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Published October 18, 2015

Welcome everyone to what is essentially an experiment for VNs Now: a little something that has been coming for a while now, but has managed to stay on the outskirts of this reviewer’s purview thanks to the grey area surrounding Early Access. I’ll be honest: like with crowd-funding, I like the idea of Early Access. You develop your game in full view of the public, using their insights and resources to make the best game you can while allowing fans of a particular developer or genre to invest in the creation of something that speaks directly to their tastes. It’s a formula that’s often abused because both consumer and investor rights are still a grey zone in gaming as a whole, but it is an idea that hopefully will gain clarity as more independent developers take advantage of it and turn out enough good titles to wash out the crap that Jim Sterling brings light to every few weeks.

Interestingly enough, as of this writing only two EVN developers have taken advantage of Early Access. One is Sakevisual for their mammoth project Backstage Pass. The second is the subject of today’s discussion: PixelFade’sAce Academy. And yes, you have heard of both this studio and this game before. Last year, I discussed a Kickstarter for a game called Kendo Crush: a sports themed Slice-of-Life visual novel that raised over $12,000 for its development. Somewhere along the line, PixelFade decided they weren’t happy with the concept so they kept the cast and main storyline, but changed it from a modern-day Slice of Life tale with high school comedy to a Shonen tale with high school comedy and giant robots. Now, to the best of my knowledge the majority of Kickstarter backers were informed and fine with this plan, otherwise you would’ve seen me raise Hell about it months ago. But, moving forward apparently the funds from the Kendo Crush Kickstarter wasn’t enough; which brings us to Early Access.

Currently, Ace Academy is available for $24.99 on Early Access. While it is on Early Access, it’ll be an episodic game with new content and features added every few months. Once all episodes have been released, and presumably the game has been perfected, then one complete version will be released onto Steam. I’m not completely against the plan because I do support direct investment, but the question will ultimately be how much of a role critical voices from both the press and the ones who own the game now will have going towards the final product. It will not be a quick process as the estimated release of the full game will happen sometime in 2016, but I am, as always, a curious cat when it comes to these sorts of things.

With that said, this will not be a traditional review. This is much more of a running commentary about the state of Ace Academy that will track its progress until the actual review when the full version releases. Accordingly, I’ve been asked to provide the following disclaimer that Ace Academy is in its early development stages and therefore some features are partially implemented or not implemented at all such as extra sprites, menus, combat animations, etc. and there might also be bugs and glitches in the game that will be address. It is my sincere hope that this commentary will be used by both the fans of PixelFade and PixelFade themselves to produce the best game they can.

With that said, let’s get started.

The various issues in Ace Academy so far can be boiled down to three factors that are all interconnected: an unlikable cast, no sense of pacing and zero tension during the fight scenes.  I’ll try not to repeat myself too much from my feature a year ago, but going over my notes on this one it’s amazing that despite a completely different setting and a year of development, many of the exact same issues are still in play. So let’s start off from the top because, for the most part, the cast from Kendo Crash has been transplanted into Ace Academy including The Main Character Formerly Known as Broody McBishiepants. I call him Bob!

Bob, along with his sister Nikki, have moved to Japan after the untimely demise of their parents just like in Kendo Crush. Unlike KC, however, this hasn’t rendered Bob into a brooding jerk. Unfortunately for Bob, a new personality didn’t replace the old one. While I had my share of issues with Kendo Crush, one of them wasn’t him because his typical brooding character was set up to go through a mentally-taxing sport that would force him to eventually confront whatever feeling he has about his parents’ death. Without it, the main character has become bland and has no definable starting point for a character arc.

I believe the plan is to give the player more control character’s personality because most options give you a standard good guy response, a more neutral or passive response, and a cockier response. However, there are a few things that need to be taken into account if you’re going to try and copy something like Mass Effect. First, after watching a brief reaction to your choice, Bob goes right back to being a Generic Male Protagonist. The choices you make do seem to have some effect on the relationship end, but that is to be expected. Once you wash out the fact that your choices affect who likes you the most in a ‘dating sim’, having personality-driven choices without allowing those choices to affect a character’s personality makes this idea a waste of time.

Second, the kicker of this is that even if this particular system is developed fully and the full game allows the player’s choices to fully direct how Bob acts and reacts to any given situation, it can only add on, not replace, a default personality. Going back to Mass Effect, before the game gets started, you’re asked to decide on Shepard’s backstory; specifically their childhood and military career so far. These form the basics of Shepard’s personality and, from there, creates the foundation for the relationship with both Shepard’s allies and enemies. So, even IF you want to allow the player more involvement with your game, that doesn’t erase your workload on the creative end. You still have to come up with a character worth making choices for.

So with Bob on the sidelines ready to be a reactionary foil, it’s up to the remaining cast to carry the story and ring out whatever charm and charisma they can out of the situation…and they are in no way, shape or form up to the task. Just like in Kendo Crush, everyone is so perfectly cut from a cardboard anime cliché that they becoming annoying from the start: especially Shou who is still not funny. This leads to some truly banal conversations that exist only to keep the scenes moving forward without adding anything to the story or the characters. Without that, unless you are the type to become automatically invested in tsunderes, waifs or Generic Male Protagonists clichés, there is no one here to root for or invest any interest into except for the annoyance that comes from there overused tropes. And unfortunately for Ace Academy, this is the type of story that demands that the audience invest in the Cast.

Why? Well, how else do you expect us to be invested in mech fights PixelFade?

We’ll stick a pin in that train of thought because explaining that ties into my final point. That takes us to the second big issue with Ace Academy: the pacing. Now, I know that I can be verbose and it’s easy for my critiques to fly over people’s head. So, this time I’m going to speak right down to Earth in a language we can all understand. SLOW. THE. FUCK. DOWN. GOD. DAMN. IT.

This is a problem with EVNs as a whole, but here it is absolutely baffling. The first episode of Ace Academy takes just over two hours to complete: really closer to three. You know you have four more episodes coming and if they average two to three hours as well, you’re looking at ten hours minimum for the full game once it is complete. You have all of the time in the world to build up Bob’s character, flesh out the world they live in and give his relationships a proper start before even stepping foot in a mech. Yet, we start off on the evening Bob and Nikki arrive in Japan after recently burying their parents. The next day Bob starts at his new school. The day after that, he has to find a mech team to fight on. The day after that he has to start training for the ranking matches and then actually have the ranking matches. And finally with thirty minutes of game time left he does something outside of the school. All of this is sped through in the two hour running time at such a pace that you’d think that Bob had been living in Japan and going to Ace Academy for years.

There is nothing in the game to suggest that Bob and his sister has been to Japan for anything longer than a family holiday. This was an issue back in Kendo Crush as well where we have the exact same rush to get Broody drafted into the Kendo Club. However, since the faster pace doesn’t help the cast and the mech battles just aren’t worth rushing to, a lot of potential development gets left in the dust. There is no reason to move as fast as the episode did. Just like Broody, Bob shouldn’t be having ‘normal’ days in a completely different country after the untimely deaths of his parents. Watching him struggle through his culture shock and acclimate to his new surroundings would naturally create a favor more interesting narrative, and therefore a far more interesting protagonist, than the one we’re stuck with.

In doesn’t completely wreck the series, but it does force the remaining episodes to explain vital information of this world that this episode either decided was optional or non-important. This include the small issues like the actual stakes of these mech fights and the other teams participating in the matches, to the overarching ones such as the construction and abilities of Bob’s mech, the rest of the team’s goals and personal ambitions, and, most importantly I think, how Bob is dealing with the death of his parents. Because, quite frankly, what we’ve seen so far isn’t enough of a justification to kill them off. Hell, you can just as easily have the family moving to Japan intact if you’re just going to focus on the giant robots anyway. But since you decided to kill them off PixelFade, now you need to do something with them.

Well, you don’t have to. You can just have a young man’s parents unexpectedly die and not have that affect his psychology or mentality at all other than serving as the catalyst for having him move to Japan. Because that type of writing always gets high praise upon release!

This brings me to my final point and this one is hurts me the most as a longtime Gundam fanboy. Since I have started this website, I have longed for the space opera and mecha subgenres to be used more in EVNs. We got some of that with Touhou Mecha and a bit more in Sunrider, but there is still plenty of room for developers to take one of the most popular fictional genres in the world and use it to their advantage. So when I found out that one of the central features of this game was mech combat, I was hyped. It’s a good idea to be able to customize your arsenal and have specific tandem moves for your relationship, but I wanted to see how a visual novel could approach this from a narrative perspective.

Unfortunately for me, it falls pretty flat. While I can spend an entire paragraph on the boring QTE mechanics that drive the combat in this game as well as the fact that we’re facing simulated opponents or AI during the episode, removing human interactions and the competitive factor this game sorely needs, even that would have been bearable if I cared about the battles going in. Without an investment in the characters or proper pacing, fighting AI has no dramatic appeal and because of this, the battles are lifeless affairs. Even when the game pulls a Deus Ex Machina in order to have Bob and his team pull out a victory it, like so many other things in Ace Academy, feels like just another part of the Shonen checklist the creative team has gone through to create this game. It is pathetic, but fortunately it is the easiest of the three to correct. Don’t worry, this detour won’t take long. But, I think fully understanding this point could lead to some much better action scenes and Shonen-inspired works in the EVN community moving forward.

As for me, this means that after four and a half years of reviews, I finally get to talk about Saitou. No otome fangirls: not the dork from Hakuouki. I’m talking about THIS Saitou: the forgotten badass of your childhood. I’m in my late twenties, so I got into anime just as Rurouni Kenshin hit Toonami and, quite simply, it’s one of my favorite series of all time. It’s not Trigun or Cowboy Bebop, but it was pretty smart for a Shonen series and had an emotional depth that can feel superficial in a lot of media these days. I think a great deal of that comes from the time period the show is set during and how well they built up the series protagonist: Kenshin Himura.

So, what is there to get exactly? The first thing is that Kenshin is a violent psychopath. Those who know the series remember that the name ‘Kenshin the Manslayer’ or ‘Hitokiri Battousai’ (depending on your preference) is less of a title and more of a personality: arguably the default piece of Kenshin’s psyche that he tries to keep under control out of a sense of regret. In the anime series, while most of the world around Kenshin still fear his reputation, that darker side of him is kept under wraps until the appearance of Jin-e Udo in episode seven. It’s just a glimpse, but it was enough to make you wonder what would happen if Kenshin fully went back and embraced his bloodlust for a fight?

That question would hang over the series for the next twenty-three episodes. Kenshin would continue to get friends and fight battles, but the dark bloodlust that you know is there seemed to be kept at bay. So around Episode 28 the viewer would be forgiven to believe that Kenshin really did have it all under control and that his ridiculous ability to fight non-violently is more than enough to protect his new proto-family. And then Saitou shows up.

There were still two episodes before their confrontation that is used to build tension, but the minute Saitou showed up and wrecked Sanosuke’s shit, you knew Kenshin was in trouble and that this might be the enemy to finally show us just what our protagonist was truly capable of. And I was so right about it because, without a shadow of a doubt in my mind, episode thirty of Rurouni Kenshin is one of the best fight scene in any anime ever made. Even twelve years later, watching it just puts a big smile on my face because I remember the build-up and going twenty plus episodes pondering that question.

The camera angles were excellent. The actual animation around the fight was amazing. The voice acting is pretty much par for the course considering the time period BUT it’s Kenshin’s rapid descent, the way he goes from Zero to Manslayer once the fighting starts, is what really sells this fight. But even then, with all of the work that went into making the fight looking as good as it still does today against its digital counterparts, it would have been nothing without the moderate pace and character development that happened before to it.

It’s not the only fight that stands out in this way either. Many of the big anime fights of my childhood have a similar build-up: Vash vs. Knives stands out particularly at the moment due to the intensity of the fight. But the team just didn’t snap their fingers and expect the audience to care. And even when a fight scene happened back then where the creative team dropped it in suddenly, such as with the Ballad of Fallen Angels in Cowboy Bebop, it was used to deepen the story and build towards the next time Spike and Vicious would cross paths. Reading back over this, the short version of this small rant can probably be deciphered as, ‘Take inspiration from anime made over a decade ago’ but that would lose the overall point that creating something memorable takes patience and proper planning. And for $25, a hefty charge for an English Visual Novel, you should want to be memorable at the very least.

So, is Ace Academy bad? Kind of, but that’s the beauty of Early Access. Hopefully having this conversations now means that they’ll be considered now while there is still time to make fundamental changes. Episode 2 certainly can bring a lot of positive progress, but that will solely depend on what the creative team finds more important: exploring and deepening the relationships between Bob and his teammates or having unfunny conversations and boring QTE mech fights. It’s a lot of work to be sure, but as the old saying goes, Subete no monode chūyō: Moderation in all things. If this game can slow down and focus on what’s important, not what the team thinks is funny or cool, it will be easier for those funnier moments to come about and build up to some very satisfying battles moving forward.

My current plan is to follow this series to its conclusion and each part will cover a new episode. It won’t always be on the direction of the plot as there is a lot that I haven’t gotten to this time around that does need to be touched on; including the voice acting. So we’ll all meet right back here to discuss Episode 2 after it releases. JP3: OUT!

You can get more information about Ace Academy from its website or the Steam page!