Some artists develop a unique style that makes all their work recognizable at first glance. While very common in other art forms, this isn’t particularly the case for video games so far. One of the few exceptions is Ryan Sumo, game artist and co-founder at Filipino indie studio Squeaky Wheel. His previous works include politics simulator Political Animals and BAFTA-winning management game Prison Architect; his style being the defining element in those games. Now, Squeaky Wheel’s newest game is Academia: School Simulator and you can clearly tell it’s another Ryan Sumo work.
Sumo’s distinct styles are very simple and geometric 2D graphics that unveil their details only at second glance. It’s a perfect collaboration between resource saving simplicity and the right amount of imagination needed to fill out the blanks of this simplification. Another distinctive feature of Sumo’s art style is its colorful palette, still and unfortunately a rare sight in video games development today. It was this style that made Prison Architect a major success and distinguishable from other generic management games in the market back in the day. Squeaky Wheels latest game inherits Sumo’s visual style and is a management game itself. But this time it’s not about managing a prison but a school.
While some might say there isn’t much of a difference between the latter two, we should have a look at the game mechanics themselves. Being in Steam’s Early Access program, Academia: School Simulator is still under development and many features are still missing. The good news: the base game is already playable and can provide some hours of entertaining gameplay. In its core mechanics, players plan, construct and manage a high school based on the US-American education system. From a top-down perspective we build classrooms, facilities, canteens or libraries and equip them with furniture and other items. We hire staff and teachers and make sure we never run out of money and satisfy our student’s needs. Our major goal is to prepare them for the final exam, their passing rate being one of two criteria that define the status of our school (the other one is cleanliness).
Academia: School Simulator is a sandbox game. We begin each round from scratch and have complete freedom in how we design our school. Careful planning is needed to keep distances short and anticipate fluctuating student numbers (not all of your freshman students will make it to the next grade!). Having more students requires more or bigger facilities and better teachers. Because the sheers number of options can be irritating at first, Squeaky Wheel introduced a quest system (called grants) that guide the player through the first important steps.
Academia: School Simulator stands out for its distinctive art style: every little thing is animated and zoom-able. Higher viewpoints provide full oversight of your school while lower points allow the players to dive in directly into the library and observe students studying their books. It’s this attention to detail that makes Academia most enjoyable. The management part is functioning yet we have the feeling that it isn’t challenging enough. After a short while, the game mechanics get repetitive and we figured out most of the requirements for receiving a good rating. This might chance in the future, as Squeaky Wheel already announced to add more features in the future of its Early Access development such as subject scheduling, research, policies or events. To the date of this review, Academia is already a good working school simulator that needs some bug-fixing here and there and more features, statistics and options for individuality (right now, all our schools looked very similar). The current version nevertheless shows that Squeaky Wheel has the potential to catch up with Prison Architect – not only in its visuals. We can’t wait to get back to School!
Academia: School Simulator is available in Steam’s Early Access program for Windows. A version for Mac is planned.