Review: Video Games Relive High School Horrors

Adults tend to look at schools as places of learning, safety and discipline.

The people who actually go to them know better. To students, schools are fraught with danger, intrigue and barely controlled chaos.

Few of us went to a squeaky clean facility like the one in "High School Musical."

My own alma mater was more like Sunnydale High in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," with bloodsuckers (OK, metaphorically speaking) lurking behind every bank of lockers.

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Most American kids are well into summer break right now, barely conscious of the nightmare that awaits them after Labor Day. Now is as good a time as any to start getting them ready — perhaps with a visit to a virtual school.

After a semester at one of these institutions, the real thing might not look so bad.

—"Grim Grimoire" (NIS, for the PlayStation 2, $39.99): This quirky strategy game is set in the Silver Star Tower, an imposing gothic castle that will remind many of Hogwarts.

The echoes of "Harry Potter" don't end there: In "Grim Grimoire," a young student of magic has to contend with an evil force who has powers far greater than her own. There's even a headmaster named (ahem) Gammel Dore.

Happily, "Grimoire" quickly develops its own personality. The faculty members are intriguingly weird — the sorcery teacher is a devil, while the alchemy instructor is a lion — and they interact in surprising, sometimes perverse ways. Learning their secrets is essential to saving the academy.

Each level is a war between good and evil. You use your grimoires (spell books) to generate mana, which you then use to summon familiars that you send into battle.

The familiars start out wimpy (elves and fairies), but before long you'll be summoning deadlier troops, like golems and dragons.

You can't just summon a bunch of high-level monsters and rush the enemy, though; usually, you'll need a good mix of familiars to win.

"Grim Grimoire" is a lighter version of a PC-style strategy game, but it's no less challenging.

Three stars out of four.

—"Death Jr. and the Science Fair of Doom" (Konami, for the Nintendo DS, $29.99): Every school has its freak contingent, but in this series all the students are freaks.

Death Jr. is the son of the Grim Reaper; his friends include a girl with stigmata and a boy who lives in a jar.

When conjoined twins Smith and Wesson bring a nuclear reactor to the science fair, demonic forces get loose, turning the school into a nightmarish parody of itself.

DJ and his buddies are endearingly macabre, and Konami clearly likes them enough to build a franchise around them. Unfortunately, the games so far haven't matched the character design.

Like the two previous "Death Jr." adventures, "Science Fair" is a blandly generic platform game, consisting mostly of running, jumping and swinging a scythe.

For a project with such basic gameplay, the controls in "Science Fair" are sluggish and imprecise, whether you're using the DS's buttons or its stylus. Tasks that should be simple become frustrating, and the payoff isn't worth the exasperation.

One-and-a-half stars.

—"Brooktown High" (Konami, for the PlayStation Portable, $39.99): The threats at Brooktown High School are less physical; instead, your main enemies are rejection and humiliation.

"Brooktown High" simulates senior year at a clique-ridden school, although, oddly enough, each stereotype (nerd, jock, preppy) seems to be represented by just one person. Your goal is to make nice with everyone and find a date to the prom.

The problem with "Brooktown High" is that it gives you so little time — 30 minutes per week, accelerated to about 5 minutes in real time — to chat up your classmates that it's hard to make a move on that art-class cutie.

Some characters will ask for favors, and you can earn money with a Friday-night job, but there's no action in "Brooktown High." You'll want to drop out long before graduation day.

One-and-a-half stars.