The Art Academy series began life on the Nintendo DS back in 2009. Following a number of iterations across their touchscreen-enabled family, its console release finds the perfect home on Nintendo’s increasingly adapatable Wii U. Through a series of lessons, the aim is to teach you how to compose a piece of art, using a variety of different tools and techniques, and then allow you to create masterpieces of your own.
In addition to teaching you the methods of artistic creation, Art Academy: Atelier also aims to increase your knowledge of the history of art, taking in such periods as the Renaissance and pioneers such as Fra Angelico and Leonardo Da Vinci. You’re often shown examples of important works or styles from different periods, and it’s all presented in a welcoming and understandable fashion.
Each of the lessons begins with an explanation from your computerised tutor, Vince, a pleasant bearded chap, whose patience you can rely on throughout your endeavours. He introduces you to your task for that session and breaks it down into a number of steps. Beginning with a still-life drawing of a tomato, which you must render in pastels, he leads you through each part of the process until you arrive at the finished article.
Vince always shows you what he wants you to do, though you’ll see a spinning clock with the words “Some time later…” almost as often as you watch his stylus work in action. You’re then left to try and recreate the same effect using your own skills, and of course there’s always an eraser on hand for any misjudged strokes.
The television can be used to display a number of different viewpoints, though during the tutorial sections it simply shares the same information as the GamePad. While you’re attempting to recreate an object or scene, the TV can display either Vince’s work or the subject itself. If you want, you can also see your own work on the main screen. It’s a very natural combination of the GamePad and TV, and just as if you were painting or drawing an object in front of you, you spend your time glancing back and forth between the two screens, checking your progress as you go.
Learning about proportions and contours, blocking-in and highlights comes very naturally, and the game’s relaxed piano and acoustic guitar music makes it a particularly peaceful title, which I personally found to be the perfect antidote to my frequent bouts of the much more frantic Splatoon. There are no timers, and very often just the sounds of your implement of choice against the canvas or paper.
The clean and welcoming layout makes navigation simple, and Vince is a suitably Nintendo-esque tutor – even if he is perhaps a touch more sensible than what you’re used to. The toolset is impressive, both in its variety and its accurate representation of the actual item. From the way different types of charcoal behave to the way paint diminishes on your brush as you add it to a picture, you can sometimes forget you’re actually just holding a Wii U stylus.
There are some limitations, though. The edges of the GamePad’s screen can be difficult to add content to due to the way the resistive touchscreen behaves, and while many of the tools are quite precise, from time to time you’ll find that colour will build up too swiftly or that a blending brush won’t match what you’re trying to achieve. The ‘Undo’ function is sadly limited to removing or replacing only your last action, rather than allowing you to cycle back through multiple steps, which can make it completely useless at times, causing you to rely on erasers and re-covering or even repeating an entire section.
The nature of the GamePad means that you can’t lean your hand against the screen as you would with a piece of paper or canvas, and this occasionally took away from the experience as it amplified the other-worldliness of your actions, forcing you to hold the stylus in a somewhat prescribed manner. You do become accustomed to it, and I found myself starting to turn the GamePad itself to get the best angle. Thanks to how light it is in the hand, holding it in various positions is still quite easy and natural.
Art Academy: Atelier allows you to share your creations, both to Miiverse, which you’re prompted to use after each lesson, and to the Wii U’s SD card, allowing you to upload it to your computer for undoubted adoration by the wider world. Unfortunately, during my time with the game, the Miiverse implementation failed to work, though this is likely due to being before the game’s release, and I’m sure we’ll see some truly incredible pieces appearing on Miiverse soon enough, given what people have already achieved with the simple tools the Wii U social space has built in.
When I finished some of the lessons, I couldn’t tell whether the game was showing me my work or the piece that I’d been trying to follow, and the fact that I was able to create something that looked remotely similar simply by using the Wii U GamePad and the tools on offer was personally very rewarding. Exploring a personal gallery in first person, with your finished pieces hanging on the walls is also a nice touch.
Interestingly, despite the occasional inaccuracy or idiosyncrasy of the toolset, and the way you have to hold the GamePad, the drawings and paintings often came out looking like something I had drawn in real life. I would never claim to be a talented artist, but I do enjoy painting and find it relaxing, and the fact that what I can achieve in real life is even remotely close to what Art Academy: Atelier presents it as is impressive.
I genuinely feel that, while it’s not a perfect representation of drawing/painting, Art Academy: Atelier does an excellent job of teaching you the process of creating a piece of art. I believe that having followed the tutorials I could pick up a pastel or pencil in real life, and use them just as effectively, utilising skills I’ve learnt from a piece of software. While it may not be the most thrill-inducing package, Art Academy: Atelier is a relaxed and deeply enjoyable way of improving your artistic ability and creating artwork on your Wii U.