As the white streaks in my beard either suggest I’m a distinguished gentleman or perhaps, getting on a bit, picking up a game where you play a buxom high schoolgirl desperate to get enrolled into school seems a bit… eyebrow-raising for someone of my ilk? I certainly felt a little pervy playing Dead or School, but that was swiftly dismissed after building my first custom katana.
Previously available on Steam, Dead or School from Marvelous Games, a 2D shooter with RPG elements, is released today in digital and physical editions on the PS4 and Switch. For this review, the beautiful people at Marvelous Europe supplied me with a copy so I could jump into a conversation with:
“Dead or School? Yeah, I’ve finished it”.
It makes me look cool until the other parties realise I get games early and I am not the uber gamer that I am falsely advertising. Regardless, I’ve been able to have a decent bash at the game on the Switch, and here are the results.
Dead or School: An Origin Story
If you haven’t read the news piece, Dead or School is set in Japan in the future. Mutants appeared out of nowhere, they had a scrap with the humans for about three years, but the latter lost. Tails between their legs, the humans retreated to the underground, digging further and further down to avoid any further conflict.
70+ years have gone, and most generations don’t know what it’s like to have lived on the surface. Our protagonist, Hisako, feels there’s something more to the life they’re all living. Her grandmother sees this inquisitive nature and encourages her to venture forth. You see, there’s this paradise that the grandmother vaguely recalls from her memories as a child: school.
A place where people can be together, eat together and learn, Hisako can’t bear it any longer and must set out to experience school. Before she does that, her grandmother hands down to her a school uniform – think of it as a superhero costume. It has no powers or perks, but it gives Hisako the drive to achieve her dream; a sense of purpose.
It sounds utter drivel on paper. A kid that wants to take on mutants so they can attend school? However, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone and school really is a paradise in comparison to the lives that Hisako and her community are living. So, she sets out with a small arsenal with the objective of Dead or School.
Dead or School gave me mixed feelings at first. Almost all the female characters had been an epiphany from a teenage boy’s wet dream; schoolgirls, big boobs and scantily clad, armed with katanas, assault rifles and rocket launchers. But once you get past that, it’s rather good.
The first few areas were a little cluttered with tutorials, tooltips and the like, and in some respects, it was a bit frustrating as it took a while to get into the action without it jarring with ‘To do this, you need this… open the menu…blah…blah…’ However, these game mechanics must be explained as a lot is going on. Once you get the gist of it, Dead or School features a pretty deep, customisable experience based on your preferred style of play.
Build Me A Rocket Launcher
Hisako starts with a sword, machine gun and rocket launcher. All three weapon slots remain the same; only you can customise with various buffs and abilities. The machine gun, for example, can be an assault rifle, shotgun or sniper rifle if needs be – you’ll always carry one of each category, but can interchange at the save points. You can opt to control Hisako with the left or right stick, and the opposite will be used for aiming with your guns, R2 to attack, L2 for a power move.
Save points are interesting as aside from the obvious functionality, they allow you to buy new items, upgrade gear and develop a skill tree tailored to your style of play. As a melee fan, I was swift to upgrade and modify my katana that within the hour, I was wielding a sword bigger than me. I also added two extra parts to improve my experience and stamina. More on the latter in a minute.
As with any RPG-style game, you need currency for upgrades and new items. You can either find this in-game or by selling items you no longer require. In the early stages of the game, I found money to be quite scarce so would sell off any unneeded items early and just focused on my melee game. This meant a stronger sword but also following a skill tree path of melee passive abilities – lovingly illustrated by Hisako circling the items on a chalkboard.
Need More Cardio
Attempting to overpower one weapon leaves you exposed, however. While I could one-hit most enemies with my sword, there were flying enemies and hard-to-reach mutants that needed to be picked off with a gun. Later on, when facing some of the bosses – may I add, they’re HUGE! – you need to have a balance of attacks. While you don’t run out of ammo for the sword or gun (you do with the rockets, understandably), you will run out of stamina.
If you repeatedly attack, your stamina will drop down, limiting you to one hit at a time that will often lag. You’ll consume stamina with your dodge move too, and that’s something that stands out. Some of the lower-level enemies are quite predictable with their attacks so you can time it right, roll past them and perform a backstab. Keep doing this, and you’ll run out of stamina, though it does slowly regenerate.
You can dash too. Hisako can be seen navigating the underground train stations and the surface, but some of these areas are quite bare, and apart from the odd encounter, you may find yourself holding dash to get from one place to the next. She did feel like she was running on a treadmill. Underwater.
Surprisingly Not A Hentai Piece
Which brings me on to the presentation. The graphics were a little underwhelming at first. The animation seemed a little rushed in places, and there are 3D intro scenes to areas and for story progression that looked like they were from a PlayStation One port. These thoughts waned as the levelling up through new weapons and skills was impressive enough to distract me. Though Dead or School didn’t introduce any revolutionary mechanics that will change gaming for the future, it held my attention, and, dare I say, found it difficult to put down.
I also warmed to the cutscenes. Apart from the Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball anatomy, these scenes pushed the story forward and made you root for other characters as well as Hisako. As for the lead, she’s excellent. Her naivety is endearing, the fact that she’ll risk everything to experience school. That’s even if it exists anymore. And she’s that excited? Wait until she has to sit double maths…
Overall though, Dead or School has been a pleasant surprise. It’s a lot less cringe than I anticipated (except for the torn uniform mode when your health is critical). The progression path for your preferred style of play is catered for, i.e. I should move to Melee Island, as that’s the choice for me, and the controls are straightforward. There was never an issue with the platforming sections, combat was intuitive, and once you understand the process for upgrading a weapon, it’s easy as peas.