Dead or School is a game full of obvious jank: likely the product of a tiny team of three working on a very tight, crowdfunded budget to realise a very – perhaps overly – ambitious creative vision. It’s questionably optimised, particularly in handheld mode, where it chugs quite a bit. Its 2D sprites appear obviously paper-thin when the camera shifts to a slight angle. Its pre-rendered cutscenes look considerably worse than the in-game polygonal backdrops, which already look a bit dated. And its huge (albeit lovely-looking) interface occasionally covers up the action.
Yet somehow, there’s some real magic at work here; the core appeal of the game is such that all of these issues simply cease to matter after just a few minutes because you’ll be having too good a time to notice. What we have here is a wonderfully enjoyable 2D side-scroller that deserves a lot more attention than it’s probably going to get. It’s such a fundamentally satisfying, good-natured experience that has clearly been put together with such love it’s hard to be mad about anything it could do a little bit better.
Dead or School is a post-apocalyptic tale, developed as a speculative side-story to director and artist Mokusei Zaijuu’s self-published sci-fi manga Machine Doll Nanami-chan. More than seventy years have passed since a war between humanity and mutants – a conflict which drove mankind underground and left the mutants to roam unchecked on the surface. The people have, for the most part, accepted their lot up until now – at least partly due to the fact that no-one seems to be able to remember the details of the war or where the mutants came from – but the third generation of subterranean humans are restless.
Protagonist Hisako is one of these third-generation underground residents and is fascinated by the forbidden world above. She learns that there were once places called “schools” on the surface, and that young people could gather, learn and play together there. Irresistibly drawn to this symbol of hope, Hisako wishes to do what she can to take back the surface and build a school where she and her friends can live in happiness. Her grandmother, recognising a fire in Hisako’s eyes that she hasn’t seen in anyone else for a very long time, gives the youngster her old school uniform, and encourages her to gather some allies, arm herself and do her best to realise her dream. Because what does humanity have to lose at this point?
The premise might initially seem ridiculous, but it’s actually the catalyst for an interesting, very sincere narrative that uses its lively, naïve protagonist to deliver a message of hope in a bleak world. And, as Hisako starts to uncover the truth behind the war – as well as the true motivations of several groups of humans that have formed beneath the ground – things build to a surprisingly epic climax with some intriguing twists.
The story is what provides the incentive to progress in Dead or School, but it’s the gameplay where it shines the brightest. What we have here is a huge side-scrolling 2D platformer with tight controls, weighty combat, lots of loot, and some seriously varied challenges of skill, intellect and dexterity.
Hisako is equipped with three weapons: a melee implement, a gun and an explosive launcher. Within each of these categories are numerous variations that handle differently to one another. In the melee category, for example, a fencing sword delivers rapid attacks to quickly chip down an enemy’s health, while a war hammer delivers a huge burst of damage one monstrous swing at a time.
There’s no one “correct” weapon loadout; you’re free to make decisions according to your preferred playstyle and the loot you’ve acquired. Weapons can also be modded in various ways to boost their statistics or add additional abilities to them. There’s a lot of customisation on offer here – though as always with games of this type you’re a little at the mercy of dear old RNGesus.
Enemy types are drip-fed throughout the duration of the campaign, so you’re always seeing new foes whenever you enter a new area. And the sheer variety in enemy types and attack patterns — not to mention the huge bosses – means that all three weapon categories are useful, so you’d better get comfortable with all of them.
There’s also an excellent dodge-roll mechanic, which both provides generous invincibility frames for negating attacks as well as a Bayonetta-style “slow time” mechanic if you scoot out of the way at just the right moment. Watch your stamina bar, though; this is not a game where you can just hammer the attack and dodge buttons and hope for the best.
Dead or School is mostly structured in “encounters”. While making your way from one save point to the next, you’ll run into situations where you’ll have to clear out several waves of enemies before you can proceed. These waves are predefined, so if you find yourself struggling, you can learn them and prepare accordingly before trying again. Until you reach the next save point, you’ll have to clear this encounter every time as you pass; once you’ve made it through, however, the encounter becomes optional and can be bypassed if you wish.
Progression through the game is, in this way, actually rather more linear than the open-looking maps might suggest – though there are numerous branches from the critical path that allow you to acquire optional collectable “souvenirs” and rescue trapped refugees. These are inevitably concealed beyond a self-contained challenge of some description, and many of these segments provide some of the most interesting set pieces in the game.
Deep beneath Tokyo’s “electric town” Akihabara, for example, you’ll find yourself shooting lightbulbs to reveal a path forward into the darkness; elsewhere you’ll be chased up a crumbling building by ever-advancing buzzsaws, invited to play an arcade machine that has somehow survived the war or even provided an opportunity to perform a guitar solo with a friendly mutant.
Meanwhile, the main path through the game takes you through a wide variety of environments, providing Hisako’s journey with a great sense of scale and context. In one stage, you’ll be making your way through the claustrophobic tunnels of the sewers; in another, you’ll be battling through the streets on the surface as chaos unfolds in the background. There’s always something new and exciting to see as you progress, and it’s this as much as the story that keeps you pushing ever onwards through Hisako’s perpetually satisfying adventure in the hope that one day, she will finally get to school.
For some, the technical jank may be enough to put them off engaging with Dead or School fully. That’d be a real shame, though; allow yourself to get wrapped up in the narrative, the mechanics, the piles of loot, the beautifully designed stages and the game’s wonderful sense of style, and there’s something truly special to enjoy here; an honest-to-goodness hidden gem if ever there was one.