Update: With The Academy’s official launch, the button puzzle mentioned below has been patched. Now both the previous (wrong) solution, as well as the actually correct one, are accepted. Other flawed puzzles, it seems, have not been addressed thus far.
Let’s be honest: At one point or another, we’ve all dreamed about receiving a letter in the mail informing us we’ve been accepted into a magical school full of wonder, adventure and excitement. We could leave our normal lives behind and be someone special. The inspiration for this fantasy usually involved a black-haired boy as the protagonist who makes new friends with a red-haired, somewhat shy boy and a feisty brown-haired girl. Together, they must overcome the terrible dangers awaiting them at their new school and, through the power of friendship, solve mysteries and save the day.
I am talking about The Academy: The First Riddle, of course. Pine Studio’s main inspiration was apparently a certain young wizard. Hazarding a guess though, many people would probably prefer not to think too much about Harry Potter these days. Instead, let’s talk about whether or not The Academy manages to deliver a brain-stimulating, puzzle-solving extravaganza. After all, Pine Studio are experienced in that field as the developers of The Birdcage and The Jackbox, two AR puzzle games, and the Faraway series.
In a crudely animated cutscene, we meet Sam, who is accepted to the titular Academy, a place that forms highly gifted teenagers into the intellectual elite of tomorrow. Looking over his shoulders, we walk around the premises and talk to a few of the other students. Well, prospective students, to be precise, as we first need to clear an entry exam in the form of a puzzle 一 a math problem where we have to figure out an unknown operator. This sequence of events perfectly encapsulates The Academy’s gameplay loop: explore the place, go to class or find people who need our help, then solve a puzzle. Since there’s nothing much else to do besides solving optional puzzles of a different sort, these parts should be polished to ensure a good time.
Starting with some positives, while the events aren’t presented in epic cutscenes or with exquisitely written dialogue, the characters are endearing enough, and the story actually is somewhat exciting. It was enough to hook me in once I accepted that I wasn’t part of the game’s core audience, which I judge to be children and young teenagers. While the story’s twists and turns aren’t too surprising, it’s more than serviceable.
Characters are often too clichéd, too one-note, without going through any noteworthy development. The feisty, inquisitive friend is still feisty and inquisitive by the end, the loveable loser character is still the loveable loser, and so on. Still, one friend of ours grows as a person in a way that is stereotypical but nevertheless appreciated from a storytelling perspective, and a bully kind of sees the error of their ways. And Sgt. Ripley, the PE teacher, is just an absolute treat, albeit criminally underused.
While most characters get a pass for this on the basis that a game with a younger audience doesn’t necessarily need incredibly deep, complex characters, one sticks out like a sore thumb even by this standard: the protagonist. Sam just doesn’t have a personality to speak of, apart from being good at puzzles. Even being helpful and compassionate isn’t strictly canon as those traits are mostly expressed via doing optional puzzles, which involve fixing machines or finding lost books. Unless I have missed something, Sam has a grand total of one or two lines of dialogue in the whole game 一 unvoiced, of course, as is every other character. He is a stand-in for the player, someone to project ourselves onto, but a little more expression wouldn’t have hurt. It’s especially jarring when he is directly addressed, only for someone else to answer for him.
Not too many positives there, admittedly. On a different note, exploring the Academy, getting to know the layout, is quite fun and engaging. It won’t blow your socks off graphically, and characters look like Sims created by Pixar, but it’s visually cohesive. It feels like an organic place, one that changes over time, where people could actually go to school and live, with living quarters, bathrooms, a cafe, some outdoor areas. Honestly, it’s a lovely place in which to study. Plus, someone constantly leaves chocolate bars all over the place, which is pretty nice, if you ask me. As an added bonus to being delicious, they also serve as currency for tips when we need help with a puzzle.
But all of this is, in a way, just a framework for the supposed bread and butter of The Academy: the puzzles. Sure, an engaging story and a great environment can put the experience on another level, but if the puzzles suck, there’s not a lot to be elevated in the first place.
To put it bluntly: They would have benefited from a lot more time in the oven. Some work great and have us really exercise our noggins, and the occasional, almost insultingly easy one isn’t a problem either. It’s also a cool idea to give the option of a more difficult, optional puzzle in the same setting after completing the first, easier one. But more often than not, the description of what’s on display or what we are supposed to do is too vague to be helpful. After solving a math equation, the game tells us to set aside math and just look. The solution, then, involves counting the things we see. Counting. After specifically being advised not to bother with mathematics.
Here’s another example.
Going by the description and common sense, you’d think unpacking would mean pulling things up, as in towards us, because that’s how one unpacks a suitcase. Now, to me at least, it isn’t immediately clear that ‘item’ refers to one of the tetris-like shapes, not individual pieces of stuff on them. After figuring that out, we face another question: How do any of them not adhere to those rules? None of them overlap, so nothing is pulled alongside when unpacking an item.
The solution to that conundrum is that we have to interpret ‘upwards’ on a two-dimensional scale, meaning we pull items in the direction that is up in that 2D picture. Thinking that through, we somehow pull items towards the opened suitcase, which seems slightly impractical.
But that’s not unusual for puzzle games, right? Weird scenarios bearing only a passing resemblance to reality are common there. A bit contrived, yet once we accept that, we’re good to go with the other puzzles, aren’t we?
Many of the puzzles follow their own Bizarro World logic. We’re presented with four suspects of a crime and have to rule one of them out. We know that the perpetrator fled the crime scene on foot, so it obviously can’t have been the guy with the skateboard, because he would have used that to get away. Perfectly logical. And in the optional puzzle after that, we are given the information that the crime happened during the shift of guards at 9 PM, so we can rule out another suspect. Another obvious case: One has a smartphone, another one sports a wristwatch, so we can conclude that the person with neither couldn’t have committed the crime as they couldn’t possibly have known the time.
To be fair, not all puzzles operate under this logic, and once we’ve grown accustomed to it, we’ll mostly know what the developers want us to do or look out for. But at least all puzzles work as intended, right?
Try solving the above puzzle. Here’s a hint: You can ignore the outer buttons, it’s one from the four in the middle. Just by looking at the setup, it quickly becomes apparent that it can only be one of the two lower buttons as there’s no way of reaching them if we start above them. Thinking about it further, you may reach the conclusion that it’s got to be the one on the right. Hey, that’s exactly what I was thinking, what a coincidence! Now we just press submit, and we’re all good, right? Nope, Pine Studio beg to differ. According to them, it’s the green button above the one marked in the screenshot. Go ahead, try and solve it from that point.
Doesn’t work, does it? What we have here is a cardinal sin of puzzle game development: an objectively wrong solution. A one-time occurrence is bad enough, but at least one other puzzle doesn’t provide a valid solution when taken at face value. One or two others weren’t as severe, they just had two possible solutions that were equally valid under the given requirements, with only one of them accepted as correct.
This is not only frustrating as a player, it simply cannot happen in a game sold for 20$. Errors slipping through is natural, especially for a small studio and when there’s more than 200 puzzles in total. Still, a plain wrong solution should never, under any circumstances, be part of a shipped product.
Despite all the negativity, one aspect deserves praise. We can draw on puzzles to make notes or follow routes, and we also have a ruler with which to measure distances. A small feature, but apart from being quite useful, it signifies that a good amount of thought has been put into the development of these puzzles and the features surrounding them.
All in all, I’m left with mixed feelings. On the one hand, too many puzzles left me unsatisfied. They were either too easy or followed an eccentric logic from some far-away planet completely alien to ours…if they worked at all. But I also thoroughly enjoyed just strolling through the academy on my way to my next class, reading the required material, and then answering a question or two about it. Yes, The Academy actually made school enjoyable. I’m intrigued to find out what happens in the next game and how the story eventually concludes after that ending. Despite my grievances, I am looking forward to what Pine Studio will cook up as The Academy is not inherently broken; rather, it is pulled down by mistakes that absolutely can, and definitely should, be ironed out in the future.
Developer: Pine Studio
Platforms: PC, Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One, Mobile
Release Date: 19th June 2020
Gaming Respawn’s copy of The Academy: The First Riddle was supplied by the publisher.