Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: three schoolchildren (one clumsy redhead, one clever girl and a dark-haired boy with a mysterious destiny) meet at an elite school surrounded by intrigue and wonder. They then spend their term balancing lessons with unravelling the larger conspiracy behind the school. Such is the story of The Academy – where do people get their ideas from?
To be fair, The Academy doesn’t try to hide the influence of Harry Potter, instead just leaning fully into its tribute act. The main difference here is that rather than magic, the world of the Academy is one of fabulous technology and a whole lot of puzzles. This Rowling fanfic narrative is bolted onto a game that is trying just as hard to riff off Professor Layton, but doesn’t always match that series’ polish or charm.
The main body of the game takes you through the rhythms of the player character’s first year at Arbor’s Academy, an elite school that takes on only the brightest and the best. Unlike the huge Gothic splendour of Hogwarts, the Academy only seems to have about 10 students in each year, and most of these are faceless NPCs wandering around the small campus with no real purpose. You’ll generally find them having repetitive conversations or dancing like they’ve been possessed by an entirely rhythm-free demon. There is something almost body-horror in the way that they’re animated which certainly amused me but is surely not intended.
In truth, aside from a few puzzles that force you to interact with other characters, most of your academic life involves attending lessons and only talking to the central figures – again, much like its wizarding influences. Lessons cover several subjects from archaeology to machines and help to provide the regular structure to the schooldays. In practice they are fairly uninvolved and generally consist of little more than a couple of simple comprehension questions and another puzzle. This quickly makes the process feel repetitive and underwhelming.
While I played the game on PC, the mobile origins are apparent. The supposedly enhanced graphics are functional at best and at times have an unintended retro feel. Puzzles are almost entirely static, which is a crying shame when so many ask you to interact with machinery or mathematical equations. Even the multitude of Artifex Mundi hidden object titles offer up more hands on puzzles. This isn’t to say that the 200 riddles here are without merit, but the whole package feels fairly cheap and inconsistent in tone.
I realise this all sounds very negative, but there is more to The Academy than these underwhelming presentational issues. The real meat of the game comes within the puzzles themselves and these are mainly well pitched with a difficulty aimed at younger players. While there are some overfamiliar moments such as riddles that remind you of many other similar games, on the whole they feel distinctive enough to keep you involved, and there has clearly been a real effort put in to keep them linked to the narrative context.
Many are multiple choice which should help stop players from getting stuck, but does result in an unsatisfying trial and error at times. This is particularly apparent when questions are confusingly worded and result in an unfair mistake. Luckily there are very few penalties for getting things wrong since the in-game reward currency has no use other than to measure your progress.
The one exception to the static feeling puzzles are the magical object interactions that carry the story forward. You discover that a mysterious group are trying to unlock the hidden powers beneath the academy by using these objects created by the school’s founder. These have effects ranging from summoning a magical bear to unleashing a poisonous virus across the school (strangely topical, that one) and provide the nearest thing the game has to a sense of peril. Once you find these troublesome artifacts you must reconstruct their outer shells through a fairly simple process of putting 3D shapes together. It’s a real shame that the only puzzles that stray outside of the flat form are so uninspiring.
The narrative is suitably structured and younger players will surely enjoy exploring the school grounds but it all just feels too small and restrictive as it stands. The ‘first riddle’ of the title suggests that there is a plan to make this a recurring franchise, so hopefully further games can show a little more ambition. If you don’t have access to the Professor Layton titles, then the Academy will fill a glaring hole, but there are a multitude of other games on mobile devices that offer a greater challenge, such as the recently released House of Da Vinci 2. Most of the puzzles here could have been replicated in a puzzle book, giving the whole package an unsatisfying feel.