Back to School

Most gamers probably couldn’t wait to get out of high school (not to mention those who are still there!), so why would anyone in their right mind want to manage a virtual one in their spare time? Kairosoft’s probably banking on players being drawn into the sheer depth and nail-biting challenge offered in Pocket Academy (Out Now for $3.99, Lite). And you know what? They’re absolutely right! As is often the case with Kairosoft sims, this is one of those games you’d never imagine enjoying while looking at screenshots, but one that will reel you in with its charm once you’ve sunk a little time into it.

The player’s overarching goal in Pocket Academy is to churn out happy and well-educated students. To that end he or she serves both as building planner and hiring manager: the students micromanage themselves automatically, but their rate of academic growth hinges on a quality environment and top-of-the-line teaching staff. What results is a gripping tug of war that pits tuition revenue against building costs and staff compensation.

That the folks at Kairosoft are masters of the simulation experience is just as evident in Pocket Academy as it has been in their previous App Store offerings. The depth to be found here is unspeakably enormous. Success requires that the player pay close attention to the school’s cultural environment as well as its academic record, both of which are crucial to drawing in new students — ergo, new tuition streams. If students have enough gathering places to make lots of friends, they’ll lend glowing quotes about the player’s management to local news reports; skimp on staff while splurging on recreation facilities and parents will nevertheless put in complaints that take the school’s reputation right back down.

Strategy is key here: the first thing the player will want to lay down is a bulletin board that functions as a suggestion box, so he or she can fulfill requests from the student body and staff without having to waste funds on needless experiments. Even when tuition rates are high and the building layout is as efficient as the player can possibly make it, keeping a positive balance in the school treasury hinges on making the students themselves the player’s secret fiscal weapon: if star pupils are shoved into academic and cultural contests they’ll raise the school’s reputation and even lure in prize money. Awfully kind of them to hand over all their winnings to the administration!

The hair-raising challenge inherent in keeping the school’s fiscal affairs in order never truly ends; success draws in ever more students, which forces ever more facility expansion. While the game can be played essentially infinitely, Kairosoft has set ten years (in-game time, not real-world time!) as a suggested cutoff point. Pocket Academy records the player’s funds and school academic rank at that point, but the game can be continued well beyond.

Alas, Kairosoft doesn’t seem to take advantage of Game Center or OpenFeint integration here — ranking all the player schools against one another on a giant leaderboard would have made for a killer twist! Replay value, on the other hand, is immense: the player begins by choosing one of five schools to manage, and these have starting situations that vary to a surprising degree.

I do have to raise a few complaints. The first thing an unseasoned player will do in Pocket Academy is run his or her school far into the red, a fiscal nosedive that might be so unrecoverable as to encourage starting over from scratch. This will happen for two reasons. First, the game’s sheer depth defies its practically manual-size tutorial; the player simply has to absorb the enormous number of management functions in Pocket Academy over time. More critically, I could find nowhere within its many folds a simple budget projection function. A calculator is never far away on an iDevice, perhaps, but players shouldn’t have to pore over separate lists of salaries, building costs, and tuition fees just to figure out how many months the school can remain in the black under current conditions. If a succinct budget projection report exists, or if a treasurer can be added to the school’s staff to figure this out for the player, they’re too well hidden. 

Pocket Academy‘s interface consists entirely of menu navigation and laying down isometric building tiles by swiping around on the touchscreen. Both functions go off without a hitch, the one caveat being that laying down large objects by their bottom corners feels a tad wonky at first. Pocket Academy‘s cutesy little sprites probably won’t win anyone over in and of themselves, and its sequenced music ranges from relaxing bleeps and bloops to more grating sound samples that can be harsh on one’s earbuds. Thankfully Pocket Academy is very friendly to external music tracks.

iFanzine Verdict: Pocket Academy‘s  astounding depth, challenge and replay value make for an extremely compelling management sim — a clear must-have for sim fans! While many will find it a great entry point into the genre as well, its sheer complexity will seem impenetrable to those who like a pick-up-and-play experience.

[xrr rating=4/5]