Demonschool immediately piqued my attention when it was revealed earlier this summer at the PC Gaming Show. That initial trailer showcased a spooky RPG set in a school filled with monsters that pulled just as heavily from early Shin Megami Tensei and Persona games as it did from the color palette and aesthetics of Italian Giallo horror films. I’m happy to say that after finally having a chance to play it for the better part of an hour in preview, Demonschool immediately became one of my most anticipated indie RPGs of 2023 alongside Sea of Stars.
While Demonschool is clearly inspired by those classic Atlus RPGs, it definitely goes in its own direction to forge a unique identity. The developers like to think of the game as an “RPG with tactics,” instead of a “tactical RPG.” They wanted a battle system that was simplified and ultimately reduced the number of clicks a player would have to make. And having experienced it in action for preview, I’d agree with this sentiment — Demonschool is streamlined in a way that makes each encounter move at a brisk pace and keeps the core energy of the game at a high level.
Battles feel like a nice mix of early Persona, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Suikoden. My encounters took place on a 8×10 isometric grid in a spooky and distorted version of a familiar environment, such as a school. You have eight action points shared across your entire party to spend during each turn. Each character’s first action, whether it’s movement, an attack, or a special ability like healing, costs one action point. That character’s next action that turn costs two points, then three, and so on. This growing cost encourages you to not just focus on a single strong party member, but rather utilize everybody and actually act like a team.
Location and spacing is key in these fights. If your attack knocks an enemy into another one of your party members, you’ll cause bonus damage. And if you manage to destroy an enemy with an attack, you get the cost of that action back, allowing you to prolong your turn even further. Despite its grid-based nature and tactical roots, there’s a breeziness to the battles that encourages experimentation – you can rewind your actions at any time before you lock them in, meaning you’re free to test things out.
I loved the look and feel of the enemies I came across during the demo. Upper torsos that crawled across the ground, bloated corpses that used their internal organs as AOE bomb attacks, and chain-wielding demons that felt like the Cenobites from Hellraiser all made for a wonderful crew of spooky adversaries. And while your party and the various ghouls you come across are largely displayed as 2D sprites, bigger bosses are represented as massive 3D monstrosities. As Demonschool takes place in the liminal space between the human and demon worlds, these grotesque creatures are meant to represent beasts that the human mind has difficulty comprehending. That’s ultimately a fancy way of saying that these bosses are massive, gross, and terrifying, and I’m stoked to take them all down.
Outside of battle, the game opens up and leans into some of those social sim elements that make Persona so beloved. You have a home base where you can chill out, catch up with party members, (I only met four in the demo, but the plan is to have upwards of 15 in the final game.) and customize its aesthetic. You can explore various parts of town to meet NPCs, discover side quests, and grow your relationships with characters. These relationships won’t just deepen the story, but also provide bonuses in combat and could ultimately impact the ending you receive. There were furthermore a lot of side activities like fishing and an arcade machine present throughout the world but not available to play in the demo version. On top of all of this, time plays an important role, as certain actions will cause the morning to become afternoon, and then evening, and so on.
I loved how Demonschool looked, sounded, and felt in these sections. Everything from the pulled-back isometric view, to the ‘80s-inspired synth soundtrack, to the simple act of how NPCs would lightly move as they breathe created a world that I just enjoyed hanging out in. The otherworldly transitions from a normal location to the distorted battlefields were a particular blast to witness.
My brief time with Demonschool told me everything I wanted to hear about the game. It showed me that there’s depth to the combat and an energy to the story that complements the great visuals and soundtrack that were first shown off in that reveal trailer. I’m excited to see more of the world fleshed closer to its 2023 release on PC and all major platforms.