Academagia: The Making of Mages ReviewPublisher: Black Chicken Studios
Platform: PC exclusive
UK Price (as reviewed): £19.95 inc. VAT
US Price (as reviewed): $24.95 exc. Tax
Academagia is one of the most personally frustrating games I’ve ever played because, on the one hand, it’s exactly the type of game into which I’d love to sink months of my life. On the other hand, though, it’s so goddamn slow and tedious that it effectively spoils itself before you can really get into it.
The setup for the game is your usual sort of child life sim – a niche genre if ever there was one, but made popular by the likes of the excellent Princess Maker series
. Those of you who are snickering at the title of that
series have clearly never played the games; they're more engrossing, interesting and innovative than most Western titles.
Anyway, for those not in the know, the formula of the genre is that you plan out the life of an in-game character in detail, influencing their life by deciding whether they will spend time studying, exercising, gossiping and so on. Academagia puts a new spin on this by making your character a new inductee at a school for wizards – a Hogwarts simulator, basically.
It’s a brilliant choice of setting, allowing access to all the tropes of the fantasy genre, plus a number of deus ex machinas
and the obvious basis for a skills system. You have to balance in-game attributes carefully to avoid flunking, while also finding room to satisfy your own player's needs for adventure. Academagia presents these choices to you via a calendar on which each day has three slots – morning, afternoon and evening – which can be spent doing one activity of your choice. Activities range from obvious choices, such as studying or exploring the school grounds, through to the use of specific items and spells to buff your skills or damage other students. You can even play through a separate storyline as your familiar, if you want.
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There are so many options, in fact, that it quickly becomes overwhelming. Do you want to gossip in the dining hall or the puzzle room? Do you want to cast one of your 15 starting spells, or study a new one? Do you want to concentrate more on a particular task, adding stress in order to get a greater reward? The options go on and on, made more exasperating by a vast in-game lore that you’ll often need to decipher to understand the full range of choices.
And the quests!
Never before have I had to sift through so much text. Academagia gathers all the complexity of any other RPG and then uses that as a starting point. There’s so much you need to absorb just to understand the basics of the world that I ended up staying away from all other characters just to keep the amount of data more manageable.
Even then it wasn’t easy, however. There’s nothing simple about crafting a character whose basic skills range from Theory of Negation through to Greengrocery, from Fitness to Calligraphy.
What makes Academagia so frustrating, however, is that there’s clearly a really good game within the morass of information. Once you’ve learned to either strictly limit the focus of your character to just two or three strengths (or have painstakingly gone through every over-worded entry in the glossary) then Academagia instantly becomes one of the most absorbing and interesting titles you’ll ever play. There are eons of replays to be taken from the unique characters and the plentiful random events – it’s just learning enough to access them that’s the problem.
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The end result of all this is that Academagia feels like a game in which the designers and writers let their imagination run a little too freely. There are numerous skills that easily could have been consolidated, plus more – such as Greengrocery – which really should have been dropped altogether. Depth is usually something to be appreciated in games, but here it's something to be feared.
Academagia tries to compensate for this by billing itself as a game about the learning experience – you aren’t punished for failing, but encouraged to try again. However, that philosophy doesn’t work as well in game design as it does when you’re trying to soothe an
upset child. It effectively means that you’re often funnelled into grinding quests over and over again, usually because Academagia’s interface and scope isn’t clear enough to tell you the sensible option. It’s a game about building a character and a personality of your own, but the scope is so vast that you’re more often defined by the hundreds of activities you can’t do, rather than what you can.
Naturally, there’s still a hardcore audience for this type of experience, and those who persevere will be rewarded with knowledge of a deep lore and the ability to create unique and interesting stories. Sadly, the majority of gamers will inevitably be put off by Black Chicken’s inability to edit its work or bring Academagia down to a more accessible level – a fact made more obvious by the UI which, while dotted with charming art, is still very staid and lacking in visible indicators of character progression.