Initial impressions on games can mean a lot. It can be the way the game looks, plays or sounds that can just drive you mad and make you want to move on to something else immediately. Your time is valuable, after all. But every once so often, after pushing through those initial feelings and giving the game a second (or third) chance, you’ll come to an entirely different conclusion where things click and you start to have fun with a game you initially disliked – often despite its many, many flaws.
For me, one such game is Dead or School from Studio Nanafushi, which makes the journey from PC to consoles, combining a lot of interesting ideas with some antiquated visuals, design philosophies, and core mechanics and yet still manages to be a whole lot of fun.
You play as Hisako, a girl who just wants to see the surface of Tokyo after having spent all of her life underground. Who could blame her? Japan’s capital has been infested with zombies for years now and its citizens are all living in the subway systems below. Hisako dreams of being in school and hanging with kids her own age, desperately wanting to be normal in a damaged world. You’ll soon discover this idyllic notion of “school” is everyone’s main motivation for helping her – and others – get to the top as you all make your way from station to station.
Hisako will meet and interact with several characters along the way, most in long and overly drawn-out presentations. Some will have deep enough backstories that give the game some much-needed depth, either becoming someone who hangs at your homebase (in this case, a train), or assisting with obstacles impeding your journey. None of these characters are particularly interesting and are all rendered in very generic anime fashion. Despite their blandness, though, they still help make the world feel lived in.
The first weird red flag for me came with the level structures. Each station is essentially its own Metroidvania-style map with its own set of backtracking, keycard collecting and hidden souvenirs. This isn’t a bad thing. Sometimes those types of games can have an overwhelming amount of places to go, so having smaller portions of that laid out gradually can help the game from feeling too big. The problem is that getting from one place to another is not exactly fast or fun or exciting. Occasionally you’ll run into enemies, some you can just run by while some lock you into a portion of the level to fight.
But these encounters aren’t fun as much as they are something to just delay your progress and the game is riddled with progression irritants like this, none of which work in its favor. You can fast-travel between save points but even these are spread out just far enough from each other to make it feel like a slog to push through to your next goal. Checkpointing during the various battles, boss or otherwise, that overwhelm can be rough too as you’ll die often, and jump back too far and have to go through a decent amount of the trek again just to get to that same spot.
What makes all this more apparent is its graphic fidelity. Despite boasting some, um, generously buxom anime ladies Dead or School has flat, unimpressive visuals that were initially hard to get through. Along with the dated presentation, everything looks and feels muddied. There’s even weird cinematics that play when inspecting something blocking your path where the camera will dolly in and a PS-era style lens flare will let you know it’s blocked. This reminds me of opening doors in the original Resident Evil as I have to watch it every single time. Perhaps this was done intentionally to enhance the nostalgic effect, but it comes off as antiquated and amateurish.
The one aspect I’ve saved for last is the one thing that managed to be, as hinted above, the game’s saving grace. The entirety of Dead or School feels sluggish throughout the platforming and virtually every other aspect – except for the combat. If it weren’t for the way Hisako battles through the hordes of enemy threats I probably would’ve given a lot sooner, but these elements manage to feel fast and exciting in ways that can be surprisingly fun and demonstrate where the developers spent most of their efforts.
You have a melee weapon, a gun and a heavier gun, each serving their own purpose in their own way. Thanks to a huge number of variety to loot drops you’re able to find different types of guns like shotguns or sniper rifles. All of these are customizable with different mods you can add that change the durability or strength and they can even add special abilities like spawning a drone or randomly tossed grenades. Enemy AI can be frustrating at times but once you start to figure out which guns work better or when you should start using melee, it adds some welcome strategy and excitement to bigger battles.
Even still, the idea of failing and having to trek back to this spot sticks on the forefront of your brain and death feels like it has even more dire consequences than…well, death.
There’s much to like about Dead or School, but getting there requires patience. Looking past the grievances detailed above, I discovered a game that proved to be a lot more fun than I initially thought, each session leaving me wanting to play “just a little more” despite its many, many flaws. Metroidvanias seem to be dime a dozen these days, but with its nuanced loot system and interesting combat, I found myself having just as much fun with this as I did with similar games in the genre. If you can look past its dated graphics and finicky progression system, you might find a game worthy of your time.