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?
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.