Written by  :  Alex Z (1750)
Written on  :  Feb 08, 2014
Rating  :  2 Stars2 Stars2 Stars2 Stars2 Stars

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Now you can put the awfulness of Indiana Jones 4 into perspective

The Good

A brief description of this game is in order. The point of 1931: Sadie's Wacky Antics is to guide the titular character (Sadie) through the the titular year, and potentially to the titular library at the titular Pergamum (one thing must be said for 1931, it's true in its advertising). Like in Black Chicken's Studio's previous (and much better) game Academagia, you can't really fail in this game - no matter what you do Sadie will never get expelled from her University (unsurprising, considering she could always buy the entire thing) and can never get killed (even though "in mortal danger" seems to be her default state). This means your motivation is to explore as much of the game world's story as possible and progress your Dream, which starts as the search for the legacy of your missing parents, but can be switched to romancing one of the boys Sadie meets. That's right - the search for your brilliant, millionaire, long missing parents is both equally important and mutually exclusive as getting to first base.

The way to explore the world and progress your Dream is through adventures (called "Capers") that pop up in various locations. The adventures themselves are stories interrupted by several Obstacles. These obstacles can be of two types: one can be failed without aborting the entire caper, and the other must be passed in order to complete the adventure. The obstacle mechanic is perhaps the best thing in this game, and one feature that was very badly handled in Academagia - even before you set on a caper you can mouse over it and see exactly which skills will be tested, at what stage of the caper, whether there is an intermission in the caper (these could be very useful as they allow you time to prepare), which obstacles are mandatory and which are not.

When preparing for a caper you need to find a balance between permanently raising your skills through training and hoarding Inspiration Cards which will give a large one-time boost to some skills. This aspect of gameplay (which is, again, very similar to the vastly superior Academagia) is the best thing about this game: You can only spend a limited time in any location before your University life takes you to another one, thus limiting your ability to train in every skill. On the other hand, you can only keep a certain number of inspiration cards in your hand, which means you can't relay on them alone when doing capers. As if that wasn't enough, the quality of the inspiration cards you draw depends on how well trained you are in the corresponding skill. Furthermore, the rate at which you can learn skills and the number of cards you can keep depends on qualities which can be gained only by succeeding in your capers. This system is both simple enough to understand and complex enough to keep the player's interest. It all boils down to a difficult game of time management where you must carefully plan in advance what capers you can do in each location, which obstacles you will try to overcome (you can ignore the optional ones and focus only on the mandatory obstacles, but you will lose on important skill gains and story, and any failed obstacle increases the difficulty of the others), how much time will you train and in which skills, and what kind of inspiration cards will you seek.

In essence this game captures and builds upon the gameplay mechanics of Academagia. Sadly 1931 completely drops the ball on the actual storytelling aspect, which is kinda important when you're doing a Visual Novel. The game does offer much replayability if you play it on the normal or difficult levels. The game's difficulty is very well balanced: On easy you can complete almost all capers and succeed in every obstacle, on normal you'll have to choose which capers you want to peruse and which to ignore (and even then you might not finish many obstacles in them), and on hard you'll need to plan extremely well just to complete the main capers.

The Bad

Let's start with petty grievances. I am not a fan of anime. Sure, I could, and indeed have, watched it, but generally I don't particularly care for that art style. So it's no surprise that I didn't like the drawings in this game, and since the Ren'Py engine games usually fill the screen with the same (generally) immobile talking characters while moving all the text to a small line in the bottom of the screen, my dislike quickly turned into open hostility. I had to stare for hours at the brainless zombie-like huge eyes of Sadie and different NPCs. Watch their three token expressions stay transfixed on their poorly drawn mugs for entire conversations, all in front of a lazily drawn background. If that wasn't enough, the artists were hellbent on keeping the worst parts of anime: Characters had hair growing through their eyeballs. Inspiration cards were little chibis. But worst of all were the body types; it seems that Sadie's world has only two body types - slim and starving. Even when the text clearly stated that you are being attacked by a burly mook, you get a picture of a goon so thin the only thing he could menace is a sandwich.

You might think that the sudden popularity of the heroic chic look has something to do with the Great Depression that was going on at the time, but you'd be completely wrong! There is barely a mention or two of it in the entire game... that is set in New York and has 1931 in its title. No, the whole issue of collapsing economy and the rise of totalitarian ideologies is neatly ignored, except for the final part of the game. Even then it only mentions Nazism (of course it mentions Nazis - it's ripping Indiana Jones!), while completely ignoring Fascist Italy and Communist Soviet Union. Two ideologies that historically were viewed as an answer to the Depression, were more popular than Nazism and influenced many (if not all) of the new nations that rose in the aftermath of WW I. You'd think that in a world gripped with rising poverty and unemployment there would be some talk about Marxism (it's doesn't even matter if it's positive or negative), but no! In the sterile world of Sadie the millionaire debutante there isn't even a single mention of them. After all, this is merely a story about archeology, we would want to make it historically reasonable. Or, for that matter, interesting or engaging.

This brings me to the main character. Sadie is written so incredibly badly that even a teen comedy flick would be ashamed to have her. It is established early on that she is a super genius, knows pretty much all there is to know about archeology, speaks several ancient languages, has Houdini-like talent for magic tricks and she's 18. Now, if you're an aspiring bad writer, the thing to remember is that once you've made a character this unbelievable there is only one way to go down: make her into a complete dolt. Sure enough, Sadie's super intelligence and knowledge completely vanish once you need to overcome your first obstacle. This is understandable, since otherwise there would be no gameplay, but it all goes to show why good writing is essential in a game. Especially when that game is an interactive story!

Bad writing doesn't stop with Sadie. Oh no. Most characters are badly written. Most of Sadie's possible romances (which are all straight - otherwise this game might have some redeeming qualities) are either fairly unpleasant or just ill advised. There are two guys that lie to her constantly and show a great deal of arrogance, belittling her often despite her (supposed) mastery of pretty much everything. Another is her own professor who, despite attaining such a respectable position at a very young age is very insecure and jealous of Sadie. Who is his student. Which he is also (depending on your choices) dating. This is all kind of messed up, and I didn't even mention her romance with the living dead! The only possible romance that in any way makes sense is with her childhood friend - a completely normal person, though he eventually starts to develop Tesla-like understanding of physics and mechanics. However, because he is normal, the story visible goes out of its way to jackknife him into Sadie's busy life of Indiana Jones by way of Lara Croft.

Speaking of which: If Sadie was placed in the shoes of Mr. Jones, she would have found the arc of the covenant and the holy grail within a weekend. Yes, Sadie's capers are so camp even Flash Gordon would blush. One of her very first adventures is to discover (and then promptly destroy, because that's how things are done in Sadie's world) a secret underground temple in New York's underground, dedicated to evil Lovecraftian monsters. A discovery that is mostly forgotten because Sadie also needs to meet Hindu gods and discuss matters with Baron Samedi. I was honestly surprised that there weren't any aliens in this game, because a world this contrived could only have been made by otherworldly Builders from Terry Pratchett's Strata.

I could go on and on about how bad character development was, and how some major conflicts could have been solved had the characters sat down and talked to each other like adults, or how the game's end isn't satisfactory because it is meant to leave room for a sequel. But I honestly would rather not think about this game any longer.

The Bottom Line

This game is boring and poorly written. Neither the romances nor the main story are engaging and the length of the game works against it, since it means that you have to suffer the dull and unbelievable characters even more than in other games. If you're interested in this game because of Black Chicken's Studio's previous success with Academagia, turn back now! This game is but a pale shadow of Academagia, despite some improvement to game mechanics. If you do buy this game I strongly recommend never playing on the easy setting. Playing on harder difficulties would let you enjoy the game's mechanics (which are the game's stronger side) and won't overexpose you to the ridiculous story.