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Demonschool Orientation Week: Demo Preview

Students battling demons in a partially destroyed school room in Demonschool.

What’s cooler than being cool?

Now, I’m going to break this thing down in just a few seconds. Demonschool has you play as Gen Z-fashioned university students with demon-sensing abilities and anti-authority attitudes. With one foot planted in Persona‘s hangout vibe and the other in Devil Survivor‘s turn-based tactics, Demonschool plays like a riff on beloved aspects of Shin Megami Tensei‘s legacy without feeling like a rip-off. It thoughtfully pulls from those influences and incorporates them into its own self-assured identity.

The World of Demonschool

My impressions here are based on a demo that will be available to the public in the upcoming Steam Next Fest. It starts you in roughly the second week of the game’s Persona-like calendar and lets you play to the end of it. Your gang of youthful outsiders has already solved one mystery (regarding a demonic VHS tape), and your professor has just assigned you another (about a demonic paintbrush).

This move skips what I imagine is likely a purposefully slow, dialogue-heavy onramp into the narrative, characters, and battle system to let you experience what a standard in-game week will play like. A day is divided into daytime and evening segments that you progress by interacting with a clearly flagged quest marker in one of the game’s school or town-based locations. Sometimes, you can engage in time-sensitive optional quests/interactions before moving the plot forward. These either result in optional fights or provide opportunities to progress your bond with a party member. Each of these areas is relatively small, and you can easily move between them on the game’s fast-travel screen.

The way the world is divided between these isolated spaces is reminiscent of the Persona 2 duology. You’ll see different NPCs in each location depending on the time of day—and I can only assume their minor dialogues will change each week. While there didn’t seem to be much to do besides exhaust all the NPC dialogue in a given area, I discovered some additional interactions that netted me some small rewards, like persistently throwing a coin into a fountain every day. I hope the town gets more fleshed out with interactions like these as the game progresses. I was running around looking for more excuses to just hang out in the stylish world Necrosoft has made.

And stylish it is. The game washes you over in warm colors, making this giallo horror-tinged world feel cozy. Red, yellow, and purple hues blend across battle screens and the town’s streets at night to impart a distinct aesthetic to Demonschool’s setting. The overworld BGM changed every weekday. Each tune felt fitting, pleasing to the ears, and showed some nice variety. Some songs feature smooth, funky renditions reminiscent of Persona games, while others bring out the organ and harpsichord for a more gothic-horror atmosphere.

The Stylish Cast

Demonschool’s character designs convey a strong sense of personality as their art fills the screen in dialogue scenes. Constantly shifting expressions make conversations feel dynamic and involving. But who are these students? The orphaned leader, Faye, has a family history of demon hunting and can sus out others with potential. Her excited brashness sets the narrative tone as gleefully rebellious and not-too-serious. She’s joined by reluctant good student Namako, resident meathead Destin, and VHS-loving nerd Knute. I didn’t get a strong sense of depth to these characters in the short time I spent with them, but with their expressive and inclusive designs, I hope we get to see them grow past their obvious tropes. From what I could tell, Faye and Namako seem to hold centre stage here, and their one-on-one interactions were when the game’s writing felt most natural and genuine. For anyone who’s ever been disappointed by the lack of diversity in the Persona games’ casts, Demonschool has your back.

In this one in-game week, I experienced the self-contained storyline of the demonic paintbrush, socialized with the party in some minor yet charming interactions, and fought in about a dozen uniquely designed tactical showdowns against demons and demon-loving gangsters. The demo is roughly 2–3 hours, depending on how leisurely you move through each day and how much side content you engage with, though you will spend most of that time battling demons. In fact, I was a little surprised just how much of it was battling demons.

Afterschool Tactics

If I’ve made it sound like Demonschool is an even balance of social sim and tactics, let me clarify that the demo showcases it as a tactics game first and foremost. And it’s shaping up to be a damn good one. Battles take place in an abstract, detached grid of tiles. While the size of these maps can vary slightly, they are quite small, with an average of around 7×7 squares. Yet, you might find as many as ten enemies on the screen at once. Fortunately, your squad members have synergetic toolkits that can make dispatching multiple enemies in one turn a simple matter if you plan accordingly.

The size of the arenas, small numbers for health and damage (usually 1-3), and specialized ally and enemy unit abilities make Demonschool’s combat more reminiscent of the tightly designed Into the Breach than the sprawling skirmishes of Devil Survivor, Final Fantasy Tactics, or Fire Emblem. Battles are divided into planning and combat phases. The planning phase lets you methodically map out the way you spend your turn’s Action Points (AP). Characters can move a few tiles at a time in eight directions, and moving into an enemy initiates an attack. You can plan moves until exhausting your party’s AP. The main caveat is that the more moves you assign to a single ally in a turn, the more AP it will cost. This incentivizes you to use the entire party every turn to set up deadly combos.

After you plan out your turn, you get to watch the combat phase play out. I love watching the combat phase. The party moves quickly through detailed and satisfying animations that tickled my brain every time. Immediately afterward, the enemy gets their turn. Hopefully you accounted for everyone’s placement on the map and what enemies remain because, if you didn’t, it can easily lead to an ally’s death. I screwed up my circumstances a few times, but thankfully, there’s a menu option to restart the battle in a split second. And because battles can be completed in as little as three turns, I never felt frustratingly punished for trying something audacious or overlooking my enemy.

Each of the demo’s four characters has a unique purpose in battle. Faye is an all-round attacker, Namako is a support who can slide through enemies and leave them paralyzed for the turn, Destin is a heavy-hitter who can knock enemies away, and Knute is a healer who can’t engage enemies at all. Doing things with any of these characters gradually fills up their SPECIAL bar, which grants access to potent secondary abilities. Having party members placed in specific relation to one another can also initiate powerful combo attacks—such as having enemies sandwiched between two allies.

Same goes for the demons. Every enemy type has a different movement and attack pattern. Gangsters move two tiles toward a member of your party for a direct attack. The little Grunts can only move two tiles forward like a Chess pawn’s initial move. Jumptanks can leap long distances and knock back allies in their area-of-effect to mess with your positioning. And there are many more. This all makes mapping out how to most efficiently dispatch your enemies a constant thought process.

Demons spawn gradually throughout the fight, and the win condition asks you to defeat a certain number of enemies before moving towards the barrier on their side of the battlefield to seal it off. So, you don’t have to kill every single opponent to end the fight. Demonschool incentivizes perfect strategy with letter grades for each battle that yield better rewards, but you can also scrap your way through fights and go for the seal even with a party in shambles. It’s a meticulously balanced skill floor with a high ceiling, smartly accommodating both story-driven players and tactics heads.

There’s already a lot to appreciate about Demonschool‘s combat in this early slice of the game, but it also feels like only a taste of much more. There will no doubt be more characters who join the party, and even the simple act of selecting from a larger pool to synergize effectively against a given battle’s enemy lineup will unravel further layers of depth. An equipment menu is also present. There’s not much to equip in the demo, but it looks like you’ll be able to buff your party members with additional resistances and such as you accumulate more items. Moreover, you can use class credits earned from battles to “study” additional abilities.

The end of the demo indicates that Demonschool includes 10+ more weeks of this gameplay loop. I’m already invested in how the game’s story and battle mechanics will develop. While I was a little underwhelmed by what I saw from the narrative side of things, that’s mainly because the fantastic character designs and interesting premise made me want more. And based on what Necrosoft has promoted, I might still get it. On the other hand, there’s no doubt in my mind about the quality of the combat. Whether you come for the demon-hunting gang and stay for the crunchy tactics or come for the tactics and enjoy the narrative flavoring, Demonschool has the potential to be one of this year’s indie darlings. There’s no specific release date yet, but keep an evil eye out as it’s currently slated for a Q2 2024 release on its Steam page.

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Aleks Franiczek

Aleks Franiczek

Aleks is a Features writer and apparently likes videogames enough to be pursuing a PhD focused on narrative design and the philosophy of player experience. When not overthinking games he also enjoys playing them, and his favorite genre is “it’s got some issues, but it’s interesting!”

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