The Academy: The First Riddle is an outwardly impressive adventure-puzzler set in a school for gifted youngsters. Developer Pine Studio, creator of the Faraway series, wears its influences on its sleeve, though despite the familiar premise and setting, the team is able to pull from its own city of Zagreb to create a distinct, welcoming, and vibrant video game locale.
As a new student at Arbor Academy, you'll meet and befriend your very own Ron and Hermione while contending with bumbling staff members, studying for several academic classes, and investigating some strange goings-on.
The school is not as overtly fantastical as the likes of Hogwarts, with supernatural phenomena slowly creeping in throughout, but this helps the story to carefully unveil its mysteries over the course of the school year. All that being said, those looking for an unproblematic Potter or a modern reinvention of Professor Layton will have to accept some caveats.
The Academy is an undeniably sprawling offering, serving up a lengthy campaign and enough puzzles to fill several games. Though while the breadth and variety of content on display is more than we're generally used to seeing on mobile, Pine Studio struggles to nail some of the fundamentals – namely the game's touchscreen controls.
Its camera is the main offender, being held off-centre for reasons that feel stylistically useful but never entirely practical. Many games have successfully adopted this positioning, and it can be especially effective when aiming to refocus the player's attention away from the protagonist, however here it just aggravates the existing control woes.
The simple act of navigating the school's halls can descend into farce, as you clumsily careen from points A to B while battling the virtual joysticks at every turn. I quickly switched over to the point-and-click movement mode, though seeing as you're still in control of the camera, this proved to be similarly unreliable and cumbersome. It just doesn't feel right regardless of how you approach it, and these problems resurface time and again. The primary reason the controls don't sink the experience is that most of your time with The Academy is spent solving its many puzzles.
From simple comparison and visual puzzles to tests of logic and tricky maths questions, I was never quite sure of what the next challenge could be. There are around 200 of them in total, meaning the game always has a new Layton-style conundrum to throw your way. However, as you might expect, there is the occasional dud in the mix.
They run the gamut from properly smart to outright annoying, especially when their stated premise clumsily misleads you. The game's attempts at this are either too oblique or obvious. An example of the latter is found fairly early on when you're told that the next question requires a more complex mathematical approach than the one you've just solved. In reality, the solution isn't in any way linked to either the written premise or the previous challenge. Some might enjoy having to guess whether they're being misled, as do I when it's done well, but you need to have enough clues to deduce that this is the case.
Thankfully, you're able to skip over any puzzles that prove too grating, then return to them once you've cooled off for another go. This openness to letting you play at your own pace and level of challenge ultimately proves to be one of the game's greatest strengths. It's not out to ruin your day, and even when its solutions feel unnecessarily mean, the game's friendly vibe kept me going and realigned my focus to the next challenge at hand.
Ideally, a greater number of its puzzles would have been more integrated into the environment. As is, the majority feel wholly separate from your surroundings. You'll wander around for a bit, get a prompt to solve a puzzle, enter the puzzle screen, then jump back out to explore some more. Arbor Academy is so detailed and carefully composed that it's a shame to see the game struggling to make the best use of it.
The cast and story are serviceable, even if it's the school itself that's of the most interest. You're constantly discovering new tidbits of info on its past and the many strange characters who once called it home. And the further you progress, the more interesting its many nooks and crannies become.
It all comes together as a decidedly mixed bag that I still grew rather fond of. I'd describe it as a cosy experience: pleasant, good-looking, and more than happy to be the game you play to unwind after a long day. Some of The Academy's biggest issues could be remedied in time, but as is, The First Riddle comes across as a decent foundation for a hopefully much-improved sophomore year.Searching for some top-tier puzzlers? Here are 25 of the very best for iPhone & iPad