So, where do we start here?

Ace Academy actually has a long history with VNs Now. We first crossed paths when it was Kendo Crush two years ago. Shortly after PixelFade removed Kendo Crush and revamped it under the title of ACE Academy: same basic idea, just set in the future with giant robots. Considering my preferred aesthetic, it seemed like it was a perfect fit. So when I got a note asking me if I’d consider joining the Early Access beta on Steam, I said yes. Again; GIANT ROBOTS. And, to be fair to me, after the first episode I was about as forgiving as I could be while pointing out some fundamental flaws in a way that I hoped PixelFade could use.

Then Episode Two rolled around…

Originally I fully intended to follow each episodic release on Early Access, but it was around Episode Two that I realized I was going to be repeating myself a lot if I did that. So, I abandoned the goal of following-along with feature reviews and instead started taking notes on the process PixelFade took from Early Access to release with a single goal in mind: review. So, after years of development, how does Ace Academy stack up? Let’s find out together!

Genre: High-School Slice-Of-Life, Comedy, Drama
Developer: PixelFade Studio

Release Date: August 22, 2016
Genre: Slice-Of-Life
Platform: PC
Web: Steam
Edited By: Ozzytizer

STORY

For the purposes of this review, instead of doing my patented summations of the plot; I’m just going to link the synopsis as written by the developer. Trust me: this is important –

Due to unforeseeable circumstances, the protagonist finds himself transferring to ACE Academy, a premier school for Cenorobotics studies in Japan. He struggles to find a team willing to accept him and his outdated “American” GEAR to compete in the intramural tournament. When compared to the sleek, robust, and advanced technologies of the Japanese counterparts, his search feels utterly hopeless. That is, until he finds a group of pilots just desperate enough for another member. This is where your story begins.

I will eventually get into what I like about Ace Academy, because there is good here. However, being the Gundam fan I am, I have to start with what I didn’t like. The familiar readers will notice that none of the tags in the ‘Genre’ part of the infobar mentioned ‘Action-Adventure’, or ‘Mecha’ or anything having to do with ‘high-octane, giant robot battles’ despite that being one of the major original selling points of this visual novel. That’s because that side of the story, including the various twist and turns that’s supposed to make up the more ‘dramatic’ storyline of the game, is an absolute dud. Man, it hurt me to type that.

There is no viable reason why it had to be this way, in my humble opinion. The Mecha genre has one of the greatest lineages in fiction with plenty of good examples for any tone and situation whether they be romance (Macross Plus), comedy (Megas XLR), mystery (The Big O), and yes; even high school/slice-of-life (Robotics;Notes). Ace Academy could’ve easily pulled from any of those to learn from and deliver a solid experience. Instead, they seemed absolutely lost in trying to make the GEAR matches important to the overall story.

This is largely because there are no strong rivalries of note and, worse, no real stakes to any of the matches that we see. Hell, the story makes zero effort to even pretend that the protagonist and their team could lose or had a challenging opponent. The singular attempt to actually create narrative tension happens thanks to Kaori, the resident tsundere. The game goes out of its way to take any energy this rivalry could have brought to the mix by making it clear that any hostility is strictly one-sided: making the fight more about friendship than the giant robots with friendship winning in the end yet again.

Oh the woodland creatures and rainbows that spring from my withered shell of a heart typing that. It’s like Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet all over again.

What makes this empty pit so much darker is that the first third of the game tries to sell the audience on the idea that these matches are a big deal and worth your attention. Entire scenes are spent on tactics and strategies, or classes dealing with these machines. Nearly every character introduced is brought in strictly to help this team pull itself together in time to compete in their school. It seems like PixelFade really did want it to be important at first, only to lose interest in it with time. But instead of removing or minimizing the mecha aspect of the game they kept it, climactic final battle and all, with no build-up or narrative weight for it to mean anything. Not even the supporting cast that’s introduced through these matches mean anything more than a temporary distraction and are ultimately wasted for nothing.

If this failure was contained to just these matches, then maybe it could be brushed aside. It isn’t likely, but it is an outside possibility. However, the mecha part of the game branches into a dramatic storyline dealing with the passing of the protagonist’s parents. Everything is tied to the research the protagonist’s Father was doing on an energy core that allows mechs to overclock when they reach their limit. This ability was built into Eagle: the protagonist’s “outdated” mech.  This is an okay function for a mech, however it is ultimately a basic one and as much as I would like to dig into the pseudo-science further, that’s not the point. The point is that this ability and the subsequent intrigue it ignites is stupid.

This is presented as a world-changing discovery: something that, if used incorrectly, could be turned into a weapon. Around the same time the game is trying to reel the audience into this plotline, it also presents the final mech battle at the protagonist school where the final opponent has an overclock ability similar to Eagle’s, only it’s still in its early stages. After a moment of confusion, our protagonist confronts the head of the company that built the mech and they confirmed that his father’s company sold them that technology and they were well within their rights to use it.

Well, once again there goes any possible narrative tension dumped out of the window with all of the grace of a dog’s bathwater. The only way this could possibly work is if Eagle had the only overclock technology in the world. So either no one else would have this and digging into it gives the protagonist an emotional arc to his story as he comes to terms with his father’s research OR you could have another person stealing it from the company or directly from the protagonist. This works because either they having a traitor in the group or the protagonist just has to stand for his family’s legacy as it is being abused in front of his eyes. This would directly feed into the final battle, FINALLY making the mech fights worth something. However, since its all safe and legal, any sort of weight the last few chapters could have had is DOA.

This is why in Mobile Suit Gundam (at least in the UC), not everyone can pilot a Gundam. Usually the mobile suits are on the cutting edge of technology and their pilots put themselves in physical or mental risk by using it. Yes, it is subverted from time to time in the AUs, but when Gundam Seed, a piece of the franchise that I loathe with the white-hot intensity of ten-thousand suns, can sell me on the narrative importance of its mobile suits better than this game that has the main character’s parents die over them; YOU DONE FUCKED IT UP. The entire storyline on the overdrive ability didn’t need to be there and it certainly did not need to be the storyline that the game ended on. Whatever good will that the game salvages falters thanks to landing on the flattest possible note it could land on.

Unfortunately, the mecha side feeds into the second big issue of the game: the world in which this story takes place in. Technology doesn’t exist in a bubble, my friends. An advancement in one area tends to lead to advancements in all areas: like a cyber ripple effect. For example, advancing cell phone technology helped advance the development of artificial intelligence and augmented reality programming. In most mecha franchise this can also be seen with either advancing military technology OR biological evolution (Newtypes, Coordinators, etc.). So, how does the fact that mechas can be developed and piloted by teenagers for an inter-school competition affected this world?

Not one tiny iota.

This game is stated to take place in 2049, yet it literally feels like mankind hadn’t advanced beyond 2010. No, that is not a typo: I said 2010. Hell, they’re still using hand-held mobile phones in 2049…. THAT HAVE TO BE PLUGGED IN TO CHARGE. IN 2049. I know this seems like a pedantic tangent, and it almost was with the cell phone thing. However, considering an entire half of the game is a slow point, a realized world surrounding the story is vital to keep things from falling apart. This doesn’t mean you have to micromanage every small detail of your story to ensure it isn’t picked apart, but it does mean that your overall fictional world shouldn’t feel like the setup to a bunch of in-jokes and pop culture references.

I understand someone at PixelFade thought these in-jokes and pop culture references were funny, but with the current issues the last thing this game needed was to go on its own world-breaking tangents. This, and the collapse of the mecha side, makes Ace Academy very difficult to sit through in sections. The killer here is that you don’t have to be a futurist or even do a lot of research to build a fictional world that feels like inter-high school mech fights could actually occur. A little imagination is needed to make any science fiction story feel legitimate, but because PixelFade didn’t invest said imagination into this, the world rings completely false and brings entire chapters of this game crashing down with it.

So that’s a good chunk of this game: boring at best and bad at its worst (again, friendship fight I’m looking at you). And if that was all that the story had going for it, I’d put a bullet in it right now and save it from its miserable existence. But, by some stroke of absolute SHSL luck, the Slice-of-Life half of this game is actually pretty decent and, at times, even becomes good. Ironically enough, it starts with another complaint I had early in this game’s life cycle: the main character.

Oh yes. Once again we have come toe-to-toe with the Generic Male Protagonist in all of his non-offensive, wish-fulfillment glory. While our nameable hero isn’t the worst I’ve seen in this medium, he remains difficult to define in terms of the overall plot. In raw, utilitarian terms, AA’s protagonist exists as a catalyst for his supporting cast. While he contributes very little in terms of personality and development, we get to see the rest of the cast grow because he is in their lives. It fits into the Classic GMP model and it, again, is probably the best use of this particular type of protagonist.

Because of the protagonist’s role, we get more out of the supporting cast than we otherwise would’ve gotten. They never go far outside of their archetype, but their development feels sincerer and connects a little more than if these archetypes were played up for either fanservice or comedy and that development happens regardless of the player’s interactions with that character. One of the best examples is the tsundere Kaori. In my first playthrough I decided to date Valerie: a snarky, flirty blonde (stop laughing Lore) who also happens to be a genius programmer. Because of that choice, I had less time to hang out with her, but later in the game when we finally do meet back up it turns out she has been getting closer to another guy in that time period. I enjoyed this turn and having the opportunity to push for Kaori to go into this relationship and it shows that, at least in the Ace Academy universe, the characters do have a life and interests outside of the main character’s orbit.

Interestingly enough, this idea is perfected with the protagonist’s sister and uncle that merges the fun of the protagonist’s friends with the emotional investment that our GMP can’t bring to the table on his own. While the protagonist’s friends mostly development off-screen, his sister Nikki and uncle Kaito have nearly as much screen time as our protagonist. Because of this, we get to see a lot of their growth and we get some of the best scenes in the entire game, including a scene where Nikki wants to celebrate her deceased Mother’s birthday. It’s a rare enough thing in most popular fiction to get this much out of your supporting cast and whether it’s a happy accident or planned out from the get-go, it is worth noting.

The character building isn’t always smooth as some scenes just assume you’ve hung out with one of the characters and doesn’t give the player any explanation as to what’s going on. The romantic relationships can also feel stunted at times as the team worked to include scenes ripped from anime without proper context and build up, or even a desire to execute. Going back to my first run through with Valerie, one scene involves us going to a love hotel so that Valerie could book them in the Paris suite and imagine they’re both in France. Nothing is hinted to have happened and I’m fine with that, but it feels like they just wanted to shove a love hotel scene in there and it reminded me of the lack of imagination in the world building because if that’s all they wanted to do, then surely they was some sort of virtual reality or augmented reality system they could use to simulate Paris…you know, since it’s 2049!!!

And, to be frank, what we get from one half of the game doesn’t always translate to the other. All of the work gone into developing these characters is thrown out the bloody window whenever we’re dragged back into either a mech fight or the story wants to stop to homage an anime staple such as a beach episode, hot springs episode, etc. etc. There are two different writers listed along with several producers and it translates to the overall feeling of the game where there were several different ideas on what to do and no one to connect them all to ensure coherence. It’s actually kind of sad because the tools to build a good story are here. It’s just dragged down in the muck thanks to the rest of the game’s dependency on the familiar.

ace-academy-screenshot-2

PRESENTATION & TECHNICAL

One thing Ace Academy has going for it is that it’s a decent looking game. The overall style is pure anime and the character designs aren’t going to shake the foundations of the creative world, but they are polished to a mirror shine and blend in perfectly with the vibrant backgrounds. Unfortunately, the presentation did bite off a bit more than it could chew on several fronts. Some backgrounds that are set outside just don’t get the polish of the others and just look bad in comparison to backgrounds set inside. Also, a lot of backgrounds are reused in the later game and shadow placeholders serve as a stand-in for any character not directly connected to our GMP’s circle. I know it doesn’t sound jarring but when the main entrance of your school also serves as the main entrance for a love hotel, it can be mood breaking.

The event graphics, however, can be hit or miss. The biggest issue is that the same polish used to keep the sprites looking decent doesn’t hold up very well to detailed scrutiny. So if, for some reason, you wanted to have a close-up of a certain character in a CG it may not look quite as good as them just standing in front of the screen. This is seen very early on when you first run into Kaori whose outline is thicker and looks harsher in the close shot, but once you zoom out looks okay for the most part. It’s an interesting note I probably wouldn’t have noticed had it not been for repeatedly playing the game. I’m sure it’s simply a style choice, but if this is the style this artist is going to stick with the moving forward, a thinner outline may benefit them.   

Then there’s, once again, the mechs to ruin everything. The art for the mechs is usually rougher and never feels like anything other than actors wearing suits like in the old Godzilla films. What really hurts me as a fan of Gundam is that the designs of the mechs are also extremely basic and follow a Power Ranger color identifier so the audience can separate who is where. Hell, the only truly unique thing about these mechs is that the ones piloted by girls have plates to represent their breasts. Boobs…on a mech. WHY? Did we need that to know the pilots are female? Was that absolutely necessary?

The only real time these things look good is in their own event graphics which are handled by a different artist. So a shout-out to the artist who managed to get some good shots in with the mechs. Other than that, I suppose the idea may have been to give the mech a ‘mass market’ feel since they are apparently widely available in this world, but this is a scenario that could have lent itself to some wildly creative mech designs that never come to pass. Again, the pretense is that many of these teams build their own mechs so instead of its vanilla designs, it should’ve looked more like G Gundam in terms of creativity and variety with everyone bringing their own inspirations to their mech. Yes, I’m using G Gundam as a positive example here…I can’t believe it either considering they gave the world the Sailor Moon Gundam.

The soundtrack for Ace Academy is decent enough, although at times it did feel out of place and gave me more than a few flashbacks to Sonic Adventure. Most of the softer tracks used for the Slice-of-Life and romantic scenes work out okay, but the hard rock used for the mech battles falls flat more often than not and that’s because the writing can’t match the pace of the music. Credit does go to the vocal cast though who made even the more groan-inducing scenes easier to sit through.  There are some scenes where it’s clearly phoned in and just wood piling onto more wood, but the scenes where the actors pull it off are very well done. A special shout out goes to Tina Kim who voiced the Protagonist’s sister Nikki and Bradley Petyak who voiced Uncle Kaito. I cannot say enough how much the scenes featuring them kept the game from completely falling apart and the work these two put in goes a long way in making that happen.

Now, for the technical end. Originally, Ace Academy had a QTE system for its mech fights and it was, well, bad. Between the story and the artwork, there was just no way that the system could convey the energy needed to be anything more than tedious. In Early Access, the system lasted for Episodes One through Four before being overhauled. Now it’s choices with a timer: still QTE but a prototype idea that deserves consideration in future projects. Unless you’re going to put in the work to have a Sunrider-type engine in your VN, keeping the player invested through these battles is going to be a challenge. However, using the choices to make them more of a strategist: making split second decisions and guiding the battle from either a safe area or a mech designed more for defense than offense would be very exciting, in my opinion. I do believe if they had trashed the original QTE system, this version would’ve been more fleshed out. But that’s something to learn from more than regret.

You’re also given a choice of what type of character you want to play as at the beginning: Intellectual, Athlete, or Intuitive. Originally, this feature was going to fit into the RPG section of the game and the mech fights. Without it, it may help determine what relationship you can end up with. I say ‘may’ because I have yet to actually see it make an overall difference. The choices also sometimes feel similar. Even when you can play a bit of a smartass, the protagonist is set on a certain rail that the game never lets you deviate hard from. As I discussed earlier, in many sections this is for the best. However, more consequential choices in the narrative would have helped the choices we get as an audience feel a bit stronger. It’s circling back a little to that that one in, but it needs to be repeated until everyone gets it.

The constant changes that came with Early Access led to some game breaking bugs and corrupted saves. However, to the best of my knowledge, new files don’t have that problem. After so much work and repeated technical revamps, the fact that the programming team was able to deliver a solid product is commendable. Well done.

You Thought I Was Joking About the Boob Plates, Didn't You?

REPLAY VALUE

Ace Academy took me somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty hours to complete for a single playthrough. With multiple routes, that can easily triple to fully complete the game, so PixelFade definitely kept its promise on content. The question is if the content is worth the twenty-five dollar asking price. My answer? Not really.

If you are a fan of the current generation of anime, you will have seen many of these ideas done much better several years ago but you will still get some entertainment out of this. If you’re someone like me, the moments of good storytelling don’t make up for the hours you spend dragging yourself through the mess of a plot and annoyingly familiar tropes it is proud to stand on. If tempted, I think you could argue it would be worth half of the current asking price, so the discerning buyer would be wise to wait for a Steam sale or a permanent price drop if you’re just curious.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

The one thing I can take away from Ace Academy is that this is the game PixelFade wanted to make. How can I say that? Because they were warned otherwise by other outlets, Steam Early Access players and, yes, by yours truly. Since Kendo Crush, advice was offered on how to make the game better and to avoid certain pitfalls. Sometimes the creative team listened and many times they did not. They had a vision and they saw its through. It’s hard not to admire that kind of determination and, as I said, this is the game PixelFade wanted to make,

I wish I could say that meant it was good.

There are good moments and the team uses familiar tropes to the best of their ability. But this is clouded by the overall lack of imagination, zero narrative depth, no attempt to make different narrative strands cohesive, and the complete botch that is the high school mech fights. I’m planning on delivering a final score after I do another run through of the different romantic routes and see if there’s anything that can bump the narrative quality of this game up some. For now, hopefully PixelFade will take more than a few lessons from the development of Ace Academy and use them it their next project; one I hope will be more than just ‘okay’.

 

ALTERNATE RECOMMENDATIONS

So that was Ace Academy, but what is this? Isn’t the review over? Well my friends I wanted to try something a little different as we get back to business here. Regardless of whether or not I liked or hated a game, I want to start giving recommendations of other VNs in a similar vein that I think could match up well for the discerning audience. This could get VERY interesting if I ever go back to doing ecchi VNs, but for now let’s focus on the task at hand. As I stated, I’m not the biggest fan of Ace Academy. However, if the plot or themes interest you there are other VNs that you might enjoy as well!

  • School Slice-of-Life Visual Novels are, honestly, a dime a dozen at this point. However, with the particular theme of moving on with life after a tragedy is interesting to you I think you’d do well to play Katawa Shoujo if you haven’t. Even though I have issues with that game as well, it’s more cohesive and manages to stick some strong emotional moments that you don’t always see coming.
  • If you’re a big fan of Gundam or mecha anime like me and want to see what VNs have to offer on that front, the current standard bearer is Touhou Mecha. It is a kinetic novel so there is no option for choice, but it captures the scope and feel of a mecha series very well and it is worth a read in my opinion. There’s even a webcomic tie-in if you are so inclined!

So, there you go: two more VNs you can try out along with this one! Let me know if you think this is a section we should stick with!

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Founder of VNs Now.com. Long-Time Reader, Amateur Writer and Chef and Gundam Enthusiast. Opinions are Steve's, Facts are Mine. 'Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.' -Samuel Beckett