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SummaryA lot of potential, but in dire need of improvement
The GoodFirst things first: This is a choose-your-adventure open-ended text-based simulator-like sandbox game. And it came out in 2010 with graphics (what little that it has) that would have looked good on a Win98 game. Sill with me? Good! Then this review is for you.
Now that you know what to expect, lets get down to the good stuff: Unlike most textual games or choose-your-adventure types, this game offer almost endless possibilities for developing your character. You start the game by customizing your character background, sign of birth, early life experiences, interests, early accomplishments, family relations, items and familiars, as well as directly increasing personal stats (like intelligence, strength, etc.). All in all there are hundreds of possible option that determine your starting skill, bonuses and maluses even before you choose your college and set foot in the academy. This gives a taste of things to come, as no two gameplays are alike.
The game is played by arranging your daily schedule by placing the desired actions into the three open slots (morning, afternoon and evening). Dozens of actions and special abilities include training to permanently (but slowly) increase your (or your familiar's) skill, spells and locations that provide great (but temporary) benefit and social interactions that help you gain friends, succeed in school and increase your college's standing. Unlike various Princess Maker clones, stats don't increase for the sake of watching numbers grow. No, you are completely immersed in the Academagia setting and as you gain more knowledge or proficiency in any subject you discover new lore and information (particularly if you chose to study history) about the background that world.
But what are your goals? And why is this game described as a visual novel? Well, the main goal of the game is to take part in adventures. Adventures are a series of quests with textual descriptions and several possible action which success is based on relevant skills and attributes (and random chance), exactly like any other choose-your-adventure game. Since adventures (and special events, which are like mini-adventures) are the high point of the game, they require proper preparation and advancement in all the activities stated above: You need to have very high stats in both attributes and skills to advance, you need to study and explore the campus to unlock new places for adventure, you need to take care of familiar and friends to have passive benefits as well as new adventure and possible routes, and much much more. As an aspiring wizard your spells and magical knowledge will help you both before and during adventures.
Every part of the game blends wonderfully to put you in the shoes of a diligent (or not so diligent - it's up to you) student that studies, plays and makes friends (and enemies) during the day, and uncovers ancient mysteries at night. Set out with nothing but your knowledge of magic, a familiar and a couple of friends, and a few artifacts you found or bought to solve problems big and small. From helping two bullies find love, to resolving the mysteries from your teachers' past to helping stop a calamity that endangers your entire island. Each adventure is unique, has several ways to solve it, and more importantly may have unique outcomes in various success scenarios and possible failures. In this game failure has it's disadvantages, but it's never the end of the world (considering that many adventures have to option to replay a failed segment) and any failure is an opportunity for learning. As a matter of fact, failing is often the best way to discover new avenues of learning.
Since adventures are unlocked and can be completed fairly late in the game, Academagia occasionally throws in random events to break the tedium of study. These events are often easy enough for early arrivals to pass, but offer smaller rewards. The main purpose of these events is to give you some idea of the daily life and small troubles of your academy. Something small, between the bleak training and the grandiose adventure, that further animates that world and its inhabitants.
Speaking of which, every NPC in the game (about 80 students and 20 teachers) has his or her own personality, goals, strengths and weaknesses. Some kids are bullies by nature and will hate you by default. Others will try to make friends with you on their own accord. Some will work hard to improve their college's standing (which indirectly helps you if they are in your college), while others will try to harm your college in any way possible (there is a bitter rivalry between some colleges). But all of them are essential to the game. Having a good relation with any NPC will unlock at least one new adventure, and having a kid join your clique will provide you with special benefits that are unique to each child.
Generally, the developers did an excellent job of creating a new world, and one that you would to replay through several times. If you ignore some of the limitations of this game, it could really carry you away into a new and fantastic land that is very different from the regular fantasy setting. Culturally, the game-world is placed somewhere between the late-medieval fantasy and early steampunk. Swords and sorcery are still common place, but cannons and clockwork creations are gradually gaining ground. The town of Mineta (where Academagia is located) has rival factions prowling the streets - pirates, thieves, rogue mages, cultists, town guard and others make it both dangerous and intriguing. As a sandbox game, Academagia allows you to find your own path and set your own goals. You may decide to create the best magician the world has ever known, or choose to try to complete all of the adventures (which is impossible, but is always fun to try) or choose to excel in some other field, or none at all, decide to help some faction or join another - it's all up to you. The game is big enough that you may play it at least four times just to see all of the main plot adventures, and even that won't be enough to see every single adventure or bit of lore.
Sadly, there are some serious problem with how the many features were implemented...
The BadA game with this many options must have a decent way to sort through them. Unfortunately, the game has an unwieldy interface that requires you to search manually for your desired action (out of a hundred possible!) and you'll have to do it every time you want to get something done. Worse still, you'll have to use a different screen to find out what your action do since can't comfortably read the descriptions while you're in the schedule screen. Add to that that you can't search actions by their outcomes (like searching all action that teach you the Revision skills) and you get a complete mess that only gets worse as the game progresses and you unlock new spells, actions and abilities. This becomes such a big issue, that it's virtually impossible to get something done without have the Academagia wiki in another window (which is incomplete and problematic on its own).
Having said that, it doesn't mean that the game is unplayable. You can still do many things, basic actions have their own menu, can do most of what the special abilities can do and aren't numerous. Sadly they often provide much less advantages for the time you spend on them and thus aren't particularly useful (for instance: you could always use the Train action to try to increase a sub-skill, but it's better to find a special ability/location/spell that will train you in three skills simultaneously, or give you a large temporal boost). Also you need to keep in mind that the game will last only until the end of the school year, which puts a big timer above your head if you want to finish some adventures. To make things worse, some adventures must be stretched through a week or more because every segment requires a separate action in a different day. Add to that heavy requirements in skills and stats and you may end the game without finishing any of the main adventures.
Another problem with having too many options is that they are abilities that you will never, ever, want to use. About a third of all spells are hostile spells that will harm a student of your choice, but there no reason at all to spend an action on needless fights. Supposedly you will need to attack, or even to duel (which is supposed to end completely any problems with your enemy), students that hate and harass you (there are always some haters that will hinder you occasionally), but it's much easier to try to win them over that to fight them. As a matter of fact I once played an entire game just to have a character capable of dueling! And even then setting up a duel took so long that it could be done only several times in a game. Similarly, your artifice ability (for creating new items) is utterly useless. Any item will require you to waste actions on buying ingredients (more on that later), and your crafting is limited to items you already have or can easily get. No to mention that you'll also be required to spend lots and lots of time to improve your relevant skills just to have an option of doing something as senseless as crafting existing items. Buying and selling items is marginally more useful because you can find unique and powerful items in some stores (also unlocked by studying and training certain skills, as well as through some adventures). Unfortunately you can only guess to the content of the store from it's description, however when you enter the store you may find that it doesn't have the item you seek - which means you just wasted another action.
Just as there are useless abilities, so there are useless skill. Dueling is a whole skill set with four sub-skills and, as I said before, you will never need them. The same can be said about many other skills - basically any skill that isn't a study option in any college can generally be considered useless. These skills offer very little lore, unlock few spells and abilities, don't unlock any adventures and are another pointless thing on your list. Nevertheless, the developers occasionally remember that these skills exist and throw you a curveball by forcing you to use one of those skills to solve an adventure. You can, for instance, focus on a botanical adventure (which naturally requires the knowledge of Botany, exploration and some magics, etc.) and then suddenly have an encounter that limits your options to some bizarre choice between a Rimbal-based response (rimbal is Academagia's quidditch) and a Courtly Fashion-based response (yes, there actually is a sub-skill called Courtly Fashion, and it's just as useless as it sounds). When something like that happens (which is far too often) your only options will be either abandoning an adventure that you've almost finished, or wasting time to master skills that you will never need again. This is a real problem with all adventures - you can't even guess what skills you'll need to finish them. The game uses colors to tell you how likely you are to success, but (aside from being slightly buggy and unreliable) this tells you nothing if you want to plan in advance for an adventure. Thus, once again, your only hope is finding some answers in the wiki.
Lastly, there is the ending. Endings should be climatic by nature, or at the very least fulfilling. Academagia has nothing of this sort. At the end of your year you'll reflect on your accomplishments and that's it - roll the credits. The reflection isn't interesting either - you'll get pretty much the same text regardless of what you did during this year. It would have been nice to see a certain tally of the things you've done, or how you've influenced the city and your academy or even how you scored relative to the other students. But instead you get some generic drivel and nothing else. In the creators' defense, this is only year one out of seven, and they intend to correct many of these things in later games (to their credit they released quite a few free DLC to improve this game, fixing one small issue at a time), but as it stands now, Academagia has it's share of problems.