The Academy: The First Riddle is a brand new tale from Pine Studio. The same team that sent players speed running through SEUM turn the page on a very different chapter as we head back to school and try to unravel the mysteries of Arbor’ Academy.
Taking a break from brutal post apocalyptic tales this weekend, we decided that it was time to pack up our bags and get an education. Out now on PC, The Academy: The First Riddle is a new narrative adventure that might sound fairly familiar to YA fiction fans. Putting players in the shoes of Sam, a new student at an illustrious boarding academy for gifted youngsters, this title from publisher Snapbreak will put players to the test as it mixes slice of life adventure with a pinch of the fantastic and more than a few brain teasers along the way.
Like any good schoolyard tale, The Academy opens on a brightly animated cinematic and an invitation to attend an illustrious institution. Many might not be entirely surprised by this familiar scene and may even find themselves practically re reading the opening exposition of a certain wizarding world. As the game’s main protagonist Sam, steps into this adventure for the first time, it is even more evident that The Academy: The First Riddle leans heavily into this theme. From the design of the Academy’s sprawling grounds, the grandiose hallways, and the characters that make up our protagonist’s classroom, much of this feels familiar.
Of Course, Arbor Academy is far from a carbon copy of the aforementioned supernatural school, as you’ll quickly discover. Instead, this more modern environment mixes a range of lessons from symbols, to mechanics, and history. You’ll tackle all of these as Sam attends classes, make new friends, and delves into the mysteries that this institution hides. Of course, it’s the mysteries that really makes The Academy stand out from the crowd. Hundreds of puzzles pepper the narrative gameplay system and challenge players to think beyond their linear lives. The gifted children of Arbor are expected to think beyond the puzzles presented to them, meaning when you come across a math puzzle, don’t expect it to be a math puzzle. This can be disconcerting at first but does provide a definite challenge to this title. Where button mashing skill and intricate timing are involved in some adventures, the Academy instead swaps in a range of pattern matching, logical deduction, and non linear logic that can be tackled in more than one way. For example, unravelling a math problem is also solved by simply counting the number of toes on a pawprint. There’s a level of depth to The Academy’s puzzle solving that is well thought out and ingenious, although it does make me wonder why students in a school setting are being asked to help track down a wild animal by any adult?
While The Academy might lean into its fantastic setting and cements players investment with a vast library of lore, there’s a certain discordant feel to the entire experience. Especially in the early stages of The Academy, it is difficult to get a sense of Sam or his friends. The slice of life cycle of attending class and exploring Arbor Academy should build a rapport between the player and future alumni. Instead, the title seems to flirt with some shallow side quests and the odd humorous moment, while interactions with NPCs feels just about fleshed out. Little touches like nods to Pine Studio’s other games show a desire to delve into Arbor’s day to day life that gives way to the daily slog of Attending class and solving puzzles.
Puzzles, equally are hit and miss, from a narrative perspective. While the massive variety and ingenious design of certain head scratchers can’t be faulted, they can feel entirely out of place at times. Bullies challenging you to a riddle to get a locker key for example, just make no sense, sitting awkwardly where time could be better spent building the background of lead characters. Thankfully, this largely starts to fall away as The Academy Open up and unusual events start to spiral out of control. On the trail of a missing professor, Sam and his best friends delve out from the central halls of learning into the depths of Arbor Academy. The puzzles here start to make more narrative sense, as they fit the problems the team of adventurers encounter, and the tale gets more unusual.
This isn’t entirely overcome and the game suffers from this problem throughout its entirety. A solid set of puzzles and a gorgeous world are largely let down by some odd narrative decisions and middling character development that are just jarring enough to prod you out of the world that Pine Studio has worked so hard to craft. If you’re looking for a Layton style experience in an extraordinary world then this could be for you. Otherwise, take this one at your own pace because school life can be tough at Arbor Academy. The Academy: The First Riddle is out now on PC, via Steam.
A key was provided by PR for the purpose of this review