When I was in high school, my parents got me a book of lateral thinking puzzles for Christmas. These are supposed to be puzzles that you can solve through creative or indirect means, meant to challenge the reader into thinking in unorthodox ways. Sadly, the book ended up being a disappointment, full of faux-puzzles, nonsensical answers, and queries that required knowledge of the inner workings of a supermarket’s meat and cheese section. Playing The Academy, a new puzzle game from Pine Studio and Snapbreak, was a tale of similar disappointment.
The Academy follows the story of Sam as he enrolls in Arbor Academy, an ultra-exclusive boarding school for incredibly gifted high school students. After passing a one question entrance exam, he makes friends with fellow students Maya and Dom through sheer coincidence. Dom, having the next dormitory over, is impossible to get rid of, and Maya has a streak of overt nosiness. Predictably, the three find themselves embroiled in a mysterious adventure that seems to suggest there is more going on at the titular Academy than meets the eye.
For mystery plots, games usually approach their storytelling structure in two ways. The first is to take multiple plots and weave them, interlocking into a strong narrative, braided together in a way that Rapunzel would be proud of. The second is to scatter plot threads and clues all over, requiring the protagonist to collect them like an Easter Egg hunt and end up with a beautiful array of complementary pastels. The Academy attempts to mix these two methods, scattering peculiar clues and weaving the plot. Instead, it ends up with a narrative akin to smashed eggs on hair.
The main plot follows the students as they investigate the strange incidents at the Academy and the mysterious hooded figure or figures who seem to be behind them. At the same time, the game scatters clues around about the school’s founder, Baron Holloway, and seeds more mystery into the Academy itself. Ultimately, these incidents are more tedious than mysterious and the clues about the Baron are repetitive at best.
But what about the characters? Writers can save even the most pathetic plots with engaging, interesting characters, or even ones that you just love to hate. Pine Studio makes no secret of the fact that Harry Potter was an influence on the story, but they, unfortunately, forgot the personality and charm that made that series memorable.
Protagonist Sam may be the blandest character out of the bunch, with his jet-black hair a call out to Harry, his freckle-faced and red-haired best friend Dom, and the brainy brunette Maya rounding out the trio. For extra points, there’s Sam’s chubby, hapless roommate Nev- I mean, Tucker.
As for the rest of the cast, we have such unique gems as the mean teacher, the school bully, the school bully’s sister, the drill sergeant gym instructor, the stern headmistress, and the obligatory dead-wife-plot-catalyst.
The other major influence on The Academy is the Professor Layton series. For those unfamiliar, it follows the titular Layton as he solves puzzles in a quaint, steampunk version of England. It’s known for real brain teaser puzzles of all varieties. I’m sorry to say that, like Harry Potter, Pine Studio also completely missed the mark on what makes a good puzzle game like Professor Layton, and ended up with, at best, a mess on their hands. Much like the rest of the game, puzzle sections are riddled with mistakes and spelling errors. From telling the player to remove the red resistors when there are no red objects on the board, to requesting to pick a piece of paper when symbols are etched on the walls, it’s clear that no one checked their work.
Once you get past the amateurish execution, you’re left with poor puzzle design and atrocious set-up. All puzzles have two parts to them, one required and one optional. However, the screen where the puzzle is has the first and second parts on it, made to look as if they are related. It’s distracting at best, and downright confusing and nonsensical at worst. Thankfully, you’re never forced to solve the second part, so once I realized it was optional I skipped them all.
As for the puzzles themselves, very few rely on logic or deductive reasoning or any of the good principles that puzzles should utilize. Most of them revolve around a classic puzzle setup, but the author of the puzzle thinks they are a tremendous smarty-pants and attempts to subvert it. This usually ends in a stupid fashion. The hints for the puzzles aren’t much better, they’re rarely helpful and several of them simply end up repeating the directions to you in a rephrased manner.
There are also recurring puzzles where you must assemble a three-dimensional object that is split into pieces. While it’s not a bad puzzle, the part that I object to is the other characters treating you like you’re some puzzle-solving god when in reality, I know several 4-year-olds who could solve them very easily. However, there does not seem to be any real difficulty curve in the puzzles as you progress, making for a flat experience.
Surely, you would think at least the art, the music, or the user interface would make this less of a terrible ordeal. Well, you’d be wrong. The music is generic, though mildly pleasant, and the characters all look like they’ve been rendered with the Sims Creator tool from Sims 2. No one has hair longer than their shoulders, presumably due to animation troubles, and they all look and move very awkwardly. When characters are excited, they do a peculiar wiggle, and for the life of me, I cannot understand why anyone wasted time programming this animation when I have never seen a person move like that in my entire life. Their dancing looks like someone described the movements from a 90s instructional video on how to hip-hop without an animator ever having seen a person dance before.
As for the user-interface, it’s readily apparent that this game was designed first and foremost for its releases on mobile devices and then ported to PC with barely any alteration. The game explains none of the controls beyond basic movement, so figuring out how to open the backpack, replay puzzles and keep an eye on your checklist is entirely up to you. So much is left up to you, in fact, that I never figured out how to work the camera feature that you unlock partway through the game by helping Tucker, even after mashing all my keyboard buttons. When moving around through the Academy, there are icons for the menu, backpack, and camera, however, since your mouse controls camera movement throughout the entire game, you can never click on these relics of mobile design.
The Academy Review | Final Thoughts
All in all, The Academy is a disappointing mess of a game. With confusing puzzles, bland characters, a tedious plot, and horrible design, there were really no redeeming features to it whatsoever. The game’s subtitle of The First Riddle, and the ending of the game hint at a continuation of the story in the future, one that I hope never plods across my screen.
TechRaptor reviewed The Academy on PC with a code provided by the publisher. The game is also available on iOS and Android.
- Inoffensive Music
- Atrociously Bad Puzzle Design
- Bland Characters and Tedious Plot
- Bizarre, Amateurish Character Animations
- Shoddy User Interface and Control Design
- Spelling and Grammar Mistakes Throughout