Title: Dead or School
Developer: Studio Nanafushi
Release Date: February 14, 2020
Reviewed On: Switch
Genre: Action RPG
Action RPGs can be a pretty fun genre. In some, you can mindlessly beat things up in all sorts of magical ways by pressing a single button, which I find be somewhat cathartic. In others, precise timing is your key to victory as carefully avoiding enemy attacks will then give you the satisfying window to unleash your skills. Dead or School, however, is neither of those.
Dead or School is a 2D action RPG developed by 3-man indie team Studio Nanafushi. You play as Hisoka, a girl who wants to be an ordinary high school student except for the fact that society was driven underground about 80 years ago because of a zombie apocalypse.
One thing leads to another, and she puts on her grandmother’s school uniform in an attempt to bring ideas back to what they used to be. Her ultimate goal is to travel to the zombie-infested cities and clear them out so that she can go to school. A silly premise, but it takes itself very seriously because it just does.
Gameplay-wise you are armed with a melee weapon, either a sword or ax, a gun, and a launcher that causes big explosions. Then all you need to do is wander around and kill all sorts of monsters on a 2D plane. There are also some fancy animations to go with your attacks and platforming sections that lead to the next area.
It’s around this point that I began to notice the problems with the game. During the tutorial, you are informed on how to use a strong attack for each weapon category, but you haven’t unlocked the ability to do so. It’s moments like these that set the course for a visually nice, but extremely lacking adventure.
You see, Dead or School has a skill tree for each weapon type that gives you a variety of perks. The first thing on each tree is the strong attack, but you won’t be able to unlock them all for another three levels. The other perks on the skill tree, however, are all almost negligible, and you will find that nearly every upgrade past its first skill level feels virtually empty. The variety of unlocks is dismal as there won’t be any new attacks offered. Instead, each skill following the first item on the tree is passive.
Luckily, the actual weapon system is a bit more interesting. You’ll get weapons and modifiers from random drops, or you can purchase them at the shop. Furthermore, at save points, you can enter a crafting menu and change your current loadout. Each weapon has one innate passive skill, and two modifiers equipped. You can improve weapon skills using modification cores and upgrade your weapons somewhat by using weapon cores and cash.
Let me just say that these systems are filled with missed potential as upgrading weapons costs an excessive amount of resources for what feels like a waste of time. You’ll need to upgrade your weapons to clear each major map, and then the enemies get so much stronger right afterward. Meaning, you’ll have to throw them out and find some more drops and start grinding again. The actual gameplay doesn’t ever change. Instead, it feels like an entire reset each time you visit a new area.
You have to work so hard grinding levels and equipment just to clear the stages, only for the game to essentially say all that work was for nothing. A devil’s advocate might say that the story is about the cast’s struggles to survive and fight against the broken world they’re in, so it fits. Except that I say the story is told with so much stilted and broken dialogue, it’s a chore to watch play out.
The unorganized nature of the systems can be found in the menus, which aren’t clear about what the options actually are. Standard terms like checkpoints and hub areas not being used. When a supporting character says, “you are nearing the next level,” I thought they were talking about the next part of the stage, not that I was about to level up.
There are numerous instances of ambiguous wording because the translator doesn’t have a clear grasp of the English language. It’s not just the game having an inadequate translation, though, as the overall story also does little with its concept, leading to the impression it’s nothing more than a backing track to the subpar gameplay. A backing track that annoys you every time it decides to play.
Dead or School isn’t all negatives though, the music is pretty great throughout the entire game, even though it doesn’t loop, leading to gaps of audible silence between loops. Also, the boss fights are pretty fun if you’re used to the low budget 3D animations, and you can rematch them with different stats. I should also add that the 2D art is also actually charming, and the CGs and movies are well crafted with the animations looking sharp.
Dead or School’s combat can be fun in (very) short bursts, but it all ultimately falls flat hard and fast. It has the pacing of a freemium mobile game that’s dragging itself thin, begging you to spend money to speed it up. Except you can’t even do that to shorten your own suffering. With a larger budget and community feedback, I’m sure this team can deliver an excellent experience, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find that here.
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