PAX West Hands-on: Demonschool
“This looks just like old school Persona!”
That’s the reaction I heard ringing out from everyone who saw Demonschool on the PAX West show floor. And, to be honest, it’s hard to blame them. An inferred school setting, the isometric camera view present in many screenshots, battle screens with large tall sprites…it does look vaguely like the first couple Persona games.
However, the team behind the game isn’t as quick to make the comparison. When I mentioned the Persona references I had been hearing, I was informed that the team saw more influence coming from the mainline Shin Megami Tensei games…as well as other titles such as Into the Breach and Valkyria Chronicles.
Time to look at the book beyond it’s cover.
Demonschool, from developers Necrosoft Games, is an RPG and tactical game with a “horror and friendship focus,” according to staff at Ysbryd Games’ PAX booth. With influences from 70s Italian horror films and Japanese horror manga, the combo certainly creates a striking visual style, immediately catching the eye of passers by.
We had the opportunity to sit down with a demo of the game, which offered up two modes: “Story,” and “Boss.” Beginning with the Story selection, we begin the experience in medias res, during an early part of Demonschool‘s story.
The game takes place on an island where a prestigious university stands. However, there’s a few odd things about this island. For one, it also contains a prison…a prison you can be sent to if you fail out at said university. There also seems to be something paranormal going on. Students performing rituals, becoming possessed, and people finding themselves in the “liminal space between human and demon worlds.”
It’s in this space that Demonschool‘s battle gameplay takes place. During the demo I had control of four characters: main character Faye and three of their friends/classmates. I had the opportunity to play a few battles during the course of my demo: a few standard fights during Story mode, and (of course) a Boss during Boss mode.
As I began moving pieces around the field, I quickly became thankful that some Ysbryd staff were with me, because as it turns out, Demonschool plays a bit differently from other grid-based SRPGs I’m used to. Right off the bat, rather than each character moving wherever they want within a specific range, characters automatically move to the end of their range – whether in cardinal or intercardinal directions. They also have the option to perform a single sidestep before moving, but this quirk alone made the battles here feel more like chess than a standard SRPG.
Also notable is that not every character you control can attack the enemy. Of my team of four in each fight, two could hit the enemy directly. A third was a support character that would stun any enemy they passed through during movement. The fourth was a pure healer, that could also buff the attacks of anyone they healed.
With these facts in mind, the core gameplay of Demonschool is less traditional SRPG and more setting up combos to clear the field as efficiently as possible. Each character can move multiple times a turn, but each move costs some action points from a pool your whole team has to use, and costs more each time they act again. Attacking an enemy toward where another one of your units is stood activates a team attack, dishing out more damage.
And, finally, the cherry on top: all of this work you’ve been doing is essentially pre-planning. Once you’ve input all your commands, you press a button to reset the field and then watch all of your inputs play out in real time. This system of planning and building combos, and then watching them execute all at once, reminds me of a simplified version of The Caligula Effect – though it seems like, unlike in that game, your attacks don’t randomly fail.
It took me a few battles to get used to the system, and I feel like it’s going to take a few more to really understand it (when the game is fully released, of course). After attempting the Boss mode (which throws in a few more quirks, such as allowing the healer character to damage the boss) and failing horribly, I still left my hands-on time with the game incredibly intrigued.
Between its immediately eye-catching art style and its twists on the SRPG formula, Demonschool definitely seems like a title to look forward to. The game is currently planned for release in 2023 on PC and all current consoles. You can check out the reveal trailer for the game below.
Images courtesy of Ysbryd Games.