Though I didn’t know this about it initially, it’s actually a crowdfunded darling by Studio Nanafushi, and it got published by the fine folks at Marvelous. (They probably appreciated the similarities to Senran Kagura.) It’s also a game that combines fan service, hideous mutants, and complex yet immersive combat in one package. The question then is were all those elements able to shine through the layers of awkward design choices?

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At first blush, it’s easy to believe DEAD OR SCHOOL will be a poorly written, derivative mess. And it’s true, there are a fair share of grammatical errors, as well as some very odd choices of punctuation. Despite all that, there’s actually a really compelling story here. It takes the zombie apocalypse genre and mixes it together with Sukeban elements. (I hope I’m using that term correctly.) Basically, a game that shows women can be strong and independent, and not reliant on society or men to save them. And since this is a game inspired by Japanese popular culture, there’s also a good deal of fan service in DEAD OR SCHOOL, such as main character Hisako wearing a sexy school uniform that, when torn, magically increases her power in proportion to the amount of exposed skin. I know some of you are getting turned off already, but bear with me. Despite the silly and over-the-top elements in the game, and despite the aforementioned design problems, there’s a diamond in the rough here.

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The plot of DEAD OR SCHOOL revolves around a cataclysmic war between humanity and horrible humans turned mutants, and the aftermath of that climactic war. Humans have been pushed completely underground, living in sewers and train stations, pretty much any large abandoned space. Things are calm until some silly young girls discover an elevator to the surface, and are attacked by mutants. They’re only saved thanks to the sudden and dramatic intervention of Hisako, who despite her unremarkable appearance is apparently a mutant killing machine. She rips through a horde of them bare handed like a little red-haired Hulk. While I suspect there’s perhaps a reason for her abilities, three levels into the game it hasn’t been explained. Regardless, Hisako is a total bad ass. Filled with her grandmother’s stories of the surface world and the paradise of the institution of schools, she ventures forth to discover the truth and establish a school of her own. Which might sound silly, but in a dystopian nightmare like, say, a pandemic, one starts to appreciate the stability a school represents.

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With the basic concept out of the way, let’s move onto where DEAD OR SCHOOL is strongest: the gameplay. Though it definitely qualifies as a 2D beat ’em up, it’s also very much a Metroidvania. Each area you explore features a series of interconnected rooms, complete with a mini map display. Better yet, as you fight you level up, growing stronger incrementally. You also increase your parameters by fulfilling sidequests and rescuing survivors. Basic stuff like HP or stamina will get increased, but one of the more important categories is weight. Every weapon you have equipped (You can alternate between three different weapons at a time.) contributes to your overall weight. That weight is increased by modifying the weapons with gears, adding new abilities and even randomly changing the weapon’s inherent ability. Just keep in mind, if your overall weight ever exceeds the upper limit, you’ll be rendered unable to attack, so you’ll have to work within your capacity.

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I love how easy it is to alternate between your three equipped weapons with a press of the shoulder button, and it makes combat fast and furious. The only limiting factor is your stamina. Most of the time I didn’t notice this at all, but when things got hot and heavy, I definitely did. When your stamina is depleted, it takes longer to recover. This is problematic, since stamina lets you do things like attack, jump, dodge, etc. When my stamina was depleted, I’d usually take a hit while trying to dodge, but not have enough stamina to do so. To help counter this, Hisako can crouch. While crouched her stamina recovers rather quickly, so you’ll need to balance your time between rushing, attacking, dodging and crouching. Again, normally not a problem, but when you’re facing hordes of mutants or one of the game’s intense bosses, you’ll need to moderate your actions efficiently.

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If it all sounds stuffy so far, fear not. The combat in DEAD OR SCHOOL is actually really fun. All the weapons you use have ammo (even the melee weapons like swords, for some reason). Once out of ammo, your ranged weapons, such as flamethrowers, grenade launchers and machine guns, cannot be used at all. The saving grace is that once you reach a save point, all the ammo for your equipped arsenal is replenished. But sometimes it’s a long trek between save points, and the game loves to throw large groups of mutants at you. Often you’ll even be locked in a room until you’ve cleared them out. I worried I’d run out of ammo, and that does indeed happen. Thankfully, your bladed weapons can still be used once out of “ammo”. They just deal half as much damage as they normally would. As a result, I really came to rely on my katanas and axes more than my ranged weapons, though those can also help you in a pinch. Every time you level up, you’ll get a skill point, which can be allocated to a skill tree for each type of weapon. You can bet I poured a lot into my katana, making it deal more critical hits, inflict backstab damage to foes, and even unlocking a powerful whirlwind slash. That said, it’s important to deposit skill points in each tree, since you never know what passive abilities you’ll find there, such as increased stamina or extra durability for your weapons.

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About Josh Speer

Josh is a passionate gamer, finding time to clock in around 30-40 hours of gaming a week. He discovered Operation Rainfall while avidly following the localization of the Big 3 Wii RPGs. He enjoys SHMUPS, Platformers, RPGs, Roguelikes and the occasional Fighter. He’s also an unashamedly giant Mega Man fan, having played the series since he was eight. As Head Editor and Review Manager, he spends far too much time editing reviews and random articles. In his limited spare time he devours indies whole and anticipates the release of quirky, unpredictable and innovative games.


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