Every now and again, the world seems to collectively decide that the way things were X number of years ago was the peak of culture. This happens everywhere: Fashion, movies, makeup, and even language tend to rely on this ever-revolving cycle of nostalgia, fuelled by a yearning for the childhood memories of whoever happens to be in charge.
Video games, despite being a relatively new medium, are not exempt from this — although the exact games and aesthetics that we are nostalgic for vary from person to person. You can feel the nostalgia seeping through the screen in games like Lucas Pope's early Mac-inspired 1-bit game Return of the Obra Dinn, or La-Mulana's imitation of old MSX visuals. And now, in a twist of the knife for anyone over 30, the nostalgia cycle has hit the DS game era, in the gorgeously chunky outlines and delicious dithering of upcoming Switch game, Demonschool.
We've had our mitts on a (PC) demo of the game, and we've also had the chance to chat to Brandon Sheffield, the director of Necrosoft Games, about the inspirations and intentions behind Demonschool.
There's no "i" in "teen"
Demonschool is a 2D/3D hybrid game about teens in a school that has been invaded by the Yakuza and demons, whom they'll have to tackle head-on in tactical battles, interspersed with Persona-like downtime and side quests. But Sheffield emphasises that it's not a tactical RPG — it's an RPG with tactical battles. The difference comes down to speed, he tells us. Tactics RPGs are slow and methodical; Demonschool is all about speed and efficiency.
Faye just really wants to kick everyone
Each tactical battle takes place two turns at a time — yours, and the opponent's. Instead of a slow-paced chess game of movement and attacks, Demonschool asks you to make all your moves at once, but allows you to take all the time you need to plan them, with nine action points to spend and unlimited rewinds and do-overs until you're ready to press End Turn.
Each of your four teen characters has a particular set of skills, from the smart photographer Namako to the spunky firecracker Faye who just really wants to kick everyone, and they pair up in interesting ways if you get the moves just right.
Flanking a demon and punching him will create a combined elemental attack — or you can use healer Knute to "heal" a character with full HP, which will instead give them an attack boost. It's all about "creating opportunities for fun combos," says Sheffield, and when we got the chance to try it out for ourselves, we could see what he meant — being able to execute the perfect cascade of combos after careful iteration made us feel powerful.
But the more moves one character makes in a turn, the more action points they will use from the shared pool. This is to make sure that players are "incentivised to use everyone," Sheffield tells us, and it means that you don't end up with that Fire Emblem thing of having one beefy OP character and a bunch of weaker ones. Sure, we ended up liking Faye (the kicky one) best, especially as she's the main character, but Faye's no good if she's the only one tanking all the damage and using up a ludicrous amount of action points.
Do, or do not; there is retry
It helps that the game is what's known as a "small numbers" RPG, where all the characters have about 5 HP, attacks do 1-2 HP most of the time, and even bosses only just dip into the double digits. This is in opposition to "big numbers" RPGs, where you'll see astronomical figures popping off of enemies like you're reading a financial report.
Demonschool's small numbers make every attack and every choice feel monumental, and battles can be over in just a few well-chosen moves... but on the other hand, it means that HP loss is always catastrophic and undesirable, because losing 1 HP when you only have 5 is a huge percentage.
Luckily, there's no punishment for loss, and Necrosoft even decided to add in a little concession to those finding it too hard. Losing a battle offers you three options: Retry, quit, or skip. "It lets people enjoy the story if they like," says Sheffield — and knowing that there's a safety net is encouraging enough to make you keep trying.
It's tempting to think that a skip feature makes the game too easy, but Sheffield says this isn't the case. Necrosoft took the game to PAX with the skip feature built in, and apparently no one complained that it felt like cheating. After all, it's self-selecting: Those who want to skip, can, and they'll be glad for the option. Those who don't want to skip will just retry.
When you're not fighting, you're hanging out, like most teens do when they're not saving the world. You can find small side-quests and conversations, throughout the town, decorate your base (a classroom, of course) in different styles, play arcade games, and get to know your fellow demon-fighters. It's not clear yet where this will go (kissing?!?!?!) but we spent our time trying to butter up Demonschool's resident himbo, Destin, in a memorable scene in which he told us he likes his milk "chunky". Mmm.
There isn't a great deal of writing in the demo we played, but what was there was always snappy, funny, and suitably teen-esque without being unbearably lame or boringly grown-up like a lot of adults-writing-teens. These kids make fun of each other, banter, and riff off each other like old friends. Our teenhood was never this high-stakes, but we can see shades of ourselves in these characters all the same.
Plus, it's always reassuring when a character is so well-written that you legitimately fall a little bit in love. Destin, you may not be smart, but you're charming.
Devil Survivors. Demon School. DS. It's no coincidence
As for that DS-era aesthetic, it's entirely intentional too, of course. The Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor games on DS were a huge source of inspiration, and that's perhaps the clearest through-line there is in Demonschool's ancestry.
The stylish, comic-influenced UI recalls the loud, proud text within the Persona and Danganronpa games, and the combination of 2D sprites and 3D backgrounds — which Sheffield tells us is supposed to thematically represent the 2D human world and the 3D demon world combining in a visual clash — is emblematic of that particular era of handheld games, when companies made up for a lack in hardware power with bold artistic choices.
And yet, Demonschool manages to point to these references without being a replica; it serves entirely its own look, pulling from visual elements like police tape, high-contrast comic book shading, and hazy '90s memories of school computer labs to create a cohesive, original whole. It's always a treat to get to witness the birth of a new aesthetic, and Demonschool's DS vibes have had us hooked from the start — in no small part due to it tickling our nostalgia bones juuuust right.
the enemies theatrically spew poison and blood like an enthusiastic NCIS extra
But it's not just games that served as the touchstones for Demonschool's particular brand of the supernatural. Visually, the team drew from Italian horror films like Lamberto Bava's Demons and Dario Argento's Suspiria, as well as Japanese horror manga and the Japanese art of ukiyo-e, as starting points of discussion when designing the demons and the world. These influences can be seen in interstitial manga-style frames and in the gorgeous gore of the enemies, who theatrically spew poison and blood like an enthusiastic NCIS extra.
Nowhere else is this gore more thrilling than in the boss design. We were able to see (and fight) one particular boss — a big ol' skeleton with too many hands, whose brain and eyeballs would pleasantly pop out of his skull and land squelchily in front of your heroes in one of those Zelda-like "here's my weak spot, lads" moments. Except far gorier than Zelda would ever dare, of course.
Sheffield tells us these bosses are designed as a "fun wrench to throw into things," and — this being a small numbers RPG — none of them are particularly hard. Like the best of Zelda bosses, there is a trick to each one, some small puzzle of interaction to figure out — and until you do, you won't be able to defeat them.
Capturing the uncapturable
But if Demonschool nails one aspect, it's that sense that we all had as kids that games are something magical and incomprehensible. As games journalists, we've seen a lot of what games have to offer, and it's easy to become jaded, taking for granted the incredible leaps in technology we've seen during our tenure. Photorealism? Sure. Lifelike animation? Yeah, okay. As impressive as utterly realistic perfection is, it's not the same as what Sheffield calls the "how did they do that?" feeling.
Sheffield recalls a particular scene in David Lynch's film interpretation of Dune, involving a scale model of the Atreides spaceship — a large lemon-reamer-meets-tin-can looking thing — for a scene in which the Duke Leto and his family emerge onto Arrakis for the first time.
The final effect was achieved with a spectacular combination of real-life sets and this scale model, and Sheffield remembers being blown away when watching the film, being simultaneously taken out of and deeper into the experience as he tried to figure out how it was done.
It's that feeling that the Necrosoft team is trying to elicit in Demonschool's players — and we'd say they managed it. The game's unique blend of aesthetics and the unnerving Dante's Inferno-esque demon designs (which include the aforementioned skull guy and a big chompy mouth) set the player up to feel untethered in a world that's falling apart at the seams, invaded by forces both unknowable and very kickable.
We only had a small taste of what Demonschool is all about. But much like that big chompy demon, we're hungry for more. The Persona-like school downtime and the Buffy-esque feeling of being the only ones who can stop the demonic chaos invading our town is enough to get us feeling nostalgic for the 2000s, but the blend of snappy tactics, original visual style, and modern, witty writing has us glad that we're in Necrosoft's vision of the future of games.
Our thanks to Brandon and the Necrosoft team. Demonschool is coming sometime in 2023.