Academagia: The Making of Mages
I confess. I, a grown man, have read and enjoyed the entire series of Harry Potter novels. They're not exactly complicated fiction but they're entertaining, they've helped get a load of children interested in reading for pleasure and (barring the comments of some folks too religious for their own good) they invoke a moral message of loyalty, courage and the triumph of good over evil. I'm a little too old to dream of what would happen if I were to one day be accepted into Hogwarts but I have occasionally wondered what I'd make of living in such a world. And now, here's my chance...
Of course, this isn't Hogwarts (I suspect Ms Rowling would want a word if it were). This is the Academy of Magic in the fantasy city of Mineta, a magical school with many similarities to that other exciting educational establishment. As a student at the Academy, you attend classes and study for your exams - but there's not much fun in just doing that. Why not spend a little time training your magical abilities, visiting the shop, or even just exploring? Students can also engage in a range of extracurricular activities that include earning some extra cash, going on adventures, competing for your school house or simply spending time with your friends. Being a school, of course, you'll also have enemies and rivals... and being a magical school, they may not resort to ordinary pranks. Watch yourself!
Academagia is perhaps best described as a life simulator. Each day you plan your activities (you can plan up to a week ahead, or more, but each day can be adjusted as you go) by selecting three tasks. By default, these will be to attend classes and rest. There are options to explore, adventure, study, train, work and many more. As you learn new things the range of tasks you can choose from increases. Each task has consequences that affect your stats in a variety of ways. Working, for instance, will increase your cash - and your stress. A number of random events can also take place and your options in these events depend upon your skills and your stats. Success can reward you - failure will often penalise you. Aside from stress (which is bad) and your social relationships, you might fall ill or even get detention!
Stats are initially determined when you generate your character. There are squillions of decisions to make here - do you invest your points in basic stats, or on other attributes such as background, life changing events or a promising horoscope? It pays to plan ahead here - rather than trying to be good at everything, and ending up a mediocre drudge in all fields, decide early on how you wish to specialise. Your basic stats will increase far more through your experiences at school anyway. You can also temporarily boost your stats (or counter those of your rivals) with items and spells - the careful use of these can significantly boost your success in adventures or general school life.
One's interface is a single screen, with character details listed on the left, a main section occupying most of the middle and various other bits of information on the right (much of which seems irrelevant at times, but can also be useful). A wheel at the top lists the current game date and has numerous option buttons (such as the menu). It would help to provide a better sense of time if the dates were Gregorian rather than some fantasy world equivalent (I do not even know how many months there are in this calendar, much less what order they come in). The central part of the screen changes according to what you're doing - most commonly your calendar and the end of day breakdown, but also a range of pretty backgrounds for when random/adventure events kick off. These backgrounds are static and are used for multiple events. Everything is accompanied by a selection of classical music, but it isn't large and soon begins to repeat. There is an option to switch it off. There are no sound effects that I'm aware of.
Controls are almost entirely mouse. Keyboard input is needed for your name when generating a character and for entering saved game names, but that's about all. There is a LOT of text. The mouse wheel scrolls this text and is context-sensitive - hover the cursor over different parts of the screen and the text beneath is moved by the wheel. There are also scroll buttons you can click on should you have no scroll wheel. The scrolling is not ideal - for one thing, moving to a new item often doesn't reset the text to the beginning, so if you scroll to the bottom of a page of text you'll find yourself at the bottom of the next and have to scroll up again. Buttons are often not obvious, and when planning your day you often need to select what aspects of a task you are using (bizarrely, you don't do this all at once, as you'd expect - you instead select, say, "explore" and then specify what you're exploring when you confirm the day's events).
This all impacts somewhat on the playability. The starting player is confronted with an enormous quantity of information, much of it making little sense, and as they play they will find it increases exponentially. Should they be studying hard, or focusing on training? What spells do they need to learn, and how? As each skill can impact on other skills, you may find you need to train in other fields to unlock options in your current field. This is a game that would need a considerably weighty manual to explain how everything operates, and you most certainly do not get it - whether this should be considered a relief or a disappointment depends on your point of view! There are some efforts at helping out the starting player - a previous student leaves a rather long letter in your room, explaining the basic principles, and you have a mentor that can show you around a little - but beyond learning the mechanics of the game you're left somewhat bewildered and clueless. This may be considered realistic!
This impacts on the longevity of Academagia in a rather curious fashion. Those players that get utterly swamped will play for a while in the hopes of figuring it out, and eventually give up. There are two "main" adventure threads to follow, though each game will only allow you to choose one or the other; however, they aren't signposted in any real sense and I suspect many players have stumbled into them without realising what they were. Adventures can be difficult and may require several attempts. There are, however, a small group of players that will thrive on this information overload. These are likely to be fans of Rogue-like RPGs in which everything is a voyage of discovery. If you like experimenting and trying to fathom out how a game works, this will be a good challenge for you.
I've encountered a number of minor irritations in my play, but aside from the learning curve (perhaps "cliff-face" would be more apposite) there weren't any major problems. The text interface needs the most work. Aside from the way text scrolls so badly in many fields, it strangely doesn't scroll at all in the main window but jumps whole pages. I found this much more readable once I got used to it and think it would work well applied to everything else. More problematic is the shop interface, in which the names of items on display don't fit in the box and leave many of them a mystery to be fathomed out from their description. You also automatically select or deselect items in the shop when you click on them, so just browsing can easily load your shopping basket. And some controls are just unintuitive - why can't I select my tasks fully in my calendar, rather than filling in the details when I confirm the day's events?
A curious and highly detailed game, Academagia is a bold stab at an unusual genre and a popular market. I applaud the obvious effort that has gone into it, but I somehow can't see this being a big success. It will prove very popular with a small niche, and befuddle everyone else.
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