Pottering About: Academagia Impressions

By Kieron Gillen on August 24th, 2010 at 7:03 pm.

We were sent a copy of Academagia pre-release, and it was rapidly filed in RPS’ “Kieron’s Sort Of Thing” dumper. I had a look at it, bounced off the surface and made a note to return to it, ideally when a demo was out. Since then, we’ve had a steady string of people asking what we made of it, so I manned up, read the tutorials and headed back to Mage College. Because that’s what it is. Academagia is, basically, a complicated Life-Simulator set at a Hogwarts style School. Think Princess Maker with Wizards of Kudos with cantrips. And, frankly, a scarily deep Princess Maker with Wizards.

Almost adorably, the developers deny that the inspiration was Harry Potter, instead talking about the off-action scenes of Wizard of Earthsea. Well, perhaps that was the original inspiration, but there’s very little which feels as creepy and otherworldly as Le Guin and lots that screams Rowling, from the general tone, to the graphical style to details like the magical sport you can concentrate in. Perhaps its because it’s built by a multi-national team with lots of contractors (50 people doing the game’s writing, apparently) which reached for the more famous inspiration.

And the result is… well, playing half way through the game’s year reveals that it’s not just complicated. It’s really genuinely ambitious.

So, the core mechanics are very much standard to the life-sim. As in, you have a calender for your character. On each day, you get to choose three slots. So, for example, you can go to your lessons in the morning and afternoon, and then – say – explore the campus in the evening. There will be the chance of a random event, which you’ll get choices to respond to – or perhaps even a magical duel or something more fancy. And you can always have actually chosen to go on one of the game’s adventures. Anyway, the results of your decisions feed back and influence your statistics and abilities, which leave you in a slightly better position to take on the next day’s challenges.

And in Academagia, you really do generally end off in a better state. There’s relatively little of the Princess Maker trope of selecting a day’s activity which increases one stat while decreasing another – which suits me fine, as it was one of the least interesting things in the genre. Which isn’t to say things can’t go wrong. Getting bullied by your class-mates can stress you out to the point of being bed-ridden, cause mad moods with awkward stat penalties and similar. Disasters tend to be social disasters as much as anything, like calling your teacher “Dad” or something.

This starts to lean towards some of the area where the game’s really pushing it. Rather than the pupils being abstract events, the whole of your year are individual characters, each of whom do their own daily routine, each with their own priorities and abilities, each who’ll grow and show their personality. And I have to assume they’re actually individually crafted rather than generated – their bios certainly seem have the touch of a human hand – because the game is the the first of a series of five, each one taking in one of the years at the school. So these people will be the ones you’ll end up crafting an experience across the whole games. Romance, adventure, hatred, whatever.

You don’t really get a sense of how impressive the fact that all these people have exactly the same abilities as you amass until you realise exactly how details you have. Dozens upon dozens of skills, spells, abilities, Phemes (the atomic elements which spells are made) and items are gathered during play. Hell, you don’t even know what skills you can have – even quite common skills – until you uncover them during play. Even before you start, you go through page after page of options to select. What familiar do you want? Was there an omen when you were born? What’s your relationship to your family like? And, obviously, what stats do you have? It’s the Fallout of Princess Maker games with masses of ways for you to define your character, which continues into the game. The story of the game is defined by your choices. Swot or bully, social-maven or outsider. It really is your call.

And that whole intro sequence hits my first major reservation with Academagia. It’s absolutely inaccessible. That character creation is a dozen often-scrollable pages of options for you to choose between, none of which you have any understanding of their implication. You can get a vague sense by following the youtube tutorials, but this is frankly where I bounced right off first time. It’s screaming out for some pre-generated characters to just select and play – ideally, if they were playing smart chasing some Potter-dollars – based around analogues of people from the books. At the very least, that would provides some templates to help people think about what grouping of options may be useful for a character to pursue. Meaningful choices only matter when you’ve got some idea what any of them may mean.

This continues into the game generally. The game does try – virtually everything can be selected to give a a little text to explain it – and there’s an opening sequence of adventures which try and guide your way through major aspects of the game (adventures, gaining a clique, sucking up to the teachers, shopping, duelling, the effects of locations, etc) but the sheer mass of options inevitably leads to tendencies to hide stuff. A good example is the skill system, where skills are grouped beneath higher skills. You don’t train the higher skills directly. The higher skill is the lowest of the three highest sub-skills which… no, this isn’t the complicated bit. This is actually quite transparent after you start playing. The problem is remembering which subskills are actually beneath which higher-level skill. The observation skill, for example, turns up in a lot of skill challenges. It takes forever for me to realise that it’s actually a sub-class of Blackmail. Looked at logically, the game should have some subskills beneath several higher-level skills… but instead the game creates multiple skills which sound close to identical (For example, “Social Skills”, “Conversation”, etc) only one of which is of any use in a given skill challenge. Though, to be fair, the governing stat may do as well. Or does it? It’s this sort of detail the game simply doesn’t tell you.

The second problem is that the stuff it does tell you is hard to get. The UI, to its credit, does often try. There’s a mass of information in the game you’ll want to know, and it tries to make as much of it as your fingertips as possible, but there’s normally something you’d like to know right now which you’ll have to go back a couple of menus to get at. The worst example of this are the locations. As you explore, you discover that almost everywhere will give you a bonus if you try other tasks in there. So – to choose a hypothetical example – doing a music performance in a magical echoing cave may give you a bonus to your play skills. This is one of the main ways you manage to achieve in some of the most difficult skill challenges. Problem is, when you get to select where to do stuff, you just get a list of all the locations you know in the game, with no further information. In other words, you have to get a notepad, go back some screens, find what you need to know, and come back. Oh – and for some reason the list of “Locations” is beneath that of “Lore” in that bit of the UI, meaning a whole load of mouse-wheeling past the useless Lore info to get there. Oh – and when you select the location, you’ll have to sub-select its special ability to see what it does. A pop-up when you select the choice back where you selected would have done it.

That’s fine detail. More crushing is bits where the game simply makes the wrong call at a higher level. Here’s what the actual basic game-screen looks like…

I’m not even going to pick up on the enormous amounts of dead space. Presumably this is because they wanted to actually make it work on non-wide-screen monitors or whatever the game’s been developed on can’t deal with it. I don’t even mind about that, because look at what they’ve done with the space available.

Okay, showing exactly why this basically pretty screen is so terrible is going to take a little explanation.

Look at the left side of it, beneath the portrait. Those little tags reveal each of your characters sub-abilities. I’m currently showing my skills and research-subjects. Or rather, I’m showing just shy of 1/5ths of my skills. That’s with them all folded down so you can’t see any sub-skills. I’ve just expanded them all and find would take 14 whole screens to show them all. That’s the number of skills and research topics you’ll probably have just over half way through the game. There’s many more I haven’t got. How do I move up and down the list? I mousewheel. That’s multiple screens of mousewheel to even decide what kind of state you’re in.

Frankly, my RSI is screaming. And I look at all the dead space even within the non-wide-screen area and wish they just filled it with information – move the portrait off to the right or merge it with the crest, then have the whole left side filled. Or had a different design with less stats. Frankly, sometimes I haven’t had the strength to go through the sub menus to make what I know would be the best choice, which I know is buried somewhere. In a real way, the biggest challenge isn’t the complicated, enormous world the developers have crafted, it’s actually sifting through the mass of information on it with the tools they’ve provided. The UI is the biggest challenge, and frankly – and this is someone who digs Dwarf Fortress – wrestling with it is actually physically hurting me. I’m not joking about the RSI. I actually like the game, but it’s not worth the hand-ache.

Which leads to my third problem. The game is clearly an acquired taste, and until they’ve dealt with some of the areas described above, I’d never recommend it to a general audience. The problem is, even for a very specific audience, I would recommend at least having a play with the UI to see whether you can hack it… and there’s no demo and the developers say that they’re not currently planning to have one. The game costs twenty-five dollars.

What’s that Hall & Oates?

Yeah, exactly.

It’s a shame. I’ll be keeping one eye on Academagia – not least because if it does get a demo, I’ll want to post about it – but right now, I simply can’t actively recommend it. If you’re interested, you can buy from their site, Impulse, Beamdog or Gamersgate.

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34 Comments »

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  1. Brumisator says:

    Hmmm… “for ages 9+” I doubt many of kids nowadays will play a game that requires so much reading.

    • Dante says:

      Then you deeply underestimate kids of this era and any other.

    • Dorian Cornelius Jasper says:

      [I’m reposting this from some email I intended to send, because it makes sense to put it here.]

      Yeah. It’s also funny how the intended audience appears to be, based on presentation, pretty darn young. That games obviously intended for an older audience tend to have premade characters while this doesn’t is also a surprising oversight.

      [EDIT: On some of the stranger stats-rewards interactions…]

      I think the thing about Studying improving character relationships is a matter of “every stat increase has at least some benefit.” As Studying normally only gets you higher exam scores and a nice “perk” when you max out a Study level, they sprinkle in some relationship upgrades with certain students (those interested in the subject) along the way. Skill increases, on the other hand, tend to reward you with Spells, Phemes, new places to visit, and bits of fluff. Along with better chances of succeeding on actions. Increasing Study levels tend to be pretty fast and easy, while increasing Skills takes longer, so the rewards for each increase seem balanced out that way.

      Also, I think being in class brings its own set of benefits: Mandatory skill increases for multiple subjects each “block” of time.

      It certainly isn’t a game to recommend to the general market, no, and it’s a pity. For my part, I seem to have taken to this game like an alcoholic fish to beer in spite of its glaring flaws and oversights. Is it embarrassing to admit that I’ve got a small handful of characters scattered through different saves so I can try different builds?

      Is it more embarrassing that I’m referring to these characters as “builds?”

  2. Coins says:

    It sounds very… interesting, but without a demo it will be hard to convince me to actually get this. Until then, I’ll just stare at the mass of information in the screenies. There’s actually a lot of possibility to fit more in it.

  3. Wilson says:

    Yeah, this sounds very interesting. But sadly the part of it which makes it interesting (e.g. the complexity and depth) is also what means I don’t want to buy it without trying a demo. Hopefully the devs will change their minds about having some kind of trial version.

  4. K. says:

    Ok, went to check on their site after halfway reading… this type of game is usually right up my alley… But the lack of demo brought me back.
    No demo, seriously?! These games are GREAT for limited-time tryouts… give me just some weeks or months to get the hang of it and develop a character or two.

    Ah, well, back to “My Pet Protector” :)

  5. Bullwinkle says:

    So, assuming everything continues as the devs have planned, it would cost me $125 to graduate young Perry Hotter? Uh…

  6. Epsz says:

    It’s two dollars, I don’t really care if there’s no demo. It looks awesome enough to risk a little money.

    • dadioflex says:

      Yeah, and you get to be a ROBOT NINJA!

      Why are they comparing it to Harry Potter?

      Colour me confused…

    • MWoody says:

      Uh, $2? $25 was what I took away… Did I misunderstand your comment? Is this a reply fail?

  7. l1ddl3monkey says:

    And I am reminded of…

  8. tmp says:

    How do I move up and down the list? I mousewheel. That’s multiple screens of mousewheel to even decide what kind of state you’re in.

    Frankly, my RSI is screaming

    It’s also possible to scroll the lists by clicking and holding down the “scroll up/down” buttons of the UI. It’s generally faster and less RSI-inducing.

    But yes, the UI does wrestle with the huge amount of stuff there is in the game and there’s some clunky, rough bits.

    But on the other hand, the amount of stuff it has there is absolutely huge. The experience is very very much like stumbling onto Princess Maker again and the pieces of lore, poems and other stuff you get when your character “learns” things is fantastic enhancement.

  9. Keith Nemitz says:

    I’ve been reading good things about this title. Surprising that it’s following the Cliffsky code of pricing, $25. It’s like declaring war on all the simple/fast/cheap iPad and casual games. Good luck to them.

    On a personal note, I’m a little bummed that it’s name is so similar to my next game, ‘arcada mia’.

    • TenjouUtena says:

      So, are you really that surprised that this game is offered at $5 more than the marque (buy-able) game on your site, which seems to be at least 3 years old and is priced at $20? Or the one that’s about 6 years old priced around $13?

    • Keith Nemitz says:

      TenjouUtena,

      I think it’s the right way to price things, but it’s hard. Steam has my game for sale at half off, and without that, I wouldn’t see the sales I do get from them. I seriously wish good luck to all who stand up for appropriate pricing. And a good title is worth keeping the price stable.

      Oh, and the naming thing, is just a coincidence. (wanted to edit original post for clarification)

  10. Simon says:

    $25 and no demo? As intriguing as this game sounds, no demo at that price point is a lost sale from me :( I’ll save my pennies for Recettear instead. Most unfortunate.

    • Chris D says:

      Yeah, I think they missed a trick here. After the Recettear demo Carpe Fulgur can pretty much name their price.

      This looks interesting but $25 is a lot to risk on a shot in the dark. If you don’t have a demo unless you have some great reviews you really need to have a price low enough to take a chance on.

  11. geldonyetich says:

    Being generally tired of the dumbed-down casual fare, my interest in piqued that here is a game that is not pulling any punches. However, there’s detail and then there’s pointlessly excessive detail. Until I get a chance to muck about it with it myself, it’s hard to say exactly where this game settles.

  12. Tom says:

    This is a game that 100% needs a demo. I remember hearing of its existence, and running full tilt to see if there was a demo. In fact, I found it because I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if they made a game that was a Hogwarts simulator?” after talking to a friend of mine about Hogwarts put into the Paranoia universe.

    For 10$, it’s an instant purchase sans demo. For 15$, I could stomach it without a demo. 25$ requires me to be sure it’s the best thing ever, and that means a demo. I have to be able to reach the end of the demo, and want to play more. If I can’t, then…I can’t pay that much.

    Which sucks because a Hogwarts simulator, especially one with a lot of freedom, sounds like the best game ever.

  13. CoyoteTheClever says:

    I bought it, and its generally pretty awesome, if complicated as hell. I like the writing, and it is definitely an improvement on the Princess Maker type formula. Yeah, as Kieron mentioned there are some problems, but in all honesty I think its worth a purchase just to support this kind of game, which is about as niche as niche gets. I’d also send a couple of posts on their forums asking for a demo and making a point of how it’ll get them more purchase in the long run.

  14. mihor_fego says:

    Hm… how can something even been considered a rip-off of Harry Potter, when that is a rip-off of The Books of Magic comic series? Sorry for all the Harry Potter fans, but first time I heard of the novels I was screaming: RIP-OFF! I guess Vertigo doesn’t get global distribution or what?

    By the way, if this gets a demo, it’ll probably get a lot more sales as few dare buy such games without trying them out first. Really, what are people thinking not making demos for games? They think big publishers not releasing demos for their AAA titles is a wise move?

  15. Jason says:

    What does this sentence mean?

    “You don’t really get a sense of how impressive all these people have their own abilities like you do until you realise exactly how details you have.”

    • Hidden_7 says:

      It means: “You don’t really get a sense of how impressive it is that all these people have their own abilities like you do until you realize exactly how many details you have,” except there’s some obvious typos of the “got distracted halfway through the sentence” or “mind going way faster than fingers” sort.

      At least that’s how I read it.

  16. latterman says:

    on a rather unrelated note:
    the girl’s surname from the second picture “kiffer” means pothead or “someone who smokes weed regularly” in German.
    so much for “multinational team doing the writing”.

    • tmp says:

      Oh it gets better than that. The name of city the whole thing takes place in (and which you routinely get to explore) also happens to be slang word for “cunnilingus” in Polish.

      good times.

  17. protorp says:

    Are there any other games that are a more reccomendable inroad into the genre? Princess Maker doesn’t look overly my bag of grain . . . but this style looks / sounds like it’d be fantastic to use for narrative, story led, wacked out rpgs / text adventures in interesting fantasy settings. Does such a thing remotely exist?

  18. Snargelfargen says:

    Having played for several hours, I think I can contribute a little info…

    The writing is for the most part, excellent. There’s a huge amount of flavour text, some of which is really quite funny. I happily spent 20 minutes simply reading the brief character bios for students and teachers. The random events are also pretty entertaining, and the options for adventuring with one’s familiar are a nice mix of surreal/hilarious.

    The biggest flaw currently, is that the system for browsing skills is incredibly obtuse, as Kieron discovered. I’m not even sure if some skills appear in the character menu until they have been trained/discovered. Worse, if you fail a skill challenge, you aren’t given any useful feedback apart from a generic “activity failed” note and possibly some more flavour text.

    I would recommend waiting to buy for a month or so when (hopefully) patches will fix some of the awkwardness. In any case, I suspect the game will become MUCH more playable as soon as the wiki’s skill info is cobbled together. Or the devs could release an actually decent manual.

  19. Greg says:

    There are lots of skills that don’t appear in your list(and thus can’t be trained up) until after you’ve increased them by trying to use them in a random event. I also have to go find the manual, as Gamersgate haven’t put it anywhere I can easily find.

    • Chris D says:

      Manual and video tutorial here

      I picked this up yesterday, because I am weak, but I’ve been really enjoying it despite interface issues being exacerbated by a broken mousewheel. Not for everyone but worth a look if you think it could be the kind of thing you’d enjoy.

  20. Dartman says:

    I’m bothered by the game’s price and the fact that it only plays through one year. That’s way too much money for this sort of game. On top of that, they seem to expect their buyers to be their beta players. (Okay, I should forgive them for this since the big boys do the same thing anymore.) They are issuing pataches frequently, so they aren’t ignoring their players.

    They need to edit and tighten up, combine skills, make it easier to access the information, provide a better manual that explains the same stuff the mentor NPC does so players can access this information when they have questions.

    I totally agree about the screen size. The buttons you need to select are teeny. It’s easy to click on the wrong skill if you’re not watchful. It would be nice if they added an arrow key function for scrolling (my mouse died on me the other day).

    It sounds like I hate the game. I don’t. But it needs a lot of work, and, IMO, is overpriced.

  21. Dallan Invictus says:

    This recently went on sale for $15 on Impulse, so I’m glad I googled first and saw this post. I took the plunge anyway, at that price, so I’ll see what I think, but thanks for letting me go in with open eyes.

  22. blammer6 says:

    For those who were concerned with there being no demo for Academagia, Spoon.net has a free 30 minute time trial you can play without even installing the game. You have to install a browser plugin at first, but it’s only a few MB download, won’t mess with anything else in your system, and once you have it, you can play Academagia or any other game on the site without installation.

  23. WCG says:

    Hmm,… it’s half-price ($12.47) on Impulse this weekend. I think I’ll give this one a try.

  24. KayMan1976 says:

    I’ve got to say – I’ve been playing it, and I think it’s fantastic.

    It’s pretty rare that I really want to repeat quite heavy games like this, but there’s an incredible amount of depth… even the core was extraordinary, and they’ve added about 12 DLCs by now.

    While I can see some of the Ursula Le Guin stuff, I just love the feel of the story. If you just copied and pasted what happened to you in a game into a book, many 13 year olds would lap it up…