Retro graphics, 8-bit music and an interface not really tailored to iOS. Kairosoft does it again porting one of its titles to the App Store. It's no secret that the Japanese feature phone developer has an extensive catalogue of simulation games under the same theme available in Asia, but this doesn't stop fans worldwide from buying any game that gets localized in English and approved on the App Store. Despite the rumours coming from this cryptic developer, the third title for iOS in occidental markets is a High School simulator and not the much hyped videogame store or Formula1 titles.
This time is the turn of Pocket Academy [iTunes Link], where you run a secondary school to make it the most prestigious education establishment in Kairosoft's universe. The theme might not sound very appealing, but if you have played the previous Game Dev Story and Hot Springs Story, it feels like the perfect evolution of the game mechanics involved.
Otherwise, you are in for a steep learning curve thanks to the 200-word manual included and many concepts lost in translation. But don't worry, if you are new to these strangely addictive games, I'm including some tips and hints along the way.
The game starts when you become the principal of a new school in the district (you can select maps with different difficulty), starting the academic year and receiving as many as two students to start with. As soon as you make your school more attractive for prospective students you will start receiving transfer requests in the middle of the year. This is the key concept in Pocket Academy: students are the main source of income, so you should keep spending resources to improve education standards to have room for more students.
Just like in real life, funding is scarce, and you'll need to keep a tight balance of income and expenses that will limit your progression during the first 30 minutes playing a level. Teacher salaries, facility upkeep and research are the main burden to your finances. Nevertheless, you must combine several money-making strategies that are odd at best. Students pay tuition fees, parents might donate some money and you take all the profits from vending machines and shops at the school. That makes sense. However, as part of your training, you'll have students to take care of animals and farm fields, which produce items that are automatically sold for your own benefit.
If you think about it, the kids in this game have one lesson per semester and spend the rest of the time hanging out, farming, buying snacks worth $150 and taking part in social activities. Not bad! And although the first goal is to break even, you shouldn't forget about the purpose of the school, not farming, but educating boys and girls.
Just like in other Kairosoft games, you can easily obtain "research" points with any activity. These points can be used to unlock advanced items, rooms and more importantly, to give special lessons. Special lessons improve the stats of your students, rising the average grades of the class and giving them the chance to land a good job later in life.
As I already mentioned, this is the ultimate goal in the game and both money and research points should be used to achieve this. In case you were wondering, here are some tips and strategies to make money and keep improving your school.
Regardless of the school size, your first goal should be increasing tuition fees. The only way to do this is to complete challenges, which means that one of your students must take an exam on behalf of the school (??) to increase its reputation. Since the first student that joins the school is always pretty talented, it shouldn't be a problem to pass the maximum of two challenges per month as long as you have funds to pay for the examination. If you think about it, the initial $600 fee can go a long way knowing it will rise at least $30 the fee for every student.
While what I call research points appear randomly, there is a way to increase their presence. Directly borrowed from Hot Springs Story are the popular spots, a combination of rooms and item that boost the stats in the area and people interacting with them. Popular spots are also vital to attract new students to the school, so it's important that you plan and build carefully to maximise resources. My tip would be build popular spots you can pay for in the long term and invest those points in training students.
The game only lists some of the popular spots and you are meant to experiment and discover good combinations on your own. There's a list on a Japanese wiki that can help if you don't mind cheating, but the automated translation is not great. Without wanting to spoil anything, I encourage any player to combine the Power and Water spots, since they are quite cheap and give a real boost to farming areas.
Also very close to the zen positioning of rooms Hot Springs is the Spirit points in Pocket Academy. Building compatible landscaping elements such as trees close to some facilities improves their spirit. This means that the area will become more desirable for students, while nobody will hang out at locations with low spirit. Spirit points also have a direct impact in the student's attributes, namely Intellect, Athletics, Popularity and Attitude.
While these are key to trigger beneficial events at school and tailor the career and social aspects of the students, there is no direct way to boost them, other than using expensive items. Building strategically is again very important to improve the overall stats and desirability and you should consider planting trees and landscaping with your spare cash.
I include these tips in the review because the game instructions are very cryptic and there's little guidance from the Principal's Assistant to help you getting started. As you can imagine, Pocket Academy is not as straightforward as Kairosoft's previous titles, mainly because it combines different game mechanics from both. In fact, educating students is similar to designing a game in Game Dev Story, while all the school layout and microeconomics seem borrowed from Hot Springs Story. There are also special events that have a strong influence (and I expect lines of code) from them too.
Students can fall in love and ask out their pals, teachers will demand training, you need to prepare semester activities, students are invited to participate in extra-curricular activities and you can also run clubs to increase the school's reputation. There're a lot of "side quests", which are not absolutely necessary for the core gameplay, but that keep you distracted from the main teaching and micromanaging activities.
Considering all the borrowed mechanics and the trademark graphic style of Kairosoft, there's not a lot new in Pocket Academy. All the annoying bits from previous games are still there, which shows the little effort the studio puts for iOS devices, and in fact, it doesn't have Game Center integration yet, which looks very lazy considering that they implemented this feature in their other games. Frustrating at times for the lack of tutorial and help menus, Pocket Academy grew on me after some hours playing and I think it might be a high point after its second iOS game, which didn't live up to the hype around it in my opinion.
Pocket Academy is another stop in the hopefully endless route of Kairosoft ports that might arrive to the App Store in the next months
While the gameplay is much more complex than previous titles and excels at resource management, unlockable items and facilities, it's nowhere near as polished as other iOS specific releases that populate the charts. Although many concepts are lost in translation, the game has some bizarre humour that I loved and has the addictive potential of the best simulation games. I still recommend to play Kairosoft's Sim Dev Story first to get a taste and probably jump to Pocket Academy directly as a more complex simulation game designed for the genre's hardcore following. It's also worth mentioning that although it's not a Universal app, it scales well to the iPad.