Pocket Academy’s the first Kairosoft game that’s given me pause. The usual formula returns, with the mechanics falling somewhere between the building-oriented nature of Hot Springs Story and the stat-heavy slant of Game Dev Story. It provides a harsh challenge and a learning curve that belies much of the hyper-accessible formula.
Kairosoft has removed the carrot from the stick and yet stand there whacking you with the stick anyway. But there’s not the same kind of pull. The incentive feels arbitrary at first and it’s a slow burn trying to figure out exactly what the game’s asking for. Without the use of guides it takes hours of slogging through those torturous early school years until you’ve figured much of anything out. And by this point it’d probably be worth starting over lest your future alumni might amount to nothing, much like your career in the school district.
Little is explained. Unlike the developer’s other titles, the path to success is more abstract. Success is achieved vicariously through the students and so there’s a kind of detachment there but also room for growth. There’s a loose guide in the options but little help is doled out contextually, so it boils down to trial-and-error. There is more depth but as a consequence Pocket Academy lacks the sharp focus and stability of the much-loved prior entries.
Once you’ve figured out the systems, Pocket Academy comes around. Guiding your students to success in their chosen career paths and building out a functional place to facilitate their growth provides its own reward. Watching their triumphs and failures provides a more personal touch.
Throughout each year, the students will make friends, find romances and participate in activities and classes on campus. As they slide around the floor in their PE track suits or harvest eggs, there’s still an inherent charm that’s unique to Kairosoft. It never becomes quite as absorbing as prior games because until mid-game it’s not entirely clear what to do. Once you know, the game falls into the same compelling cycle of menus and number grinding and pure simulation bliss as its predecessors. It just takes too long to get there this time.
Academia provides a finite amount of inspiration. It’s not the kind of quirky subject that stands out as entirely necessary but the sprite-based graphics and upbeat sound design continue to make up the difference. Kairosoft’s products continue to be the best reason to game on the iPhone even if their quality’s become inconsistent. The difficult thing about reviewing a game like this, however, is that even at their least inspired the developer represents the upper-echelon of the platform. Yet there’s a difference in quality now and Pocket Academy comes in below expectations.