If there’s one thing Japan loves more than hyper-sexualised school girls it’s hyper-sexualised school girls massacring grotesque monsters with a massive katana. This gratuitousness is at the heart of the clumsily titled Dead or School, a Hentai-tinged hack’n’slash Metroidvania set in a post-apocalyptic Tokyo rife with mutants, munitions, mammaries and the male gaze. Despite all its gaudiness and sleaze, Dead or School is a surprisingly enjoyable, albeit repetitive, adventure that succeeds thanks to a consistently rewarding progression loop.
With Tokyo overrun by mutants and its population forced to take refuge in the metro tunnels below, life for protagonist Hisako seems bleak. However, when her grandma begins to reminisce about life before armageddon, telling tale of her school days, Hisako becomes compelled by finding one of these fabled schools. Donning her grandma’s worryingly revealing school uniform and arming herself to the teeth, Hisako sets off on a quest across Tokyo, slaying scum and saving survivors as she goes.
This strange premise does little beyond providing an impetus for your actions while cliched anime tropes, wanton sexualisation, goofy writing and some questionable localisation, all serve to craft a crude game world that at times feels rather embarrassing to inhabit. Similar inconsistencies mire the game’s visual design, from its intrusive UI to its conflicting art styles, yet like almost all aspects of Dead or School every muddy texture, rigid animation and needless lens flair manages to lend it an odd low budget B-movie charm.
Likewise, combat succumbs to this endearing crudeness. While simplistic, hacking, slashing and blasting your way through hordes of fleshy foes never ceases to be satisfying, although the fatigue of repetition along with some bumbling AI does its best to detract from this sense of fulfilment. Hisako’s varied arsenal of both close and long-ranged weapons paired with timed dodges and combo moves work together to keep combat sufficiently diverse. One mechanic does, however, hinder the combat experience, albeit more thematically than mechanically. When at low health, you enter “torn uniform” mode which boosts your attack and defence stats at the cost of Hisako’s dignity. While it’s easy to shrug off this cartoonish sexualisation as absurd, Dead or School serves as a reminder that such archaic, unwelcome attitudes still exist within the medium and we have a ways to go before abolishing it.
Despite its countless flaws, both moral and aesthetic, I cannot help but be compelled by Dead or School, due almost exclusively to its progression loop. Upon death, each enemy erupts, showering you in a deluge of XP, crafting materials and loot. Loot is generously doled out, offering new weapons, including everything from katanas, axes and chainsaws to rifles, snipers and rocket launchers, and attachments which enhance your loadout with effects like increased reload speed, XP boosts and even a support drone summon which watches your back in battle. While some messy menu design and a superfluous upgrade crafting features make it a slightly cumbersome, this equipment system works well to add a level of personalisation to how you approach combat.
Hand in hand with this system is Hisako’s personal progression. Every action, from mutilating mutants to saving survivors, bags you XP, meaning you gain levels at a steady rate which boosts your health and stamina and affords you a skill point each time you advance. Three skill trees, one for each of your weapon types, provide a host of fairly unimaginative upgrades which increase Hisako’s health, stamina and damage output. Combined, these systems offer a gratifying sense of growth, one that becomes apparent as you revisit areas that once overwhelmed you, now capable of mowing through its occupants with ease.
And revisiting areas is something you will be doing plenty of. Taking notes from the Metroidvania genre as well as the Souls series, Dead or School’s level design, perhaps its most commendable facet, is a labyrinth of save points and shortcuts. Split into a series of corridors, these gauntlets consist of several combat encounters, each of which locks you into a number of increasingly challenging waves. Resting at the next savepoint replenishes your supplies, respawns enemies and provides a place to fast travel to and from while clearing the area behind you of encounter gates to make retracing your steps a little easier.
However, many of these areas are gated by enemy difficulty, meaning success is usually a case of reaching a high enough level to hold your own. In the latter half of the game, this can turn combat somewhat stale, requiring you to farm areas for XP before resting, rinsing and repeating. A wealth of sub-quests and collectables — many of which present you with surprisingly smartly designed platforming puzzles — do manage to punctuate the grind, meaning attaining the level up you require is rarely too tedious.
Dead or School left me conflicted. Subpar on many levels, the game’s satisfying combat, stellar level design and consistently rewarding sense of progression act as a crutch to an experience plagued by ugly visual design, weak storytelling and a cringe-worthy fixation on objectification. While I enjoyed almost every minute of the 20+ hours I spent with Dead or School, ultimately, I struggle to recommend a game that promotes such problematic themes.
Dead or School PS4 Review
- Overall - Not Bad - 5/105/10
Beyond its outdated visuals and equally outdated views on the female body, Dead or School offers a compelling, although at times repetitive, hack'n'slash romp through Tokyo's mutant infested metro, although sadly its shameful sexualisation ultimately makes it a hard game to recommend.
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Reviewed using PS4 Pro.