Dead or School (PS4) Review

Zombies are a very prevalent trope in today’s society, they have featured in movies, shows, and books for almost a century, filling us with an irrational fear of the dead coming alive to eat our brains. However, despite the love these ghoulish creatures get from the general public, I’ve never really been a fan of them – until now! Dead or School is a video game containing zombies, anime, fan-service, Metroidvania gameplay, and more!

A three-person team developed Dead or School, known as Studio Nanafushi. Starting life as a Steam Greenlight project (remember those?), the team needed more funds to finish the game so they opted to use the crowdfunding site Indiegogo back in 2016, where they raised 20% of what they were asking for (flexible funding). This allowed them to reach the point where an Early Access version could be published back in 2018 followed by a final release on PC and consoles over in Japan. 

Today, in Europe and America, Dead or School releases on the Nintendo Switch, Steam, and the PS4, with this review being the PS4 edition which was published by Marvelous Inc. Marvelous, in case you don’t know, are a company notorious for publishing multiple long-running franchises such as Rune Factory, Senran Kagura, Fate, and more…
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Dead or School takes place in a dystopian society, one in which humankind is forced to live hundreds of feet below the Earth’s surface in tunnels, subways, abandoned shopping districts, etc. You see, a long time ago Zombies (mutated humans) waged war on the survivors in a fight over control of the surface, with Tokyo being the central city in this story, resulting in the humans retreating to their newly acquainted quiet lives.

Our story begins three generations later with Hisako, one of the children in the tiny sheltered community you live within. She hears rumours of an endless blue sky far above the dark and confined place she calls ‘home’, igniting a lot of curiosity within her and a desire to see it for herself. Although talk of the surface is a taboo subject, Hisako talks to her grandmother about it, a conversation which leads to the being told about ‘school’ and how it’s “a paradise where children play and learn together”.

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With this newly gained inspiration and determination, you don your grandmother’s old school uniform as you venture out to search for teammates, friends, resources, and knowledge, all in aid of your dream – to return humankind to the surface and attend ‘school’. On your journey though, you must overcome the zombie infestation and the despair that awaits you outside the safety of your home.
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Gameplay
Dead or School is a side-scrolling action game with RPG elements and Metroidvania-like exploration. The RPG elements are what makes this game really easy to sink your teeth into though, something I’m constantly tinkering with. Hisako has three weapons to utilise in her zombie massacres; a melee weapon, a gun, and an explosive type gun. The melee weapon is just that, anything wieldable by Hisako’s hands. The ‘gun’ mentioned is any variant that doesn’t include explosives, such as rifles, snipers, shotgun, SMG’s, etc. The explosive variant is anything that launches explosives for massive AoE damage.

One thing you always expect within survival-type games is resource hunting, but it’s always a drag to run out of ammo. Dead or School fixes this by giving you unlimited ammo and durability – in a sense. Every time you reach a save point, your durability and ammo will refill, giving you a sense of relief, yet you still have to strategise when and how to use the weapons whilst you’re between saves in order to ensure you don’t run out of supplies.

Speaking of weapons, some of the biggest features in Dead or School are: weapon disassembling, customising weapons with parts you find, upgrading weapons, and equipping attachments to your existing weapons. Mixing and matching parts also gives you limitless possibilities and delivers a great edge over your enemies as the following stats increase: attack power, weight, firing speed, durability, ammo size, special effects, and more!
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Once you’ve closed the weapons menu you’ll find the skill customisation menu, something that’s easier to manage but by no means any less exciting. The first thing you’ll notice is the Aesthetics, Dead or School is… well… centralised around the whole ‘school’ aspect. This focal point plays a major part in many different things through the game, for example, the skill customisation menu is a giant chalkboard where all your information and upgrades are written down in chalk, handled by an on-screen ‘student’ Hisako. Whenever you level up, finish quests, or anything else that grants you skill points, it goes to this customisation screen.

Each weapon also has its own skill tree, levelling up the chosen weapon-type as you invest points into it. It’s recommended to mix ’n’ match, to create a sort of ‘hybrid build’, as it’s impossible to actually obtain enough points to unlock every single skill – thankfully you can reset what you’ve invested them into though. Whereas a lot of the boosts you’ll obtain are simply related to the particular weapon type the section you’re assigning them too is related to, some will be shared globally such as increasing your health – which is handy.
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Customisation is very alluring and all but let’s get to the brains of the subject here: retaking which was rightfully ours from those half-rotten fiends! You get around Underground Tokyo via a subway car given to you by your grandmother. However, it’s not just any subway car, it’s a weapon-laden, spike-infested, razor-bound, armour subway car which is perfect for zombie massacres! You’ll paint the rails red with zombie blood as you travel around between the likes of Shinjuku, Asakusa, Akihabara, and Roppongi, each with its own detailed maze of maps. Throughout traversing the maps you’ll need to slay enemies, find artifacts, save refugees, complete side quests, and other hidden goals!

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The enemies in Dead or School are different from your regular hack ’n slash variety – which isn’t my favourite genre – so this pleased me! Instead of just spawning in, most of the time you’ll visually see the zombies come out of the environment or in a 3D perspective as they crawl towards you from your TV screen. The variety of zombies and the way they attack you is diverse too – regular, armoured, projectile, gunned, giant, mutants, and more, are our for your blood. There’s also what I like to refer to as ‘back-up zombies’, which I enjoyed. These are zombies which will spawn outside of the 2D perspective field (off-screen), and fire into you to aide their zombie friends – you can’t do anything to stop them but at least they disappear when the battle is completed. What’s a good RPG without difficulty though?

You’ll also find zombies with an aura and overpowered ones throughout each zone which are sure to give you a challenge, or you can come back later once you’ve levelled up and spent more skill points. My personal favourite enemies are the bosses, which after each defeat gets added to a boss practice mode back on your train so you can relive the exhilarating fights.
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Fighting enemies isn’t the only thing Dead or School offers though! With its take on the Metroidvania format, there’s lots to explore and collect, all of which are conveniently placed on the mini-map making this a very accessible Metroidvania for newcomers. A few things you’ll need to keep an eye out for are:
• People stranded in need of your help who will go live on your train adding some backstory, characters, and fun information to the game.
• Storyline characters which add new abilities to your team such as opening doors or drilling through foundations, amongst others.
• Artifacts which are remnants of old times that you pick up to bring back to your train which, like other collectables, give you bonus stats.

Finally, I saved the best for last – Fan Service. It’s in the game, it’s in the stills, and it’s in the cutscenes! Hell, the first teammate you meet has skin-tight clad clothing and zombies drooling all over her, it’s beautiful. I say drool but it’s more like their intestines are hanging out and the shiny lubricated skin is simply their intestinal fluids, horrible but still rather appealing. Outside of cutscenes and what-not, when you battle enemies there is a chance to see more fan-service as every time you reach a near-death state your clothes will tear and leave you exposed, which will happen quite often when you purposely accidentally take too much damage. Though it’s not recommended to stay in this state too long as you have little health, regardless of the visuals.

Even refugees offer a lot of eye-candy in this post-apocalyptic world – there’s even a lady that wears nothing under her overalls which I always make sure to greet when I jump on my train. Don’t forget, I’m playing the game on the PS4, meaning there’s most likely little to no censorship from the Japanese versions (Something I know some of our readers feel very passionate about). So, if you’re looking to play the game and see a bit of flesh (which isn’t hanging off the bone), it seems like all platforms have you covered!
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Execution
Dead or School is nothing short of pure enjoyment. I’m not a person who handles well under a constant barrage of enemies with stress-inducing levels of difficulty, I like stable manageable scenarios, something which this game delivers throughout. It may sound a little odd for a hack ‘n slash kind of game to not bombard you with a constant wave of enemies, but it really fits here! Foes don’t respawn until the screen has reloaded, allowing you to explore leisurely without an overlapping window of fear, and battles are usually done in waves of small quantities which gives you room to breathe and are easy to manage. Bosses can fill up the screen and really tower over you, but they’re thankfully not rage-inducing.

That’s the key element of this game, pure enjoyment to play and no frustration for being overwhelmed.

Playing the game itself is flexible, there are multiple ways to switch weapons via mapped keys or scrolling through them, and aiming can be automatic, manual, or mounted weapons with fixed aiming too. Despite all the weapons, projectiles, enemies, and environmental rendering, there isn’t ever a dip in framerate. It’s responsive, customisable, relatively easy and most of all, lots of fun!

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Although, I wouldn’t go as far as saying Dead or School is for everyone… There are fast travel stations scattered around which you can use if you wish, but if you’d rather explore and walk then you’ll notice that the game has a lot of empty and lonely areas due to the non-respawning enemies. Also, unlike other hack ’n slash type games, you won’t be pulling off hundreds of hit combos and chaining together a multitude of different moves, nor will you fight through an entire enemy horde in order to satisfy the zombie genocide desire inside of you. Dead or School, despite my love for the game, may not appeal to everyone due to the slower nature of the gameplay but I found it very addictive and enjoyable – especially upgrading and enhancing my character and weapons to aid me in the later stages of the game.

Yes, there may be some mistranslated text, rough visuals at times, and odd cutscenes, but you have to remember it’s a small studio that developed this game. I also think, though not their intention I believe, all of that adds to the allure of the game itself by an accidental nature if you will. I’ve watched a number of Japanese B-Movies like Robo Geisha, House, Alien vs Ninja, etc. So, while some may see these as ‘faults’, I disregard these as issues which affected my enjoyment and instead see them as part of the game’s charm which fits the theme presented.

Official Trailer:

Final Conclusion:
Dead or School is an entry-level hack ’n slash side-scrolling Metroidvania with AAA fun. Not to mention the Japanese aesthetics and fan-service with western campy b-movie goodness – it practically sells itself at this point! If you’re looking for a relaxing, easy-to-play game with tons of customisation and RPG elements then look no further. Dead or School shows us that slaying zombies, saving mankind, and continually customising your gear doesn’t have to be complicated to be intuitive, simple to understand mechanics and fantastic gameplay enhanced the fun factor I felt whilst playing – as well as the Fan Service…

Dead or School is a game which delivers a lot of brilliant content through accessible gameplay, gameplay which doesn’t require a lot of dead-ication to master.

A copy of the game was kindly provided for review purposes

Dead or School

£24.99
8.9

Final Score

8.9/10

The Good:

  • - High levels of customisation options
  • - Easy to understand map system
  • - Wide variety of enemies
  • - I particularly thought the RPG elements and how the durability and ammo were handled was very well done
  • - The aesthetics of the entire game are great

The Bad:

  • - The comabt is much slower paced than I was expecting based on footage and screenshots I'd seen
  • - The enemy AI could have been a bit better
  • - Enemy waves are quite small and sparse, rather than hordes of enemies for you to slay
  • - Some of hte character and enemy sprites appear to be lower quality based on the zoom distance at times
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