Puzzle school drop out
When the words “Harry Potter/Professor Layton mash-up” were used to describe our latest inbox acquisition, I was beyond excited. While I moderately enjoyed the Harry Potter series, I have fond yet terrifying memories of the Harry Potter games on the PS2 (seriously, those prefects were the biggest jumpscares). And as a pretty big fan of the Professor Layton series, I was excited for another puzzle game with story-telling elements to add to my library. What could go wrong?
The Academy: The First Riddle is fascinating in that it both hits the spot while missing the mark simultaneously. Perhaps it aimed too high in its attempt to liken itself to two insanely beloved franchises, or maybe it’s because there were too many little issues that detracted from the experience as a whole; whatever the case may be, The Academy: The First Riddle doesn’t feel ready to graduate from game development.
Developed by Pine Studio and published by Snapbreak, The Academy: The First Riddle is available as a free-to-play game on iOS and Android and available for purchase for $19.99 on Steam. Boasting 200 puzzles and one giant mystery stretched across three chapters, The Academy: The First Riddle is supposed to be a scintillating school story with riddles scattered throughout to encourage exploration; what we got was… interesting.
The Academy: The First Riddle opens up on Sam, who has been invited to attend the mysterious and prestigious academy. After taking the shortest entrance exam in history (literally one question with an optional puzzle), Sam officially enrolls as a student. For the next four years, The Academy will be his home, along with other children who have proven themselves worthy enough to be considered the best and brightest Arbor has to offer. As the year progresses, Sam and his friends will stumble upon some curious happenings, such as a bear roaming the hallways, a disappearing professor, and hooded figures dropping mysterious, glowing objects. Can you uncover what’s going on at The Academy while maintaining your GPA?
Let’s just jump right into the puzzles — when they’re good, they’re good, but there’s too many “odd” ones in-between. Every time Sam stumbles upon a puzzle, there’s actually two in one: an easier, mandatory puzzle and a trickier bonus puzzle. After answering the easier puzzle, Sam can answer the second puzzle for… extra credit, maybe? Not really sure what the motivation would be to solve the bonus puzzle, as one player skipped them entirely in their playthrough and still managed to beat the game.
Where the puzzles are plentiful, the puzzle diversity… isn’t. Most puzzles are either multiple choice or “drag and drop” to point out the correct item/location on the still image. Additionally, the first puzzle is either pretty easy or worded so oddly — I would constantly swing from getting the question right on the first try to just clicking around and hoping for the best. There wasn’t really any in-between. That second puzzle, though? Brutal. There was no scale when it came to difficulty either; you could sit forever on a riddle, absolutely stumped until you give up, only to click on the next one and solve within seconds.
For those particularly tricky puzzles, there are Professor Layton-esque chocolate bars to discover during exploration that, when eaten, provide a single hint for each puzzle; sometimes, the hints would be enough to assist, but there were other times when the hints straight up made no sense. I longed for the Professor Layton hint coins wherein multiple hints would be provided, increasing in their helpfulness, until the final hint where the answer would simply be provided. Too many times I would use a chocolate bar, find an extremely unhelpful hint, and be forced to click around until I got it right or just skip the puzzle and move on.
Where the homages to Professor Layton were hit or miss, The Academy: The First Riddle’s tribute to Harry Potter was on the nose. For one thing, too many characters straight up resemble the main cast of the popular children’s story. You have the trio of friends — over-achieving smart girl, (Her)Maya(ne), worrywart redheaded friend Dom, and, of course, the dark-haired mildly passive hero, Sam. There’s even the awkward Neville Longbottom type named Tucker (Carlson?) who Harry… I mean, Sam… and the gang have to save from minor inconveniences to round out the main cast. There’s inspiration, and then there’s unoriginal.
Copy-cast aside, The Academy: The First Riddle feels like a Harry Potter game without the magic, and I mean that in more ways than one. The children aren’t witches and wizards, and they’re not studying magic — the only tie to the popular franchise seems to be that the characters are all obviously based off the series and they’re in a boarding school. There’s also just little character in general when it comes to the experience — truthfully, The Academy: The First Riddle fell flat when it came to providing any excitement and wonder.
When it comes to aesthetics, The Academy: The First Riddle is again a mixed bag. I actually did enjoy the environments immensely. Despite the school premises being on the smaller side, there was just enough interest to make it feel lived in and everything was designed in a really fun and inviting way. The school was perhaps the most alive, fully-fleshed out “character” in the entire game, and I actually liked exploring each nook and cranny despite there being no real reason to do so.
The character design, although charming, suffered badly from lack of diversity in the sense that everyone melted into each other. Character design is challenging enough on its own, but it gets harder when everyone is forced to wear the same clothing, like a school uniform. To provide diversity, it would have been wise to make all the kids have different skin tones, body types, hair colors, heights, facial features…something! Anything! But for those of us who already struggle with telling people apart (I swear I have mild prosopagnosia), the lack of character diversity meant everyone just blended into each other and made for a boring experience in terms of character development.
The Academy: The First Riddle suffers again when it comes to sound. The music was jarring, limiting my ability to play for long periods of time because it was just so repetitive to the point of aggravation. There’s nothing wrong with looping music — all video games do it — but when a game loops what feels like the same three notes over and over again it’s enough to make you want to rip out your speakers. Additionally, because Steam touted full audio support for English and so much of the game centers right on the character’s faces in the exact same angle every time there’s dialog, I was let down when there was no voice acting. Normally I would never judge a game for not having voice acting since it’s a bonus and not a requirement, but The Academy: The First Riddle suffered from that diversity issue and boring characters, so having voices to help tell them all apart could have helped immensely.
When it came to the storyline, there were again pros and cons. The storyline was juuuust interesting enough that when something happened, it registered; unfortunately, delivery was clunky. I am not sure if the dev team speaks English natively or had proper localization done, as everything feels amusingly off. So many lines were delivered in such an awkward way that I would constantly wonder to myself if anyone actually spoke how they did. The Academy: The First Riddle needs a different localization team to take a look at the script and try again, both when it comes to puzzle translation and just better dialog flow.
Unfortunately, The Academy: The First Riddle launched with its fair share of critical bugs. This may come as a surprise to gamers, but there’s no such thing as a bug-free game, so the random hiccup here and there experienced by a select few unlucky gamers is to be expected. However, some bugs are game-breaking, and The Academy: The First Riddle unfortunately launched with one or two of them. The dev team is actively working on addressing them and has already taken care of at least one of them, but there’s one that literally does not let players progress unless they delete their game and start all over again, and I’m not sure if that was fixed yet. As the dev team is extremely active, I’m sure they’ll make it right, but it does feel like this game would have benefited from an Early Access period.
So, I’ve been extremely critical of The Academy: The First Riddle. Is there any hope for the game? Should anyone buy this? Who is it for?
It feels weird saying this, but I think people who *didn’t* play Professor Layton might like this; additionally, the younger crowd might enjoy this better than us old folks (30 is old, right?). Perhaps it’s because The Academy: The First Riddle is in a school setting that I say this, but the themes explored are fairly shallow while the alternating easy-then-brutal puzzles might make those unfamiliar to the puzzle genre feel like they’re getting their bang for their buck when they have 200 to sift through. Had I played this game on the Wii 15 years ago, I probably would have really enjoyed The Academy: The First Riddle; unfortunately, it’s 2020, and I have more beloved options.
I was so, so excited for The Academy: The First Riddle, and although I feel pretty letdown by the experience, I believe there’s still something to it. It’s entirely possible that the dev team works everything out within the next few months and the flaws are ironed out, leaving only pure puzzle goodness to grace our screens. In fact, I fully intend to return to The Academy: The First Riddle in a few months and see what progress has been made. Until then, I have a hard time recommending the game in this state, although I will say that, if you have any interest whatsoever, keep it on your wishlist. It’s back to school for The Academy: The First Riddle, but, with enough studying, it’ll soon graduate with high marks.
Final Verdict: 3/5
Available on: Mobile, PC (reviewed); Publisher: Snapbreak; Developer: Pine Studio; Players: 1; Released: June 19, 2020; MSRP: $19.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a PC review copy of The Academy: The First Riddle given to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher