Academia: School Simulator is a school management sim from the artist of Prison Architect and Squeaky Wheel Studios. It’s been in development for seven years, three of which have been early access. Now this long-laboured title has finally hit 1.0, and it’s time to give it a proper exam – is it top of the class, or back of the short bus?
Having been a fan of simulation games since the release of Theme Hospital back in 1997, it’s hard not to draw parallels. Visually, Academia looks much simpler than Bullfrog‘s lauded hospital management title, but it works for it. A surprising amount of clever detail, sly references and personality are injected into the relatively basic cartoons, and whilst it doesn’t look nearly as visually distinctive as Prison Architect, it has its charms. The gameplay itself is deep, with a wide array of interlocking systems coming together to power the day to day life of your school. It can be quite absorbing – once you’ve solved the riddle of how to play it in the first place.
Getting into the good parts of Academia would be a lot easier if the game featured any sort of basic scenario or tutorial. For a sim with so many moving parts, it’s bizarre that an introductory campaign hasn’t been included with the full release. Until you’ve had a few hours of experience, the game isn’t particularly intuitive, which unfortunately compounds some of the flaws.
The UI looks quite dated and is cumbersome to navigate. In order to build rooms the player must navigate to the build menu, find the room they want to build, then navigate to a separate menu to place objects for that room. Then rinse and repeat for every single classoom and office in your school. It’s not a particularly intuitive experience and it would certainly benefit from streamlining so that the game doesn’t feel like such a chore.
As Academia has been in development for quite a long time, the lack of UI polish doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s not just that it looks outdated, it doesn’t do a very good job of giving you the information you need to know.
Whilst there are menus that give the player some feedback, there doesn’t seem to be any information where it really matters. Students regularly complain about being hungry, despite placing various cafeterias and staggering lunchtimes. This eventually results in your hungriest of students quitting your academy to join your rival. This occurs because there is no information available to the player that indicates how this can be improved. Not only that, but the things that you think would have a positive effect sometimes have no effect at all.
This leads to a frustrating amount of trial and error. This isn’t an issue when playing in sandbox mode with unlimited money, but really sticks out during normal mode where balancing your budget is paramount.
There are a lot of customisation options available in order to build the school you wished you’d have gone to, or perhaps even recreate the hell hole you were at. Squeaky Wheel Studio Inc. have put a lot of thought into a variety of game features. Teachers not only have their own unique subject specialities and degrees; they also have their own personalities. This leads to them having their own individual needs that must be satisfied so that they can teach at the very best level.
Students also have their own complex needs. Ensuring that their dietary requirements are met; that delinquents are suitably punished in order to keep the peace; and that the janitors keep the school clean and tidy. These are all aspects that help to improve the life of your pupils. If you thought it was only your students that were getting marked then think again, you will need to fulfill your students requirements if you want to ace your report card at the end of the year.
Academia: School Simulator – Is it worth it?
Despite its shortcomings, Academia: School Simulator is still a time sink of a management game that a lot of people will enjoy. Whether or not the concept the developers have laboured over is reaching its full potential is a different story, though. There isn’t anything wrong with the game that couldn’t be fixed given enough time to patch it, but you’d be forgiven for thinking this was still in Early Access.
For Academia to compete with genre rivals, it’ll need some decent quality of life upgrades. The absence of a tutorial or campaign is a bit of a glaring loss at times, but patient or experienced sim fans won’t have too much trouble with that.