My time in college was a mixture of wasted lectures and too many nights out, but at least I can say I didn’t have to fight screaming monsters or risk being swept up in a demonic world. Although that might have been better given how slickly entertaining it was Demon School (opens in new tab) makes it.
The game streamlines the combat of tactical RPGs and wraps it in a story of students navigating the perils (supernatural or otherwise) of college life. Speaking to Creative Director Brandon Sheffield, it’s clear it’s a game with a wealth of influence. “People compare it to Persona, Shin Megami Tensei and stuff… there was like Devil Survivor, an SMT game, which was influential, a little bit with the relationship system… but the influences were flung a lot further out and more of the movie and music sides. So it’s great that this grab bag of things I like has come together in something that people actually want to look at.”
You play as Faye, who comes from a family of the last demon hunters, which essentially makes her a Belmont. Basically, she just likes to hit things and that makes her a girl after my own heart. Faye and a group of friends have started university on a mysterious island. Together they will have to weigh the demands of higher education against the danger of higher powers.
Cue possessed students, mysterious amnesia and…Yakuza?
Gameplay demo n
The demo I played featured a handful of combat encounters and a bit of downtime in between, both of which are promising. Even just aesthetically it’s such a pleasant world to be in, with lovingly detailed environments and mesmerizing transitions. The human world is rendered in 2D, with your characters and NPCs acting as sprites; the demon world and its most monstrous inhabitants are 3D. Curiously, the school is somewhere in between the two, a 3D space presented as 2D, a sign of its supernatural corruption. As a visual effect, it’s striking as hell, but that the stylistic flair has any meaning really gives Demonschool some teeth.
What a world it is too. The demonic inhabitants are lurid creatures that can explode in blood and guts. The game is never pure horror, but the monsters have a really unsettling quality and atmosphere that gives it an edge. A sense of danger that raises the stakes for your team, a party of four but with 15 characters to recruit, and makes every mystery they face feel life or death. Demonschool draws from horror manga like the work of Suehiro Maruo and Junjji Ito, as well as Italian horror cinema – and it’s a really powerful mix.
“The movies of Lucio Fulci have a big influence, so like City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, Psychic and all of them have music by Fabio Frizzi, who has a big musical influence on us…There are also touchstones like Suspiria. ”
The demo didn’t offer a long view of how the Persona-esque downtime will play out, but the sampling showed promise. You’ll explore both the titular school and the surrounding island, strolling through everything from classrooms to cemeteries. There’s even a customizable clubhouse for you and your team to hang out in, with an unlockable minigame. Brandon also mentioned that the final game will also feature fishing, so you know this is a good and solid RPG.
Side quests are all over the world, with progression tied to certain times of the day, but only main quests push time forward (with a slick title card and an explosion of lighting). There doesn’t seem to be much tension in choosing how to spend your time, as far as I’ve been shown, but a more relaxed and less time-sensitive pace will no doubt suit many. However, dialogue choices must be made, where you can side with one of your companions instead of another, taking your relationship with that character to the next level. You’ll also have to choose carefully, as I’ve been told that the end of the game is determined by those relationships. Brandon says the game will feature around 15-20 hours of main missions, with the total playtime likely doubling as you chase down all the side missions. That’s quite a satanic sacrifice.
All this is only half of this game over two worlds, and the rest of the player’s time can be spent on tactical turn-based battles. Combat is divided into two phases: planning and action. When planning, you choose a character and choose where they go. If it’s a square with an enemy, they attack, if not, they move. Easy. Each character has its unique ability, as well as a special one. Each character draws from the same pool of action points, so instead of one character at a time, your team all go into the action phase at the same time, after which the demons all get their turn at the same time. It gives combat a gripping speed, especially for someone like me who easily gets bored with sluggish strategy. The battles of Demon School had captivated me.
The secret sauce is in the synergy of the characters’ simple skills. With 15 characters, a big part of the game is finding the combinations that work for you. In the demo, a satisfying pairing is the fearful Namako, who can stun enemies as she passes through them, with fighting himbo Destin. Not only does Namako stun, she pushes enemies a square behind her in her wake. This allows you to line up enemies for Destin, who can hit multiple enemies as long as they line up. It’s smooth but pretty simple. The complications come in when you have limited action points for your party and a slew of demons to contend with. Keeping people out of danger while staying on the attack is key. The game will even reward you with more loot the more efficient you are with your moves.
“[We are] create a tactics game that is efficient with the time of the players. Reducing the number of clicks and making all choices really clear, allowing you to fast forward or rewind.”
So the mission of Demonschool is to get into the action faster, and that applies to both the story and the combat. It takes out the fuss and hassle – a goal with surprising inspiration.
“As for pace, [mangas] Chainsaw Man and Jujutsu Kaisen are also influences, because I like how they just jump right into the action and story. They really make excellent use of character tropes,” says Brandon. “Writers tend to feel the need to explain everything before it even happens. So I use those as touchstones to force myself not to.”
The main showcase of it all was the demo’s boss fight, featuring a screeching, gigantic 3D skeleton whose brain explodes out of its skull like an attack. While it deploys minions to fight you, it also slams with fingers and swipes with its arms, meaning you’ll need to keep your party away from those incoming attacks while dealing the damage. It teeters on the edge of overwhelming, in the best way, as you scramble to come up with the perfect sequence of moves to keep you ahead. Relieving the stress is a generous undo button that makes it easy to tinker with a strategy and then quit when you realize a better move is possible. It can’t reverse an entire phase, but it will give you plenty of breathing room as you plan each turn.
Once you’ve made your choices, you’ll be rewarded by seeing everything play in one go, and there’s a nice rhythm to that. It’s like setting up a movie scene and then “action!” calls. Have two characters work as a combo and you’ll even be treated to a special stylish cutaway before watching them explode a demon in a shower of ichor.
Demonschool excels at simplicity, making the most of everything it does rather than adding the illusion of depth with menu screens full of options. Things are kept smooth and clear. I’ve finished the demo and am eager to play more, and I just know this will appeal to people as the perfect thing to enjoy for over a month, one or two lunch fights at a time – like Into the Breach with creepy teens. School’s in, and today, class, we’ll learn all about kicking demons.