Horror can be a love-it-or-hate-it genre. The gore, the tension, the sense of danger: These hallmarks of horror either provide hard-won catharsis or send folks scrambling to turn on the lights. Demonschool, an upcoming tactical RPG from Necrosoft Games, takes plenty of cues from horror movies, but aims to deliver demonic possession and fountains of blood without keeping the horror-averse up at night.
The clearest point of comparison for Demonschool is Atlus’s notoriously challenging Shin Megami Tensei dungeon-crawler series. Like that classic series, Demonschool stars a band of demon-hunting students who spend their nights eliminating supernatural threats and their days suffering through school. It features intense turn-based combat, relationship-building mechanics, and tons of style. But under the surface, more surprising influences are mingling.
Spooky, not scary
Take Demonschool’s boss battles. In and out of combat, the game’s characters are rendered as colorful 2D sprites, except for bosses. For these encounters, your party stays the same, but the gigantic bosses are rendered in 3D, giving them an otherwordly feel.
Creative director Brandon Sheffield tells Inverse that choice was inspired but by the practical effects in classic horror movies. Impressive as they can be, those effects often register as fake, and inspire admiration and curiosity more than fear. The same goes for Demonschool’s bosses.
“The 2D-3D split is meant to evoke those practical effects — to make you interested, but not scared,” Sheffield says.
That’s not to say that they can’t be grisly and horrific. A recent demo offered to Inverse features a giant skeleton as a boss that splits open to reveal a blood-dripping eyeball when attacked. According to Sheffield, one demo player at the 2022 Tokyo Game Show got to that point and “just ran away from the booth.”
So the truly squeamish may still have a hard time with Demonschool, but Sheffield says it’s more about showcasing the aesthetics of horror than instilling true terror. It’s for players who are “interested in spooky stuff, but don’t want to be scared.”
The aesthetics of fear
Horror artists like Suehiro Maruo and Junji Ito influenced the look of Demonschool, along with some much deeper cuts. Sheffield points to Black/Matrix, an obsure tactical RPG series that began on Sega Saturn, as inspiration for Demonschool’s environment art. Specifically, Black/Matrix uses a particular technique of “decaying” the edges of hard corners to make environments look more natural. Though Demonschool’s backgrounds are rendered in 3D, Necrosoft is using a similar technique to soften the edges of its world.
This tiny detail helps make environments look more natural and worn out, which is especially helpful given how much of the game takes place in rundown cemetaries and an abandoned wing of a university. You might not even notice it when you’re playing, but it’s just one more way of making the physical world feel more real and the demon realm more unsettling as a result.
Bodies in motion
Combat in Demonschool veers even further from horror for inspiration. Each turn is separated into a “planning phase,” where you choose attacks, and an “action phase,” where they’re carried out. Unlike most tactics games, you choose how each of your units will act on your turn, then watch them carry out their attacks in unison. That results in a joyfully chaotic action scene as your entire team rushes in to kick zombies in the face at once. Pull off a particuarly clever combo and an illustration that looks like a comic panel pops up on screen to highlight the characters who are teaming up.
Valkyria Chronicles is an indirect inspiration for the two-phase system. Like Demonschool, its combat features “planning phases” where you view the battlefield from an overhead point of view, though in practice the two systems are very different.
Similarly, Suikoden provided inspiration for the frenetic action phase. That series also has you select all of your party’s attacks at once, which are then executed with spectacular animations as each character jumps in to whale on the enemy. Demonschool amplifies it with flashier team-up attacks.
For the characters themselves, Demonschool looks to the real world. Each character comes from a different lineage of demon hunters from the game world’s past, but Necrosoft drew on real-life examples for their looks. For example, Knute, the party’s healer, wears a yellow wrap around his neck. That’s meant to evoke the yellow robes worn by some Buddhist monks, who practice nonviolence.
Due out early next year, Demonschool already seems to be combining these far-ranging inspirations into something totally unique. Even if you’re like me and can’t stomach horror, this is one RPG that may let you enjoy the spooky aesthetic without wanting to cover your eyes.
Demonschool launches on PS4, PS5, Xbox Series X|S, Nintendo Switch, and PC in 2023.