Demonschool delivers a more active tactics RPG experience - PAX West 2023 hands-on/interview
At PAX West 2023, the Video Games Are Good team went back to school with Demonschool, the fast-moving tactics RPG that evokes Persona-like sensibilities and an Italian horror film-inspired blend of beauty and fear. After our brief time with the demo, we talked with Necrosoft Games Founder and Director Brandon Sheffield about the game's unique set of inspirations and the clever ways they're changing up the genre.
There's something about the amusement park-style presentation of booths at an event like PAX West that makes them so exciting. As a lifelong fan of the industry, seeing all these studios celebrating their work and using well-themed stagecraft to do it is just plain fun.
For us, there was no better showcase than Demonschool. Lined up in a row sat school desks and familiar hard blue plastic school chairs (bonus points for desks with cubbies, points docked for no foot baskets). Welcoming people in from the fringes of the show floor, there was a classic A/V cart with a CRT TV playing a distorted version of the game's trailer — giving all the substitute teacher movie day vibes — and a beautiful, massive backsplash of the game's art. Even with big, bombastic Tekken blaring loud music alongside giant screens looping their trailers, it's this humble booth's ability to communicate Demonschool's vibes so succinctly that left an impression long after we left the show.
If we were awarding things like Best Booth, Ysbryd and Necrosoft would take top prize. But for all the flash of its booth, how does the game stack up? Well, after showing up to class right on time and reading through our syllabus, we spent some time with Demonschool's demo.
Hands-on impressions with Demonschool
Developer: Necrosoft Games
Genre: Tactics RPG
Platform(s): PC, PS4/5, Xbox Series S/X, Nintendo Switch
The college years are chaotic enough. You're finding yourself, perhaps discovering love, and keeping up with seemingly endless amounts of coursework where every professor thinks their class is the most important thing in your life. The last thing you need is a demonic apocalypse sniffing at your door. Well... for the heroes of Demonschool, a group of oddball friends who've found themselves pulling supernatural investigations on the island, that's just a Tuesday.
Demonschool's PAX demo offered two options: exploration and boss fight. The former leaned into more of the narrative with a sampler of the Persona-like day-to-day progression of the game, while the latter allowed you to jump right into the fray with a multi-phase boss fight. With our scheduled interview fast approaching, we chose to keep it simple and take in the sights of Demonschool's day-to-day affairs.
It opens with your first sampling of Demonschool's tactical combat system. Taking place in two phases, planning and execution, Necrosoft looks to change up traditional tactics format by providing a system that better emulates a fluid battlefield. In planning, you rely on positioning and a simple "move to attack" format to set up combos between your team of heroes and eliminate as many demons as you can before you run out of action points. You can rewind at any point in this phase, allowing you to run as many different strategies as you want before locking in your final turn. When you're satisfied, you switch to the execution phase, one that sees all your characters acting at once in beautiful, fast-moving harmony.
Demonschool's combat system does fun things to incentivize creative thinking, promote the use of all your party members (rather than focusing on that one mega-unit to mow enemies down), and make the action actually feel like action. Nailing a perfect series of moves to wipe out large swaths of the screen at once is so satisfying, and seeing it all explode outward in the execution phase is even better. We're fascinated to see how complex this simple system gets in the full release.
After the combat wrapped up, we were released back into Demonschool's unsettling but silly island university setting. Our time crunch only allowed us to get a brief look at the world before moving on, but we got to experience a snippet of the dynamics between the game's cast and saw some of the humor and heart behind some of the goofier side quests you can get wrapped up in. To wrap up our demo, we visited a cemetery where we witnessed a quest in progress.
We were checking in on a kid who had earlier been looking for his father, only to find him now accompanied by his very clearly demon-possessed father. Speaking in broken sentences and taking his kid to a cemetery for a fun day out was certainly off-putting, but he insisted he was "NORMAL HUMAN MAN," and the kid admitted he was just kind of glad to get some quality time with his dad for once, so we left them to their lives.
Demonschool's brand of humor is one of our favorite parts of the experience. It's constantly cheeky, with silly throwaway NPC gags (like our favorite duo of the Red Bag Liker and Hater) and character dialogue that leans into the absurdity of the scenes they're in. It offsets the otherwise spooky demon-filled narrative nicely and gives the whole affair a ton more character and relatability.
We're interested in the full release promising the ability to develop relationships with your fellow party members and the idea of planning out your school schedule to level up stats and the like, but even the tiniest glimpse of the game's goofy writing promises a tongue-in-cheek narrative experience that we'd enjoy no matter what.
After the school bell excused us, we were off to meet with Necrosoft's Founder and Director Brandon Sheffield for an interview to better understand the course material.
Brandon Sheffield on speeding up tactical action, humor in horror, and the many surprising inspirations of Demonschool
VGG: Since its reveal, we've been so intrigued by Demonschool's planning and execution battle system, particularly the ways it actually simulates a more dynamic battlefield. Tactics games are usually very... piece by piece. Isolated. Very chess. Can you talk to us about how that came together and some of the challenges you faced developing it?
Sheffield: With Demonschool, I was trying to come up with a way to make tactical battles be a little faster and more streamlined. In a traditional tactics game, of course there's nothing wrong with them, but you select your character, select a destination, confirm it, select an enemy or a friendly, and then select what you're gonna do: attack, defend, etc. You have to confirm all these times. It's a lot of clicks.
I was thinking there must be a way to make that faster. So in our game, you select a character and you select a direction. Then that character will contextually interact with a demon or a friendly or an item depending on whatever is there. And... that's it. That's the initial idea. I was looking at things like Valkyria Chronicles, where you plan out where your units go and get to see the action play out, and Suikoden where action phases look a little more dynamic, where characters can cross each other up and have attacks overlap.
By doing our planning and execution, you can plan out more complex combos and really optimize your actions, because you can always rewind and try out new things. It makes it look a little more interesting.
VGG: I think that's such a huge advantage for this, where it feels like they're properly teaming up and working out the battle, as opposed to being more isolated in traditional tactics.
Sheffield: Yeah. Our action point system is also there to try to encourage players to use all the characters together in concert. Your first action costs one action point, your second costs two, third costs three, per character. But they all use a shared action point pool. So, ultimately, you find that it's more efficient to use everyone and have them all kind of interact with each other.
VGG: In that same vein of wanting to find harmony with all the characters... how does the relationship system work here in Demonschool and affect the tactics gameplay?
Sheffield: It's pretty simple, in that you're mostly choosing to interact with someone or not, or making a choice to get friendlier with one person versus another. But we always make it very clear who you're going to be increasing your friendship meter with. And as you level it up, you get more story, you get stronger combos between those two characters, and you also get potential new endings out of that.
VGG: Awesome. I have to say, I appreciate the dedication to clarity when leveling up relationships. I just remember playing Tales of Symphonia with my cousin and literally needing a giant printout of how each dialogue choice affected your relationship with each character. It was just... too much.
Sheffield: Yeah. I'm hoping people won't need GameFAQs to handle these relationships, but we'll see.
VGG: Anytime I hear relationships, I think romance. Is there romance potential in these relationships?
Sheffield: Yeah, there's romance potential as well.
VGG: One of the things that we find interesting about this particular narrative is that it focuses on college students. For whatever reason, that's a really unexplored age in games, even ones with a school setting. And that's such a formative time with a lot of storytelling potential. What was the thought behind setting the characters in that phase of their lives?
Sheffield: Well, one major thing is if there's going to be any kind of romance, I want everyone to be over 18.
VGG: No Fire Emblem: Three Houses here.
Sheffield: Totally. I mean, Persona as well. You can date a teacher in Persona, when you're in high school. It's... not good. I love Persona, to be clear.
The other thing about it is that university is often when people are living by themselves for the first time and finding out who they are outside of the context of their parents, their family, their old group of friends.
They're trying to renew themselves out here and figure out who they're going to be going forward. And that's a really great situation to put a lot of people trying to find themselves through this crisis and trying to find who their real friends are and find each other. College is a great time period for that, and so it fits our narrative very well.
VGG: Yeah, you know, I think a lot of us can relate to that even still.
Sheffield: For sure. You don't have to go to college to experience these themes and feelings and stuff. It's just a handy shorthand for getting there.
VGG: One of the things that we loved most from the demo was how funny the writing was. You've got cheeky side characters with their one-liners that show Demonschool isn't afraid to get a little silly and not take itself super seriously. Can you talk about how the humor sort of bounces off the otherwise dark and unsettling vibes?
Sheffield: There's a manga called Dorohedoro by Q Hayashida. They did an anime for it recently as well. And I really liked that kind of vibe because it was a very horrific scenario [a crime-riddled, violent world of magic], but people in that world were so used to it.
It was so normal for them and they had to find humor in mundane things. So I was going down that route in a way, but also, I just like writing funny stuff. For some people, when you're facing adversity, you have to laugh at it to feel good, to feel like a human being during that time.
And there are also Italian horror films that use this duality of really beautiful music on top of really horrific scenes happening in the background. We use a similar strategy here with our soundtrack, but I was sort of carrying it through to the dialogue, too. These characters... they're not taking the situation lightly, but they're taking each other lightly within the context of the situation, if that makes sense.
VGG: Persona is something that a lot of people latch onto as an obvious parallel for this project, but it's clear you had some much more off-the-wall inspirations. Can you tell us more about what all went into the Demonschool cocktail?
Sheffield: There's a bunch of weird stuff. A lot of Italian horror films, like from Lucio Fulci — The Psychic, City of the Living Dead, Zombi 2. Horror manga: Suehiro Maruo is one guy, and Q Hayashida doing Dorohedoro, like I mentioned.
Game-wise, there's a game called Black Matrix that we took a lot of visual cues from. They're actually 2D looking like 3D, and we're 3D looking like 2D.
There's a lot more, but we can't really get into all of it here.
If you're just as fascinated as we are to see how those inspirations all come together to make a tactical RPG, don't miss your chance to keep up with development by wishlisting the game on Steam and following the Necrosoft team on social media!
Want to see more like this? Check out all of our PAX West 2023 coverage.