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Academagia - The Making of Mages Review
Review - posted by VentilatorOfDoom on Fri 13 May 2011, 20:33:54Tags: Academagia
[Review by Darth Roxor]
Academagia – Of Grinding and Magick Obscura
Once upon a time, in an era far better for the average roleplaying game enthusiast, there was a game called Darklands. The game featured some extremely well-done text adventures with multiple skillchecks and outcomes. However, it was severely impaired by an incredibly boring combat system.
When playing Darklands, I always thought, "man, this game would have been so awesome if it was only a gigantic text adventure". And this is pretty much what we are facing with Academagia. So, in other words…
ACHTUNG! Shameless choose-your-own-adventure game dead ahead, proceed at your own risk!
He was the Wizard of a Thousand Kings
How exactly does it work, then? Basically, you are a youngster with fledgling magical talents, so you are sent off to study at the academy of magic – The Academagia. You will need to get through ten months filled with studies, exams, relationships and adventure.
Obviously, you have to start by determining your personality. The character creation is pretty interesting, and gives you enough material to start countless different characters. You begin with ten ‘character points’ that you can assign to various things – attributes, gazillions of backgrounds and a familiar.
All attributes start at 1 and can be raised to 3 at character creation. They determine how good you are with skills assigned to them and how fast you can learn them.
Backgrounds come in many different types – you can determine your character’s birth sign, some special ‘omen’ that happened at his birth, what family he is coming from, what his special talent is, what items he packed before going to Academagia and some others. The possibilities are quite honestly endless, as there are dozens of those backgrounds, and you can apply only ten of them (minus attribute advances). Most of them are positive and give boosts to various skills or attributes, but some are negative, and while your character will get somehow penalised (for example, the ‘black sheep’ family background locks your parent approval at 0, which means you get no allowance), you get another character point to spend as compensation.
Afterwards, you can choose a familiar. There are five familiars to choose, and all offer different benefits. There is the wise owl, the agile cat, the loyal and supportive dog, the sly rat and the mysterious exotic animal, which will come with a random set of skills. Familiars will aid you with their sets of skills and attributes during your quests and provide adventures of their own. You will also be able to train your familiar to increase its skills.
Lastly, you have to choose the college to which you apply, six study subjects (two determined by the college you take) and one of the two character portraits, all unique to certain colleges. Each college comes with different focuses, students and adventures. Study subjects assign you to corresponding classes, which end with exams at the end of semesters.
Perhaps my only issue with the character creation is that you get too few character points for too many backgrounds, although it adds an interesting layer, where you need to think over each assigned point five times to determine whether you really need the characteristic and how exactly does it benefit you more than those hundred other ones. It’s just a shame that all of the tables with backgrounds are not grouped in one place, which means you have to do a lot of going back and forth between pages to compare backgrounds.
The character system itself is also pretty extensive. There are dozens, and I really mean dozens, of different skills. They are separated into two types: parent skills and subskills. Parent skills’ values are the averages of subskills assigned to them, so, for example, Negation methods, spells, phemes and theory all determine how good you are at Negation magic in general.
Skills can be raised in a couple of ways, mostly by training or using them during adventures. Later on, however, you will also unlock abilities that will increase them considerably (either for a time or permanently), staying in some locations also helps improve your skills. When you train your skills, you gain ‘skill steps’, a certain number of which is needed to advance your mastery of the ability. The number of required skill steps is determined by the rank of the skill you are aspiring for, and how high your attribute assigned to the skill is. It’s also important to note that you can just as well lose skill steps as you can gain them. Failing to use skills during adventures or using certain abilities may decrease your skill steps.
Some skills are available at the start (mostly those connected to your college), but most of them will have to be unlocked during the course of the game. They can be discovered through adventures, using activities that increase random skills, etc. Often, when going on an adventure and finding a skill check, you will think ‘wait, there is a skill for THAT?!’. Indeed, the range of skills covers just about everything – from diplomacy and magic, through calligraphy and forging to zoology and athletics.
There are also a few ‘global’ factors you have to keep in mind during play – such as college merit and your parent approval. College merit determines how respected your college is among the staff of the Academagia, and achieving high merit will give you special prizes. It can be increased by using the Compete action, and doing various other positive stuff. It can also be decreased by trespassing, blowing stuff up due to magical experiments going awry, etc. Parent Approval determines how much money your family sends you , and can be increased by corresponding.
Now that your aspiring wizard has been created, you can move on to the meat of the game.
For everything there is a season
Your primary playground is the calendar – here, you assign three different activities to every day. Things you can do during one interval of time are actions, spells, special abilities and item usage.
Actions are activities such as exploring the Academagia and areas nearby to find points of interest, adventuring to embark on a text adventure, training to raise your or your familiar’s skills, studying to increase the study level of exam subjects you’ve taken at character creation and many others. Some, mostly the basic ones, are available from the start, but most (such as, for example, ‘question surroundings’, which might give you additional skill steps to two random skills) have to be unlocked through various means. Some actions are linked to skills and thus have a chance of failure.
Spells are something you will need to learn about during your education. They have a wide range of effects, from increasing your chance of success during various actions, through increasing your abilities or relationships with different people, to offensive magic that will seriously hamper the well-being of your enemies. There are two things you need to cast spells: the knowledge about the spell itself, and the phemes needed to cast it. Phemes are the basic elements of which spells are composed, and apart from needing them to cast the spells, you can also try using different ones to boost your magic. This will, however, increase the chance of failure of the casting, but the results are mostly worth the risk, as phemes will give you considerable temporary boosts to stats. You learn about spells and phemes the same way as with everything else – by adventuring, training and attending classes.
Special abilities are activities that usually provide many useful boons. As with everything in Academagia, they can be unlocked through various ways and cover a wide range of subjects, but mostly they improve your skills or relationships somehow. For example, if you attain the ‘study at the library of Longshade’ ability, you will be able to get a skill step to the Concentration skill, another one of your choice and another random one. ‘Courteous Gestures’ will improve your relationship with a member of the opposite sex by two points. Many of the abilities have a cooldown time of a few days.
Lastly, if you find any special items, you can also spend a turn using them. Not all items have active qualities – some will have passive ones and will only require you to hold on to them. Some will have no powers whatsoever and will only have a use in crafting. Some will degenerate and disappear after a certain period of time. All of them, however, have to be identified beforehand – this can be done either by checking the artifact registry (and paying a small sum of money) or performing a trial and error method, which may just as well place you in Academagia’s infirmary. Moreover, all items carry a certain risk with them, as you are not allowed to keep them in the Academagia, and if you are caught by a professor, you might be placed into detention and have your artifact taken away. Some items are more likely to be found than others.
The default actions for your schedule are 2x attend class for working days and rest everywhere else. While attending classes, you aren’t very likely to experience any adventures, but you can learn about various stuff, such as lore, skills, phemes, etc. They can be skipped pretty often, actually, but skipping them too often will place you in detention, which means you will have to waste a whole action for an ‘extra class’.
In addition to all that, before starting any action, you can also choose the place in which you wish for it to take place. The locations are unlocked through exploring and give a hefty amount of boosts – mostly for the duration of your stay, but sometimes they even give permanent skill improvements. Obviously, though, you can’t choose a location for every action, so you won’t be able to study at the Library of Longshade at the Academagia front gate.
Almost all of these actions have pretty much an instant outcome – that is, you succeed or not. However, adventures are different. You can start an adventure in three ways: by specifically embarking on one as an action, by stumbling upon one by accident while doing other stuff, or during ‘holidays’ that have specific ones assigned to them. When the adventure starts, a new interface pops up, with a picture of the surroundings, some text and a couple of dialogue/action options. Those options are in nearly all cases heavily skill-based and there usually is a couple of them, spread across the skill tree so that more than just one specific character build can succeed.
There are five degrees of success for dialogue options. Red means you have no chance. Purple means there is a minimal chance of success. Blue shows a minimal chance of failure. Green signals certain success. And then, there are the ‘black’ options, that look just like regular ones. Those are… weird. Sometimes they seemed to work, but more often they didn’t, and I figured they were some sort of Biowarian option for cleverly hidden certain failure, just with ‘but hey, it’s a skillcheck!’. Their purpose still remains a mystery to me.
Using skills successfully in adventures will push your advancement in said skill by one step and let the adventures flow further. Sometimes, the skill advances are rewards in themselves, but often, by completing adventures, you will also reap various other rewards, such as friendships, items or knowledge of the arcane. It’s also important to note, that the adventures which you choose to pursue are almost endless – they can span even over the course of ten or more additional scenarios.
However, failing to use skills properly has an almost exactly reversed effect. You may lose skills steps, people may hate you, you may get reprimanded. Even going as far as standing aside and doing nothing can leave you with hits towards skills like Confidence. Moreover, failing skill checks more often than not leads you to dangerous or stressful situations that make you lose vitality or gain stress.
Vitality and stress are your character’s physical and mental well-being. Should your Vitality reach 0, or should you exceed your Stress limit, you will have to spend a whole day resting in the infirmary, doing nothing, although resting for one action brings them back to default levels. While losing vitality is always bad, gaining stress can actually be positive, as it puts you in various alert mental states, which raise your awareness.
I have a couple of very solid gripes with the adventures, though. First, is that not all of them are written in a too interesting way, and once you see ‘You are sitting in your dorm WHEN SUDDENLY!!!!’ for the umpteenth time, you just stop reading right there and select the options flashing in green.
Second, I wish the adventures were a little better ‘balanced’ when it comes to the skill checks. That is to say, the character I’ve made was a prestigious grammar nazi gentleman, specialising mainly in various things concerning grammar, writing, history and the Glamour school of magic. I can only say, that I can count the instances of grammar checks on the fingers of my left hand, same can be said about history and languages, even though it was during adventures related to the Aranaz college, which is the domain of those skills. It was extremely annoying to open up the ‘Possible Adventures’ window and see each and every one of them flashing in red, mocking me for my lacking abilities in such disciplines as climbing, lockpicking or bullying. Which brings me to two more important things…
The screen from which you choose your adventures is bugged to hell and back. In theory, the adventures are presented to you in the five colours of dialogue options to tell you how good of an idea it is to revisit them. But those colours don’t mean absolutely anything. You see an adventure flashing in green, access it and are greeted by four red dialogue options that kick you straight into zero vitality valley.
And finally, the worst thing of them all. There is no doubt that adventures are the ‘meat’ of the game, and probably the most interesting part of it. But because of the awkward skill check selections (and in many instances insanely high thresholds needed to succeed), most time you will spend looking at the calendar, assigning the same damn actions, like ‘train skill_x’ twenty times and pushing the timeskip button, getting bored out of your mind, just to grind the skill levels up so you can access the next level of an adventure. After which you spend another twenty actions training… and so on. The level of grind and tedium in this game is, unfortunately, downright preposterous, and after a while you will simply grow sick of the ‘you have increased skill_x by one skill step!’ message.
Another thing that you have to grind mercilessly is the study level of your chosen class subjects. You have six class subjects that you have to raise to level 5 during your midterm exams and to level 10 at the end of the year. You do this one subject at a time, by using the ‘study’ action to raise your study level by 1. While getting to level 10 gives you some bonuses, and the whole deal actually simulates the ‘holy shit, exams in a week’ feel, it really doesn’t add much other than just another layer of rather dull number crunching.
My Command is your wish
Your relationships with other students and professors is a pretty important aspect of Academagia, so let’s give it a few words.
By using various actions, going on adventures, moving through random encounters, etc, you will attract the attention of others. Sometimes, it will be positive, and you may gain many acquaintances. But there are also times, when jealousy and hatred will seep into other people, and you will gather a whole group of enemies, hellbent on kicking you out of the Academagia.
Gaining relationship boosts with other students will have a couple of benefits. First, it will, of course, unlock new adventures. Second, it will also cause you to get some more of their attention, and they will use various social actions involving you more often. Third, once you get to know them well enough, you may try to Befriend them and add them to your Clique. Getting high relationships with professors will give you ‘extra credit’ for your overall exam scores.
Cliques are your typical school gangs. Everyone in such a clique shares a symbiotic relationship with one another, which means you get to learn new abilities, or benefit from the skills of others to increase your own. You can form cliques by attaining high relationships with students and using the ‘Befriend’ ability, although it remains a mystery to me how to get it, as I didn’t manage to discover it through the whole course of my game.
Negative relationships are pretty interesting. Some students will hate you ‘just because’, but you can just as well make them grow to hate you through your mischievous actions. Slandering someone, using offensive magic, will all lower your relationships with people. This can lead to a couple of fun things, as they shall often try to retaliate, spreading foul rumours about you among students, trying to put you into detention, sabotaging your actions, etc.
When your mutual hatred with a certain character reaches the epicentre, you may actually even be called to a magic duel. If you’ve really grown sick of someone, there you can go as far as unleashing eleven barrels of magic to put them into the infirmary right when they are supposed to take an exam. Through the usage of even more illegal magic, you may even attempt to gain control of your enemy, and have him do your bidding as a mindless puppet. Being an asshole has never been so amusing!
As you might have noticed from the screenshots, there isn’t much to say about the technical side of Academagia, but some things still have to be said regardless.
First, the stability. Apart from some weird freezes that were fixed after a major system overhaul (so they might not have even been related to the game itself), I have nothing to report. The game can run for hours without crashing, and I can’t remember any bugs other than the adventure difficulty downright lying to you, but even if there were some others, they most likely have already been fixed, or will be fixed soon, as patches are being released pretty frequently.
The graphics are as you can see them – they are nothing more than static images, but even so, most of them are pretty well done. The character portraits also look good and most of them have some distinguishing features that actually go well with their personalities.
And finally, something that is perhaps the whole game’s strongest point is the music. The whole soundtrack is a monoclean feast of classical music, with pieces from Vivaldi and Tchaikovsky among other things, with a well-preserved balance between mellow and energetic tracks. The music plays at all times, and is the game’s only entry in the sound department actually. Perhaps my only, very minor, gripe with it, is that it’s not context-sensitive to some extent, and listening to Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture while flirting with someone is a little silly. But regardless, the soundtrack gets a gigantic seal of approval.
Looking at what I’ve written, and thinking back to my playthrough of the game itself, I find it hard to unanimously judge Academagia. There are some really good bits hidden in this game, but unfortunately, they are completely brought down by the excessive grinding one needs to do to get to them. If the amount of incredibly boring timeskipping to raise stats was lowered, or perhaps if the game itself was shorter, it would be a lot better.
But as it stands now, I can only recommend it to people who are in love with shameless Princess Maker games and take pleasure from seeing their stats rise just for the sake of rising. For everyone else, though, a single playthrough might be okay, but keep in mind that you may just grow bored of it somewhere halfway through.
Guess I will have to keep waiting for that proper Darklands sequel then. Sigh…