Dead or School: A Passion Project Pays Off

I reviewed this game over at Nintendo Life — please go support my work over there, then join me back here to delve into the game in more detail!

It’s abundantly clear when you’re experiencing a creative work that was genuinely special to the people who made it.

The end result of such a passion project might be scraggy around the edges, it might not be technically perfect and you can probably find things that are “better”, whatever that means… but for me, finding something with genuine heart and soul will always trump big budgets and technical efficiency.

And so we come to Dead or School from Studio Nanafushi, a passion project that certainly still has a few scraggy edges even after two years in Early Access on PC… but a game that captured and maintained my attention from the moment I booted it up to the time the last of the credits scrolled off the screen. Let’s take a closer look.

Dead or School’s story began when independent artist Mokusei Zaijuu (also known as Ryouhei Ono) tired of drawing erotic art and sought to fulfil his childhood dream of becoming a mainstream manga artist. He put together a work called Machine Doll Nanami-chan, which he hoped would be his big break.

Regrettably, his initial pitches for the series were met with rejection, but he remained committed to his vision and was ultimately able to release it via the Manga Gocha label.

Machine Doll Nanami-chan is a work of speculative fiction that looks at our relationship with technology. It conjectures that in the future, we will be able to create artificial life — the titular machine dolls — who will be able to serve our every need, whether that’s taking care of us when we’re sick or cleaning up our mess.

Because we all know what happens when robots go out of control, machine dolls were designed with two safety measures. Firstly, outside of their specialist capabilities and artificial intelligence, their independent thought was deliberately limited to be no more than that of a human nine-year old. And secondly, they were fitted with a “robotomy limiter”, which ensured that they would be unable to harm humans — presumably operating on a similar principle to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.

Humans, as we know, cannot be trusted with nice things, however, and within five years, those in charge determined that machine dolls actually probably weren’t a very good idea. The problems Japan was already experiencing with a low birth rate plus high incidences of shut-ins and unemployment were exacerbated by the machine dolls… and those already struggling to fit in with society became overly dependent on their robotic companions. This, inevitably, extended to many owners illegally modifying their machine dolls to provide sexual gratification on top of their usual duties. If you build it, someone will want to fuck it.

Deciding that something drastic needed to be done, the government declared the ownership of machine dolls illegal, and issued all registered owners with dismantling warrants, which became known among society as “Red Papers”, because they were essentially death warrants for the artificial lifeforms.

As you might expect, things didn’t quite go according to plan, with the machine dolls finding a way to circumvent their robotomy limiters and kicking off a devastating war that would ultimately force humanity underground to live in the subway systems.

Some 78 years later, an utterly defeated humanity has forgotten the details of the old conflict, now believing that genetic mutants, not machine dolls, were the ones who drove them from the surface. Most of the first- and second-generation underground residents have given up hope, resigning themselves to a subterranean existence. But the third generation, just now coming into their adolescence, are restless and dissatisfied. They want to know the truth behind what happened; they want to reach the surface and see for themselves.

Dead or School opens as two of these third-generation underground dwellers have uncovered a functional elevator that leads to the surface. Unable to resist seeing what they can see, they head on up… only to discover that all the stories of the surface being dominated by horrible slobbering mutants are indeed true, and that they’re probably about to die, just like everyone had been telling them all along.

Except they’re saved; Hisako, daughter of the Ikebukuro station settlement’s chief, joins a search party for the missing teens when they’re noticed to be absent, and reveals herself to have not-inconsiderable talents in splattering mutants across the nearest wall. But despite her mother’s protestations, hearing her peers’ explanation leads her to find herself irresistibly drawn to the allure of the supposed “blue sky” on the surface… and her grandmother doesn’t help matters, either.

Her grandmother is actually Noriko, protagonist of Machine Doll Nanami-chan, and like the rest of humanity has seemingly lost her memories of the conflict. Except one: the memory of school. A place she remembers as a place of joy and laughter; a place where she remembers learning and playing alongside her friends; a place that Hisako, understandably, wants to know a lot more about.

The fact that Noriko’s memories hadn’t been completely lost is likely due to an important plot point in Machine Doll Nanami-chan, which was that following what would have been a fatal injury, the titular medical machine doll replaced Noriko’s ruined heart with her own core. Noriko effectively became “not quite human” at that point, which, in narrative terms, places her in an ideal position to not quite be in the same position as the rest of humanity.

Noriko recognises Hisako’s fascination with the surface and the concept of “school”, her talent for combat and her personal magnetism and encourages her to pursue her dream of leading humanity back topside. As a symbolic gesture, she even gives Hisako her old school uniform to replace her ragged clothes — and with that, her transformation into badass action anime protagonist is complete.

As you can probably tell, Dead or School doesn’t skimp on its narrative. It doesn’t overdo things with lengthy non-interactive cutscenes, but it does make a marked effort to establish context for what is happening. The intro sequence is there to make you understand humanity’s current situation — though it’s worth noting that it deliberately omits the details from Machine Doll Nanami-chan — and empathise with Hisako, and it works. By the time you’re handed full control over our heroine, you’re ready. And as the narrative progresses, Hisako’s unrelenting desire to fulfil her dream, even as chaos unfolds around her, becomes enormously inspiring.

Dead or School unfolds as a side-scrolling action adventure. It’s not quite an open-structure 2D platformer and it’s not quite a linear progression of levels; it’s somewhere in between. In most cases, you’ll find that there’s a clear critical path for you to progress through each of the game’s eight huge stages, but there are often optional little diversions you can make — or in a couple of cases, alternative orders in which you can do things.

Controlling Hisako, it’s your job to explore the networks of underground tunnels and caverns beneath various Tokyo landmarks, rescue trapped refugees, recover souvenirs of humanity’s lost age and ultimately determine the truth of what’s going on.

You primarily accomplish this by following an objective marker on the overall 2D map of the stage, which indicates where the next important narrative moment will happen. On your way there, you’ll encounter both platforming and combat challenges, and there will likely be at least one save point on the way — once you’ve visited these once, they become fast travel points as well as places to heal, repair your melee weapons and restock yourself on ammunition.

Between one save point and the next, you’ll find yourself engaging in mandatory combat encounters. These confine you to a specific area and task you with defeating several waves of enemies, indicated by a series of bars in the corner of the screen. The enemies you face become increasingly varied as you progress through the game — initially, you’ll simply be fending off the basic zombie-like mutants, but as you continue, you’ll discover foes that have undergone more extensive mutations that often require specific strategies to defeat effectively.

There’s an element of survival horror in the mix here; you’ll need to manage Hisako’s resources carefully, since there are no healing items and no means of replenishing ammunition or durability besides reaching the next save point… or cutting your losses and heading back to the previous one. Thankfully, the penalty for death is minor; you’ll be returned to the stage’s first save point (from which you can fast travel to any you’ve already unlocked) and have 10% of your yen taken away, but other than that, you can simply pick yourself up and try again.

Successfully make it from one save point to another and the previously mandatory encounters become optional, so you can simply run straight past them if you prefer. Since the game makes use of an experience and levels system, though, it’s often worth fighting what you can to gain some additional experience… and loot, of course.

Yes, Dead or School is a min-maxing loot whore’s delight, with many enemies exploding into sparkly things that you can pick up and add to Hisako’s seemingly bottomless inventory. Enemy drops range from three currencies — one for generic “paying for stuff”, one for upgrading weapons and one for modifying them — to weapon enhancement units and the weapons themselves. It’s worth noting, though, that you can only change Hisako’s loadout at a save point; until then, you’re stuck with what you equipped her with.

Hisako carries three different types of weapon with her at all times: a melee weapon, a gun and a launcher. All of these have limited uses or ammunition, though the melee weapon can continue to be used at reduced effectiveness even when its durability reaches zero, meaning you’re never left completely defenseless. Generally speaking, there’s an inversely proportional relationship between how much damage something does in one hit and how long it lasts before requiring a refresh at a save point, so there are actually several different subdivisions of each of the three main categories, allowing you to customise how Hisako fights according to your own preferred play style.

In the melee category, for example, you can use a powerful but slow war hammer, a nimble fencing sword, a large ninja sword, a chainsaw and a variety of other things besides. Each of these handle in their own unique way, as you might expect. Likewise, in the gun category you have rapid-firing assault rifles and machine guns, anti-tank and sniper rifles, shotguns and energy weapons, while the launcher category ranges from your common-or-garden (for gaming) rocket launcher to bizarre devices that summon a localised ball of energy or black hole, damaging anything unfortunate enough to come near it repeatedly for several seconds.

Every weapon can be customised in several ways. Firstly, each can be upgraded up to a maximum level of ten; this process requires both yen and special “upgrade gears” to perform. Upgrading in this manner mostly affects the basic power of the weapon.

Secondly, a weapon can have an ability attached to it. Sometimes you’ll find weapons with these abilities already attached, but by using “modification gears”, you can swap an ability out for one that is selected completely at random. It’s a roll of the dice every time you do this, and there are a lot of possible abilities. These range from simple increases to the weapon’s damage output to additional effects such as allowing Hisako to throw grenades or summon a drone with limited ammunition to escort her for a short period.

Thirdly, each of your three weapons has two slots where modifications can be added. Using these modifications, you can increase the attack power, ammunition, critical hit rate, durability and ammunition of a weapon, or use a slot to provide passive increases to Hisako’s base health, stamina or other capabilities.

Each of these mods may also have an ability attached to it, and it’s through these that you can pick helpful passives to complement your loadout rather than relying on the RNG of the modification gears. Many of these abilities add some really interesting effects — some personal favourites include the ones that make enemies explode upon their defeat, or which automatically heal Hisako a small amount when she reaches critical health.

You can’t just load up with the best weapons and mods, however; Hisako has a “weight limit” that increases with her level, and the sum of her three weapons and any attached mods’ “weight” value cannot exceed this limit, otherwise she’ll be completely unable to attack. This often means you’ll have to make some major choices when you reach a new stage, as you’ll discover the next “tier” of weapons available to you — but these require more of that precious weight limit to equip. It’s often better to upgrade a lesser weapon and outfit it with suitable mods than it is to simply equip something new and shiny just because its descriptive prefix sounds better.

The weapons are enormously varied and can make the game play very differently, but they all have one important thing in common: the necessity for stamina management. This isn’t taken to the extreme of something like a Souls game — largely because it replenishes pretty quickly, doubly so if you crouch — but it does mean that you can’t just fire non-stop until everything is dead. You’ll also want to reserve a bit of stamina for jumping and dodging; with the generous invincibility frames the latter provides, you’ll want to be dodging a lot, particularly during boss battles.

Each weapon type also has a secondary ability. Melee attacks can unleash a powerful “windmill strike” that charges forwards and deals heavy damage; guns allow Hisako to take a low stance and fire more accurate, more powerful piercing shots; and launchers allow her to temporarily slow time for a brief period to line up the perfect shot.

These all tie in to Hisako’s skill tree, too. Upon gaining a level — and upon the completion of some sidequests — you’ll gain a skill point, which can be invested into one of three skill trees that ostensibly relate to the three weapon types. You’ll want to pump a few points into each, though, since there are some helpful passive bonuses not directly related to the weapons along the way such as increases to maximum life and stamina. You don’t need to worry about building Hisako “wrong”, either; upon visiting the between-stage hub area, you can reset her skill tree, get all her points back and reassign them however you see fit.

The stages themselves are all very varied rather than simply being variations on “dark subway tunnels”. Each has a rough “theme” that is often elemental-based; Akihabara’s subterranean caverns, for example, are full of electrical items that can be triggered with Hisako’s weaponry, and a particularly clever optional puzzle sequence requires you to spot dimmed lightbulbs in the dark and shoot them to illuminate otherwise invisible platforms to reach your destination.

There are some really great setpieces along the way — some of these unfold as part of the story, but many are challenges to overcome before you can reach optional collectibles such as refugees to rescue or souvenirs to discover. In one sequence, you’ll be riding a mine cart and shooting out obstacles in front of you; in another, you’ll be manipulating switches to roll bombs through a Donkey Kong-esque arrangement of girders and release a trapped item; in another still, you’ll be frantically leaping up perilous platforms as some relentless buzzsaws destroy the stage behind you.

The boss fights fall into this category, too. They’re all heavily pattern-based and reward careful observation, dexterity and quick thinking; none of them are straightforward “tank and spank” affairs. Particular highlights include a confrontation against an automated, unmanned tank — which actually requires a lot less moving around than you might think — and a two-part fight against a giant spider robot, which sees Hisako nimbly swinging up broken street signs to destroy a shield generator on her foe’s back before finishing the job in rather confined quarters.

There’s a great sense of narrative progression and escalation of the overall stakes as you proceed through the stages, and the story is consistently interesting, enjoyable and a lot more in-depth than the premise might initially lead you to believe. Besides Hisako, who is endearingly airheaded and single-minded in her desires, you encounter a number of other memorable characters over the course of your journey through the game, each of whom have their own intriguing bits of additional context to give to the setting. There are plenty of thought-provoking twists and turns along the way, too — particularly in the latter stages — and the overall finale is spectacular.

Yes, it’s a game that was made on the cheap; yes, it still has some rough edges here and there; yes, it’s probably going to get overlooked by far too many people working on the assumption that it’s a sexually suggestive (or explicit) fanservice game (it really isn’t). But damn, if you can’t feel the genuine love seeping through every inch of this incredibly enjoyable, super-stylish game.

It’s a game that I felt more and more excited to talk about the more hours I invested into it — and I sincerely hope that it becomes the cult classic it deserves to be.

More about Dead or School

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9 thoughts on “Dead or School: A Passion Project Pays Off”

  1. This has been on my radar for a while. I must say I think you’ve done the game a service with all you’ve written about it as it’s not gotten much exposure anywhere else. I might stay clear of the Switch port and get the PC version to avoid the performance issues.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks! Sad to hear it hasn’t had much attention — but I’m not surprised at all.

      The performance issues on Switch aren’t game-breaking by any means; they are a lot more noticeable in handheld mode, though.

      There’s also a PS4 version if you want a boxed copy.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This looks really nice, actually. Reading the way you described it as not quite linear but not quite open, and the weaponry bits, would it be fair to say this leans towards being a bit MetroidVania in the way it handles but doesn’t quite fit into the genre?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kind of, yeah. Structurally, it’s not completely open, but each of the eight stages has an open “feel” to it thanks to the optional side paths. There’s also no backtracking to earlier areas with new movement abilities to gain access to places you couldn’t reach before; there is one instance of backtracking in the story, but it’s for narrative rather than mechanical reasons.

      Liked by 2 people

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