Are those my only options?
I’m going to start my Dead or School review with the game’s premise because it’ll pretty much tell you everything you need to know.
Eighty years ago there was a mutant apocalypse that drove the humans underground. Access to the top has since been forbidden, and knowledge of life up there forgotten. Beneath the streets of Tokyo, however, one elder has held on to her school uniform. She presents this to her granddaughter, who concludes school life must have been awesome, and therefore decides to single-handedly wipe out all of the mutants in order to allow the citizenry to return to the surface and set up schools again.
I say without the slightest trace of irony that this right here is why I love video games.
If you’re still with me on this, you may be even more thrilled to know Dead or School plays very much like a Castlevania game…and one that actually works on the Switch! You control our young proponent of public education, Hisako, as she explores multiple 2.5D locations for artifacts, survivors, allies, weapon upgrades, etc. A map is displayed at the upper right, and unlike in Castlevania, you get to see the whole map instead of having it revealed as you reach each room. The map takes up a sizable chunk of the screen, but you can hide it easily. Your primary and secondary objectives are indicated here, but you won’t know if there are temporarily unsurpassable obstacles until you reach them.
As you’d expect in a game that’s played almost entirely underground, there’s not much visual variation to enjoy even if the locales themselves are somewhat diverse. However, you’re spared monotony by clever use of enemies, obstacles, and animation. The game uses fun visual effects to push the action forward, such as having new enemies appear at the front of the screen before jumping back onto the gameplay plane. I never got tired of that effect. It’s worth noting, however, that the animation and action do get lost and hard to follow on the small screen in handheld mode.
There are numerous tricks like that throughout the game, but what really matters in Dead or School is the combat. You’re given three types of weapons to employ: melee, range, and explosive. The fun, of course, is in the hand-to-hand combat that gives you a few different attack styles to use on multiple enemies. You can spam your way through most fights, but that will require multiple trips back to the save points where you can restore your health. Better that you learn when to use what attack and—more importantly—how to dodge. Properly timed dodges will slow down the enemies for a moment, allowing you to do heavy damage.
All three weapons can be swapped out and modified, and there’s a crazy number of weapons you can customize. However, modifying your weapons adds weight to them that slows you down, so there’s plenty to consider. I eventually found a few weapons I preferred and pretty much ignored everything else. Not the best strategy, sure, but combat and exploration are so fun that I just didn’t want to bother with setup screens.
You’ll also get skill points that you can assign to your weapon tree, and the game is kind enough to let you dump them all and restart at any point in case you decide you’re on the wrong path.
For the most part, the combat itself is tight and responsive. There was never a point where I felt like I lost a battle because of input lag, although the game did slow down during some boss battles or where there were multiple enemies on the screen at once. Some of the battles had so many enemies that I would often dodge one blow only to move directly into another. Battles can quickly spiral out of control that way, which gets frustrating. The game is supposed to increase your abilities when your health drops low enough, but I don’t feel that ever helped me out of a bad situation. Best to just not get there by properly utilizing your three weapon types; melee combat may be more fun, but there are times when you’ve just got to launch a rocket into a crowd of mutants.
This combat is presented in chunks, for the most part, where you’re blocked off from advancing or retreating until you’ve cleared everyone out. Thankfully, enemies don’t regenerate; if you clean up a hallway only to find your progression blocked, you don’t have to fight those enemies again when backtracking. Of course, considering the amount of grinding required to handle the game’s tougher moments, maybe having to clear the same room multiple times would be helpful.
As you’d expect from a game in which the heroine’s uniform gets torn as she gets injured, there’s a certain degree of fanservice here. Dead or School’s M rating, however, stems mainly from its use of gore and violence. You won’t notice Hisako’s outfit during the battles, but the blood is hard to miss.
Review: Dead or School (Nintendo Switch)
Dead or School provides a surprisingly long side-scrolling action campaign that’s sure to please fans of Castlevania-style games, especially those who’ve grown tired of countless retro-graphic homages. The action is tight, the story is fun, and the rewards are big.