Dead or School is the kind of game that you’ll know if you love it from a single glance at a screenshot. Made by the three-man team Nanafushi, this indie hack ‘n slash raised around $6000 on Indiegogo, a meagre 10% of their goal, but that ultimately managed to keep production going for three years as they finished.
Platform: PS4 Pro (somewhat stable 30fps, some inconsistent frame drops during boss fights)
Set in a post-mutant apocalypse, Dead or School is a story about humans living underground in cobbled together shelters connected by sewers, tunnels and subway stations. A young, very naive girl named Hisako wants to break out and see the blue skies above after being inspired by her grandma’s few memories of the surface – a “paradise” called school, in which people ate food, spent time together and had fun.
Hisako dons her grandma’s old uniform and sets out to slice her way through mutants and carve a path to freedom, pulling together a party of companions and exploring the surface world along the way.
…I’ll be honest, it feels like the plot exists as an excuse to have a bunch of fun hack ‘n slash gameplay. That’s not a bad thing, but it does mean that the story that is there is nothing special. It does have some likable characters and a few mysteries to keep things a little interesting along the way though. That said, even that is unfortunately let down a little by its presentation. Dead or School is visually quite rough around the edges. Some cutscenes are pre-rendered and look artifacted and rough, while the visual novel segments are nice but a little basic.
The translation is also a little rough in places, with sentences like “Have you really thought about how long the mankind has been living down here!?” feeling just off enough to be out of place.
The only other small negative detail that I noticed was the UI, which can feel particularly cluttered at times. Thankfully, if you press left on the D-pad you can hide most UI elements, which makes it much easier to look at. That said, it’s not the worst thing ever. Most of my points here have been nitpicks, though collectively they have a detrimental effect on the presentation. Luckily, the gameplay picks up the slack.
While character movement can take a little getting used to, Dead or School plays fast and fluidly. You can really tell that the three-man team put a lot of effort into tweaking and fine-tuning the basic gameplay functions and I was pleasantly surprised.
Hisako’s various melee combos are quick and have room for dodge cancelling, some moves knock enemies down or launch them for aerial combos, and there’s plenty of weapon variety. You’ve got various kinds of guns, grenade launchers and melee weapons to find along the way – I won’t spoil all of them, but let’s just say… rip and tear until it is done, Hisako!
You’re also not left lacking movement options, with a perfect dodge system that slows down time if timed right (think Bayonetta’s Witch Time), double jumps and sprinting. Everything takes stamina, which you can quickly regen by crouching for a few seconds. As you take down more mutants, you’ll level up and earn skill points. The skill system is quite simple and basically allows you to unlock a special move for each weapon type and various passive buffs to increase weapon durability, critical hit chance, backstab damage, etc. It’s also really nicely presented on a chalkboard-style menu, which Hisako draws on as you unlock skills. It’s cute, and adds a bit of levity to what could be a dull moment.
Save points function as a place to fast travel and, uh, save, but you can also change, adjust and buy equipment. Weapon adjustments use two currencies that drop relatively frequently from mutants, and come in two forms. Firstly, upgrades boost the damage and durability of your weapon, while modifications add abilities (such as damage boosters and weapon effects).
When the action gets going, it can be really intense and honestly pretty fun to solve combat situations using whatever equipment you’ve decided to bring. If a group of mutants jump in to attack you, you may want to use something more explosive to take them all out in a group. Sometimes flying enemies are just a real pain for melee to hit, a more precise weapon might be the better choice.
If your life drops below 20% you’ll see a short scene of Hisako’s uniform being damaged, which lands you with the grand prize of!…a temporary buff. This isn’t a certain bouncy ninja game though – while Hisako’s clothing is damaged, it doesn’t explode off. It just takes a slightly damaged effect, accompanied with a red glow to warn you to be careful.
As you explore, you’ll find collectible souvenirs and save various refugees trying to survive in the underground system. Each souvenir and refugee has a backstory, and the refugees come with some cute little cutscenes that help give you downtime from the action (though, you can always mash through them if you prefer to get stuck in). Some refugees and party members also have nice unique pieces of anime-style artwork to accompany them, as well as custom character portraits during dialogue. Even if you aren’t a fan of all the little dialogue scenes, finding them upgrades Hisako’s abilities and stats, making them really worth hunting down.
The map pretty much tells you where they all are, so it’s more a matter of figuring out how to get to them. There’s a lot of emphasis on platforming and unlocking new abilities to progress further – it’s classic Metroidvania-style progression wrapped up in a loose bundle of what I like to call “anime funsies”.
Every now and then you’ll also enter strong enemy encounters – these enemies are designed to totally obliterate you, typically being a few levels higher with attacks that hit hard. Thankfully, the punishment for dying is quite generous – you lose some money and go back to the last save point, but you get to keep any items you found along the way. If you push through and manage to kill them, you’ll unlock new paths to take and a bunch of good drops for upgrading your equipment. They’re tough and can be a bit damage spongey, but are worth the risk. If you’re really lucky, you’ll get a strong encounter that is actually just a weak enemy that runs away quickly – but if you defeat it, you get a horde of money and upgrade items.
Dead or School features very little voice acting, but what’s there is fine and helps convey the kinds of characters on screen. The soundtrack is generally pretty good, flipping between metal and alternative rock to really pack a punch during some fights. At an early point in the game Hisako receives a distress signal on her iArm (not the most imaginative way to name a glorified smartwatch) and a really intense track kicks in that genuinely does relay the urgency the characters are feeling – I was just sad when the track ended. You later save someone from mutants and are treated to a hilariously over-the-top victory theme that honestly made it feel like I’d beat the game. For a second, I thought I’d suddenly started playing The Wonderful 101.
There’s a lot of care here.
The time spent in early access really shows. Despite how the game is visually rough around the edges, it’s also relatively glitch-free. The only frequent issue I had was occasionally clipping into the floor when changing weapons while walking, but that’s easily corrected by just stopping moving and starting again. You can really feel how much care the team at Nanafushi put into School or Dead, and every moment is a reminder that this game was absolutely a labour of love.
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Dead or School Review Verdict
Overall, I do find it hard to recommend Dead or School. While I love how fast and frantic the gameplay can be, the presentation really lets it down. If you’re going into this hoping for a well-told and exciting story with nice cutscenes you might be let down. It’s hard to recommend picking it up at full price, especially when there’s so many other games that do a similar thing with better visuals.