It seems that every time someone bemoans the lack of innovation in PC gaming, an independant developer crops up, ready to show that there’s still life in the old girl yet.  From the darkly named Black Chicken Studios comes a title that seems to be specifically designed for everyone who read or watched Harry Potter and wished that they too could be a wizard:  Academagia: The Making of Mages.

 

The concept of the game is fairly simple.  You’re a young teenager arriving in the city of Mineta to attend the Academy of Magic.  Of course, there’s much more to the game than that, but that’s the concept in a nutshell: Take a character you create and have them experience their first year of schooling at one of the seven colleges at the Academy.  While this game only covers the first year, don’t worry as Black Chicken Studios have said that this is planned to be the first in a series of five games covering the entire Academy.

 

It’s marketed as a life simulation and role-playing game, and while there are very definite elements of both in the game (tons of stats, skill checks, building your character and growing relationships), I had a very different impression while playing the game.  It isn’t so much a life simulator with RPG elements at it is a very deep Choose Your Own Adventure game.  Many of the events you run through on the game involve doing quite a bit of reading (3-4 pages or more) before choosing from a series of events.  This brought back strong memories of holding a book and choosing whether to go to page 89 or page 38.

The first thing you’ll notice on starting the game is the soundtrack, which is full of classical music.  There only appear to be a couple of songs, and you can turn them off, but it’s very nice for at least a little while.  That’s really all of the sound in the game other than clicks as you choose various menu options and the like.  Admittedly, Academagia doesn’t really need a lot of sound as the game is very heavily text-oriented.  Still, given the fact that the game is aimed at younger gamers some sound effects and the like would be interesting.

 

Once you decide to start a new game, you’re taken through character creation.  To be honest, this is one of the deepest character creation systems I’ve run into in quite some time.  You start by setting your stats in seven attributes, and then it’s on to character backgrounds.  There’s a large number of choices from the skies and omens at your birth, what sort of family you had, your relationship with your family, what you might have done growing up, and so on.  The only real drawback is that you only start with ten points (although some choices may actually give you points instead of costing them), and the manual really doesn’t do that good of a job of explaining what all of the choices do for you down the line.

 

Once you’ve gone through the seven pages of detail here, it’s on to school  As with many life simulations (especially if you’re used to any of the Japanese ones, such as Princess Maker, Tokimeki Memorial and others), you have so many actions to perform in each given day.  In Academagia you can do three things in a day broken into morning, afternoon and evening.  As a student, it’s expected that you’ll attend classes for most of the day, but the game flat out tells you that you can get away with some amount of hooky, as long as you don’t make it too big of a habit.

 

Here’s where the depth really begins to shine.  Starting out, you only have a few options of activities you can do, only a few skills or other actions that you can perform, no spells, and only a few places that you can go to do those things.  As you go through some of the hundreds of random events, or simply explore as an action, or use one particular skill you unlock new areas, actions and abilities for yourself.  By even halfway through the year you could possibly have dozens, if not over a hundred, possible choices for each day.

 

You also have a calendar, and the game helpfully tells you that you want to have your skills and knowledges to a certain level by midterms, and to another level by the end of the year if you want to pass your classes.

 

So you can spend each day with your nose in a textbook and your nights resting.  Or you can go to work and make money in your off time and use it to buy nifty things.  You could explore the city or go on any of the hundred-plus adventures.  You can learn some skills and use them to help or harass other students.  You can make friends and influence people.  In the end, it’s all up to you.

It can really be a bit overwhelming, especially with the manual somewhat lacking in detail.  The game itself tries to give you as much detail is possible, and you can click on many things to open up character sheets for any of your eighty-plus schoolmates (all individually designed), find out what certain places are, read notes and historical documents, find out what skills or spells do….it goes on and on.  The problem is, there’s no easy way to find something at your fingertips, as finding out what area you want to practice your Negation in to have the best chance of success involves finding the right area then if you forget where it is (very likely given the amount of information in the game) going back to the lore and trying to find which area does what.

 

Then there’s the skills.  While you can study to raise your classwork skills, raising the rest of your skills involves training.  Also, it’s not as simple as just training a skill to raise it, some skills have sub-skills, and you have to raise all of the sub-skills to raise the skill itself.  It can also be difficult sometimes to determine exactly how the game determines which sub-skill it counts toward raising the main skill.  If that wasn’t enough, you also have to take time out to train your familiar (and if you don’t get one, you may get a ghost which can seem eerily familiar to Harry Potter fans).

 

To be honest, the game almost demands a return to when players maintained meticulous notes on their game so that they knew exactly what they needed to do at a given time.  The problem is, gamers don’t want to do that anymore, and cries of nostalgia tend to ignore the fact that these steps were required by the technological limitations of the time, which are no longer applicable.

 

Still, it’s great fun to go on an adventure or have random events happen.  The best part is, the game rarely punishes you for trying.  You can do something with a green difficulty level all of the time without fail, while purple items are akin to a random person deciding to try out for the Yankees as a starting pitcher after having never played baseball before.   Previous game experience has taught us to always do the things with the best chance of success, but in Academagia sometimes the best way to learn those new skills that you’d really like to work on is to try the items with the red and purple difficulties that correlate to the skills you want to learn and improve.  You may fail, but the worst that would happen to you is that you get detention, or get injured enough to go to the game’s hospital and miss one day, or get so stressed that you have to take to your bed.

The best part of games like this is crafting your own story, and this is where Academagia truly shines through.  Each playthrough of the game is going to be different as you take a different path through the school year.  There are numerous events, challenges, holidays and adventures to partake in as your character grows both as a mage and a person.  Your friends and enemies will shift through numerous playthroughs and each character will be unique.

 

Now, all of that said, the game isn’t without its faults.  The sheer amount of information makes it hard to organize it, and while the game tries its best, there are tons of menus and submenus and options and you’re likely to spend much time going back and forth as you determine how best to increase the skills you want.  Also, the UI can be fairly finicky about where you click on the screen for some of the menu options, tabs and other selection areas, and then it can be somewhat slow to respond as well.

 

Another rather large issue is with the layout.  The game defaults to taking up the full screen, but most of the screen is a blank border surrounding the game window.  As far as why exactly this design decision was made is unclear, but it just seems odd with the sheer amount of data in the game that they wouldn’t utilize as much space as is possible.

 

The other issue which may draw a lot of gamers away from Academagia is the fact that it requires a lot of reading.  Let’s be honest:  many gamers hate to read.  They don’t want to read the manual, they don’t want to read in-game quest text, they just want to go and win, preferably in that order.  There’s a massive amount of text in the game, and it’s fairly well written and engaging for the most part.  To be honest, it makes sense that the game is aimed for ages 9 and up, as this would be great for someone in school to improve their reading skills in a very fun way.  That said, it’s also entertaining for those of any age, really.

The game offers a ton of content and the door is open for mods as well.  Each game can take upwards of 15 to 20 hours and offers much in the way of replayability.  The best news is that it’s only $25 and is available through a number of digital distribution platforms including Direct2Drive and Impulse.  The only real drawback is that there is no demo available (nor apparently planned at this time) but it’s a lot easier to drop $25 on a game without a demo than $60.

 

If you’re a fan of fantasy novels, RPGs, Choose Your Own Adventure, Harry Potter, life simulators or all of the above, Academagia will probably feed your need while not draining your bank account (at least, not until you’re hooked and the next four games come out).

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