I like to try out video games that attempt to be educational because I think making a game that’s both entertaining and helpful is some of the hardest development around. I’ve played a number of games that tried their best and did some things right, but they never seem to enter into legitimately fun game status. Sadly, the recently released (2/9/17) Words Up! Academy by CoderChild is another honorable but ultimately average at best try.
This is a simple looking 2D wordplay game. You can play it on the TV and gamepad together, but the gamepad only play actually looks a lot better. The game consists of hand drawn 2D backgrounds resembling ancient Greek courtyards and manga style characters dressed in togas. The setting is clearly meant to reference ancient Greece. The art is low-budget but well done for what it is. A good amount of detail and healthy use of colors. There are tiny movements in the pictures such as characters winking and leaves swaying back and forth in the background. The dialog boxes are golden brown with very readable white Times New Roman text. It types out on the screen as if the character is actually talking. When you play with two screens all this plus the clues during gameplay appear on the TV.
All gameplay appears on the gamepad during dual screen play except for the clues, which makes you have to keep looking up or just ignore them. During gameplay, the gamepad has a timer on top. Underneath that is the balance bar followed by the play area. The play area consists of 14 beige blocks. The top seven are empty until you place letters in them. The bottom seven are always full. To the left of the letter blocks are a scramble button in blue and a new letters button in red. To the right of the blocks is a long green check button. The background of the gamepad during play is a cracked marble pattern to go with the Greece theme. When you play all on the gamepad, the HUD is placed over the images normally shown on the TV. The clues are moved to the left side of the gamepad screen. While this may sound more cluttered, it actually looks a lot better and prevents you from having to look up at the TV during play.
The menu background is a continuous pattern of marble white tiles with moving brown tiles on the left and right of the screen. The menu options are in the middle. The gamepad menu has no words. Only pictures to show what each of the six available gameplay modes are and options buttons. The TV has text to go with the menu options. This is true whether you are in one or two screen mode. Overall, this is a pretty simple looking game. It runs pretty smoothly, but there’s not much going on in the way of moving graphics. It’s a lot like one of those moving comic books that has very minor overall motion within the experience.
The gameplay is very simple. There are six modes, but all of them are based on the idea of playing Boggle. You are given seven letters and a time limit to make as many words as possible. Words can be up to seven letters and must have a minimum of four. You play with the touch screen. Your finger and the stylus work equally as well. You tap letters in the order you want them to have them move up from the letter pile to the entry line. When you have a word, you press the check button. If the word is recognized by the game, the blocks will turn blue. If it isn’t recognized, the blocks will turn red. If the word is already used, the blocks will turn orange. The clue pile is kind of like looking at hangman with one letter filled in. Each time a word is played it’s filled in on the clue list. In the modes where you are playing against the computer, your words are shown in the clue list in blue and the computer’s in pink. At any time you can hit the scramble button and your letters will be rearranged. After a certain amount of words have been played, you can press the new letters button and your seven letters will be replaced. Each battle is three rounds, each lasting two minutes except in the Free play mode where you can change the rules. You win the match by scoring more points/words than your opponent in two out of three rounds. You can win the first two and skip the third round.
The winner of the round is the one who has more of the balance bar filled. It always starts in the middle with half blue and half pink. Each time you get a word it moves right and fills more blue. Each time the computer scores a word it moves left and fills more pink. Whoever has more of the bar at the end of the timer wins. You can also instantly win by filling the bar all the way before the timer runs out. Three of the six modes place you against the computer and three have you play alone. The only difference between playing alone and against the computer is that the four characters you battle have special tricks to give you a disadvantage. The first doesn’t really do anything; the second can scramble your letters; the third can turn your letters into numbers temporarily; and the fourth can make the screen go black forcing you to tap it quickly to get the picture back.
The computer is actually fairly good, but not unfair. I was able to beat the story mode all the way through on the first try, but I struggled at times against the computer in the versus mode. The computer gets some pretty impressive words and can even get combos at times. But it is totally beatable at a consistent rate if you have a healthy vocabulary. While the clues are on-screen during play, they don’t really come in handy. You don’t really have time to look at them except in relax mode and they only give you one letter so they can only be so helpful.
The story mode has you face each of the four opponents back to back. You can pause anytime during play but you can’t quit or lose or you’ll have to start over from the beginning. There is no save and continue but the game saves your scores. Versus mode is just story mode battles but you can choose any opponent you want. Free play mode is versus mode but you can choose the number of rounds, difficulty level, and amount of time for each round. Classic mode is just you against the timer. Blitz mode is you against the timer but the letters automatically change every 30 seconds. Relax mode just lets you play as long as you want with no repercussions or opponent. All in all, the gameplay runs well, but it’s not that entertaining. The inability to play against other people makes it a lot less challenging and fun. I understand why it can’t have multiplayer because of the required gamepad, but playing against the computer gets old fast and isn’t that challenging even on hard.
The sound is good enough in Words Up! Academy. The main menu and gameplay music consists of some mildly upbeat jazz tracks. There is no music during dialog sequences. The sound effects are more than I was expecting from this type of game. A typing sound happens when characters talk as their words appear. Playing letters, getting words right and wrong, and pressing buttons in the menus all have their own sounds. The game also counts down “three, two, one” at the beginning of each round and rings an alarm clock when the timer runs out. Your only sound options are music and effects volume levels. The game isn’t super impressive in the sound department but it did give me more than I thought it would.
The writing is only present in story mode, which makes sense. The game is about how you are being forced into “The Academy” but before you can enter, the headmistress and students must put you through a test. You must word battle each of them to prove you’re good enough to enter the academy. Each character is named after a famous Greek philosopher, namely Aristotle, Thales, Pythagoras, and Plato. You face them in that order. Each character is more arrogant than the one before and makes some comment related to what the actual philosopher is known for. There’s not really much dialog and with only four opponents, the story mode is pretty short. If you beat it all on the first try like I did, it takes a maximum of 30 minutes. The game says that it supports six languages (English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Portuguese), but that’s only half-true. The gameplay supports dictionaries from those six languages. You can choose which one from the options menu. But the story mode dialog and the menus are only in English. The game hasn’t really been localized for those languages. The code for the gameplay just works with any Latin based language dictionary.
There is some replay value, but once you beat the story mode you won’t really care. There is a leaderboard against each of the four characters and separate ones for classic and blitz modes with up to 10 scores each. Other than that you really have no reason to keep playing except to practice your language if you feel like it’s helping. But because of the nature of the game you aren’t really learning any new words. Just recalling words you’ve already learned. And it only helps with spelling not definitions. That being said, the game is only $3 which is a little high for the amount of gameplay I got out of it, but I feel is fair if you actually make use of it for language practice purposes.
Ultimately Words Up! Academy isn’t a great game. It tries to be something fun and educational, but it only gives a half measure for either goal. It’s basically just an elaborate digital version of Boggle that keeps score for you. I’m gonna have to say hard pass on this one.
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