Saturday, June 4, 2011

Academagia: The Making of Mages - initial impressions

I'd never even heard of Academagia: The Making of Mages until I read that it was half off at Impulse this weekend. But it sounded intriguing, and for $12.47, I was willing to take a chance.

Academagia is "a whimsical fantasy life simulation and role-playing game" where you're basically Harry Potter spending his first year at Hogwarts. No, it's not called "Hogwarts," and Harry Potter is nowhere to be seen (unless that's how you name your character), but those trademark issues aside, that's the game.

You're lucky enough to get an invitation to attend the Academy of Magic in Mineta and, with no more idea what to expect than Harry Potter had, you start your first year absolutely clueless and nearly overwhelmed with options. You must pick your college - no Sorting Hat here - and your classes, get to know your fellow students, and struggle to learn what's presented to you in bits and pieces.

Note that I've only had the game two days, so these are merely my initial impressions. (I wanted to post something while the sale at Impulse was still on.) But the game is almost unbelievably complex, with countless options at every turn. And you really won't have a clue which options are optimal.

It's also slow-moving to the point of tedium. But it's still intriguing. I haven't been tempted to stop playing, even though I don't seem to be really getting anywhere. (Well, better skills do start to make a difference after awhile.) But let me warn you that this is really a niche product. I'm quite sure it won't appeal to most people, and I'm not even sure that it appeals to me,... but I think it does. So, how's that for a recommendation? Heh, heh.

OK, let me start at the beginning. It took me almost two hours just to create my character. There are just so many, many options for that! And while you can read about each one - there's a lot of reading in this game, often in very tiny type - that's not as helpful as you might think.

Frankly, I think that's deliberate. I think that discovering all this stuff is part of the game, that you're supposed to be clueless. Furthermore, I think you can play the game no matter what choices you make. In a typical RPG, you want to know what does what, so you can create a capable character. But in this one, you just need to play your character, whatever he (or she) might be like. Because there are so many different ways to accomplish things, there is no "best" way.

And there's no possible way you can choose everything in this game, not even close. In fact, I'm already wondering what my experiences would be like playing a different character. I created a magic nerd, basically - a boy who's smart and studious, but not strong, not charming, not lucky, and certainly not rich (unlike most of my classmates, I've broken off all relations with my family, so I don't even get an allowance).

But I could have played a rich bully, if I wanted. Or a charming, lucky social butterfly. Really, you just need to play whatever character you create. (I do recommend that you have some idea in mind, whatever it might be.) There are also hundreds of skills in the game, and 17 different classes to choose (of which you can actually attend only six). So you can't possibly learn everything on one play of the game, not even close. But it's still rather overwhelming, even for me (and I like complicated games).

My character started with a decent level in "reason," for example, which sounds good, but I have no idea what it really does. And how does it differ from "logic," which is another skill? Well, sometimes there's an option to use "reason" and sometimes an option to use "logic," but there are always other skills you can use, instead, and those will work perfectly well, too - provided you're skilled enough. If you expect to understand this stuff, it's just frustrating. But if you just go with the flow, it's fun.

Anyway, I created my character, got my familiar (an owl is one option, but I chose an exotic animal and got a howler monkey, of all things), chose my college and my coursework, and moved into my room. Each weekday is separated into morning, afternoon, and evening, and you're scheduled to attend classes most mornings and afternoons.

So you've got one period each day where you can either study or explore the school or rest (which is often necessary) or train one skill (out of hundreds) one step higher or sit in detention (required, if you've gotten into trouble with a professor) or any of the myriad other things that you really need to do all the time. You can cut classes occasionally - how often is one of those things I just don't know - but there's never enough time for everything, especially since you often have to try something just to see what it's all about (and if you fail, you can usually try again until you succeed).

On the one hand, that's really frustrating, and it makes the game move at a snail's pace. But on the other hand, it's kind of neat that you have to make real choices all the time. There is not anywhere near enough time for everything, so you have to choose carefully. And you're never sure - or at least I'm never sure right now - that you're making the right choice.

I'm not even sure there is a right choice. As I say, I'm beginning to think that you just have to play your character. My character isn't charming, so he's not concentrating on glamour spells or making friends, but if he was charming, he probably would.

My character is smart and studious - and poor - so he's working hard at being the best mage he can be. But as a first-year student only a couple of months into his classes, he clearly has a long way to go. And not all of his classes seem to be directly related to magic. Two of his six classes, the two required by his particular college, are in Arithmetic and Zoology. Yeah, this is a school, if a weird one.

There are adventures I can choose (in my extremely scarce free time), and there are also random incidents that occur while going to class. You can get through each of these in many different ways, depending on your skills. So you don't have to learn - you can't learn - all of the hundreds of different skills in this game. You need a broad selection of skills - and you often have to fail at something before you can even begin to learn the skill at all - but you also need to become good at a few of them.

How much to specialize... well, that's another thing I don't know. But I like the fact that, though I choose to specialize in some skills - partly as a result of how I created my character in the first place - others are entirely a result of chance. I seem to be getting rather skilled in traps, for example, and that's entirely a result of random incidents.

The idea behind this game is really neat, but I'm not so sure about the execution. Part of it, I think, is that the game is designed to be different from what you normally expect in an RPG. As I mentioned before, I think that being completely clueless is actually a design choice. I think you're supposed to be clueless and to struggle to learn in this game. That's certainly an interesting gameplay element, but it always threatens to be frustrating instead of fun.

Really, there's a lot about this game that's right on the edge. This is a turn-based game, and everything takes place on that screen in the image above. And you don't see any of it happening, but just read about it. That's fine with me, at least in theory, but the image doesn't expand to fit my widescreen monitor, and the type is often very small (the tiny italic type in the shops is almost completely unreadable for me).

You can increase the size of some text in the game, but not all of it. And it's all in a very tiny text area, so you have to scroll or page down to read it all. (Infuriatingly, some text scrolls down line by line and some page by page, so you can't just use your mouse wheel without thinking about it, and checking, every single time.) And then, when you switch subjects and start reading about something else, it often starts at the bottom of the text, not the top. In a really terrible interface accident - I assume - you have to remember to scroll up again after you finish reading something.

Really, the interface isn't the best. There's a really neat game in here somewhere, but it's not presented very well. And oddly enough, attending a school of magic isn't nearly as much fun as you'd think, either. This really isn't Hogwarts. You know that's the intention, but there's almost more tedium than fun here - it's a lot like a real school in that respect, I guess.

I expected to have fun incidents in my Zoology class, but that doesn't happen. Things don't ever happen in class. Random incidents just happen whatever classes you happen to be taking. So I encounter magical creatures sometimes, but it's always just a brief encounter, all in text, and it has nothing to do with my classwork. And they're such incredibly minor incidents, with creatures I never hear from again, that they seem completely inconsequential.

Well, that's the problem with random incidents. So far, there doesn't seem to be any continuing storylines, no thread connecting isolated incidents. I haven't made any friends yet - I don't even know how to make friends - and the game doesn't seem to make much use of house rivalry (not like, er, Hogwarts). Yeah, we "compete" against the other colleges, technically, but it's all extremely remote and bloodless. It never feels like a competition.

And yet, and yet, it's an intriguing game. I really like the idea behind it, and I don't just mean the college of magic part (although that's certainly a great idea, too). I like games with tons of options. I like games with hundreds of different skills to learn. I like complicated games that make you think. This game is interesting enough to keep me coming back, though I do think it could be more fun.

But the biggest problem, other than the interface, is probably just that the game doesn't make it clear how different it really is. Before you start the game, you need to know that being clueless is a design choice, that you're not supposed to know what's going on. (Or, at least, that's my current assumption.) You need to know that there aren't really any right or wrong choices, that you just need to play your character as you've imagined him.

Figure out what kind of student you want to play, and then create him - attributes, skills, interests, background. Then play that student. Is he studious, friendly, tough? Does he come from the top of society or the bottom? Is he a hero, a practical joker, a bully? What motivates him? I suspect right now that any kind of student, with pretty much any set of skills, can work in this game.

But I don't really know that. So far, this game has been fun - well worth the money - but it's also been very close to frustrating and very close to tedious. I believe that Black Chicken Studios is expecting to make sequels taking your "Harry Potter" through year two, three, four, etc. of this magic school, and I'm very interested in seeing that play out. But I'm worried that this game won't be successful enough to continue with that.

Frankly, although I'm enjoying the game, I can't think of anyone I'd recommend it to. Partly, that's because of its flaws, but partly, it's just because of the kind of game it is. This is a niche product, and I wonder if the niche is big enough.

Well, I'm glad I bought the game. It's not perfect, but it's really different. And I love to see really different games. There's also a lot that appeals to me here. It needs work, but it's a fascinating beginning. If you think it might appeal to you, too, give it a try.

But if you think it just sounds tedious and boring, it's almost certainly not for you. This is not a game that will appeal to everyone - and most likely, not even to the majority of gamers.

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