The Academy: The First Riddle is described as “Harry Potter meets Professor Layton,” and it’s clear that the developers at Pine Studio were heavily inspired by both IPs. If you love puzzles you’ll feel challenged, but if you are also looking for an engaging RPG with fleshed-out characters and a deep storyline, The Academy fails to deliver.
The story begins with the protagonist, Sam’s, first day at the prestigious Arbor Academy, a place where science, technology and Arbor history are taught daily. Along with his friends, Dom and Maya, Sam is inadvertently drawn into a plot involving a missing history teacher and the dark secrets that lie beneath the Academy’s halls.
In addition to my best pals, I met several students and teachers throughout the game. The students fulfill stereotypical roles—bullies, popular kids, awkward nerds—that are prevalent in school-themed games. Similarly, I quickly recognized the good teachers and the adversarial ones within the first 30 minutes. Unfortunately, these characters stay within the confines of those general descriptors; I really didn’t get to learn anything about them. In fact, I could have gone the entire game without interacting with most of these characters.
While I could take or leave the side characters, the same lack of character development also applied to the three main characters. For Dom and Maya, their roles felt familiar and very Harry Potter. Dom is the awkward, cautious, but brave friend who is happy to go along with the plans (after a little pushback), and Maya is the book-smart risk taker who uses her intellect to get to the bottom of what’s going on at the school.
Sam, by contrast, is a mystery. Many of my classmates talked to me, but there were no dialogue options to respond with. Since there is no voice acting, I relied on game text that didn’t provide any insight into who Sam is. His interactions rested solely on people chatting with him, telling him what to do or asking for help. I never got a sense about Sam’s personality outside of wanting to help people. It was all on me to make something of Sam. The open-endedness of Sam’s development was interesting enough, but it would have been nice to have gotten a little bit of backstory on him. Most of the interactions were superficial at best– the bullies bullied me, the nice kids were nice to me and the teachers were either kind to me or treated me with disdain.
Genius, Inventor, Baron, Philanthropist
The world building is one area where The Academy shines. At the heart of the story is the legend of the school’s founder, Baron Alister Holloway. He is the focal point of everything I read about in my homework assignments. In my history class I learned about his history, in machines class I learned about his inventions, in symbols class I learned about the cryptic symbols he used to write with. Everything was about him.
And all this focus is done for a good reason. The people of Arbor revere Baron Holloway because of his inventions, his vision and his personal tragic story. Everyone believes wholeheartedly in the legend of this supposed great man. Unfortunately, this twisted, loyal devotion is the rationale behind the supernatural events that occur at the school. Events that me and my friends had to stop.
In addition to the well-developed lore, The Academy is lovely to look at. The graphics remind me of The Sims, with exaggerated character facial reactions and bright, lively scenery. The music is one of my favorite parts of the game. The main music is light and carefree while the darker melodies, by contrast, enhance the more magical, mystical side of the Academy. Kudos to audio designer Saša Dukić.
Puzzle Me This
The main draw of The Academy are the 200+ puzzles I got to solve. The puzzles ranged from very easy to frustratingly difficult, and there were times when a puzzle required some twisty logic. There were hints I could use, but some of the hints only compounded the difficulty. Fortunately the puzzles were diverse enough to keep things engaging. I had to solve math problems, read maps, cipher symbols, identify patterns, etc. It was like a buffed up version of the old Nintendo DS classic Brain Age.
But while the puzzles were fun, the big issue is that there are just too many of them. Most of the puzzles had a purpose; they either drove the story forward or they were related to my studies in some way. But others were entirely arbitrary and unnecessary. I was practically solving a puzzle about every seven minutes.
For puzzle lovers this is a dream, but it gets tedious. The frequency of the puzzles cut deeply into the flow of the main story, which made it feel jagged and chaotic. In no time at all, I was in a routine: I went to bed, woke up, went to class, did the class puzzles, talked to my friends, did the side quest puzzles, solved the main story puzzle and went to bed. Rinse and repeat.
Overall, The Academy could have been a near perfect game had it found its balance between challenging puzzles and a suspenseful story. Instead it sacrificed story for an overabundance of puzzles.
With lackluster characters and routine gameplay, The Academy fails to meet its potential. And since this is the first game in its series, it will be interesting to see how Pine Studio adjusts the second game to make it feel fresh and different from this first installment. If it sticks to the same formula, it could potentially miss the mark again.
The Academy: The First Riddle is out now for PC (Steam), Mac and Android and iOS devices. It will be released on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch later this year. For more information, check the official website.
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