Oh Kickstarter, how my opinion of you switches on a near daily basis. Sometimes I’ll sit and lament not backing one of the many successful projects that still bring joy to thousands long after they’ve reached their goals. Then other times I’ll be looking at my bank account grinning from ear to ear thankful that I didn’t waste my money on a project that has come unstuck in development hell (I’m looking at you Mighty No.9, Spring 2016 is not a release date). This time however my feelings tend towards the former as I play Asagoa Academy – Normal Boots Club and wish I could’ve spared the cash all those months ago.
Free to download from itch.io (although I recommend you tip at least $5/£5/€5), Asagoa Academy is a Japanese inspired visual novel dating sim with one big stand-out feature: you date the fictionalised versions of the Normal Boots cast! As Hana Mizuno, our kind but shy protagonist with wild pink hair, you enter Asagoa Academy and peruse the popular and handsome boys of the Normal Boots Club, all of them competitive gamers, with a little help from your best friend and roommate Mai. Everyone is here, with their real life counterparts providing partial voice acting including Jon (Jon “JonTron” Jafari); PBG (Austin “PeanutButterGamer” Hargrave); Jared (Jared “ProJared” Knabenbauer); Satch (Satchell “SatchBags” Drakes); Shane (Shane “DidYouKnowGaming?” Gill); Jirard (Jirard “Dragonrider/The Completetionist” Khalil) and Paul, Nick & Josh (Paul Ritchey, Nick Murphy and Josh Henderson of Continue?)
If any of the above name are familiar to you, then you may have heard them mention Asagoa Academy on their YouTube channels and/or already be fans of them. If so? Great! The game’s biggest feature will immediately appeal to you and outside of a few exaggerated personality traits everyone is recognisable and retains their style of humour. If not, then your mileage could vary in a couple of ways. If you’re just a fan of dating sims and you like the look of the game, the various personalities will appeal as the boys are still characters in their own right but some in-jokes may go past you, taking with it some of the joy. If you’re not a fan of Normal Boots or even dislike them then you’re likely never going to pick up this game. It’s a fine dating sim but a lot of the appeal will live or die on people’s opinions of the Normal Boots cast. It’s recognisability is both a blessing and a curse and while no game can appeal to everybody, this game sets its lines down very clearly which will leave some players isolated.
Asagoa Academy plays no differently to any of the other dating sims available online. The formula’s not broken, so it doesn’t need fixing, even if it can be boring sometimes, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved by learning some tricks from another game genre. This is where the presence of the Normal Boots cast can be felt most outside of the voice acting (one half of Illus Seed, Danielle Hargrave, also happens to be married to PeanutButterGamer). First is the journal system. By clicking on the journal icon you come to a screen with a journal entry by Hana, a bar to fill up relating to a late-game plot point, and the name of the current scenario. A system common in some of the oldest PC games and RPGs (Ultima Underworld:The Stygiam Abyss comes to mind) it’s a life saver here as it gives hints to how the choices you made may result in certain consequences, which leads onto the second innovation, the save menu. Now save menus are nothing new to dating sims, but having instantaneous saves with 200+ slots available is a big and very necessary improvement once again inspired by RPGs. The games boasts 43 ending and hidden routes, so if you’re planning to complete it you’re going to be in the save menu a lot. These innovations do have a common problem, which we will return to later.
Now to the best part of Asagoa Academy, the story. As a clean dating sim, so no nudes and no sex scenes, the story has a lot to do. It has to draw you into the world it’s building while making the protagonist relatable, it has to make the characters being pursued likeable without making them infallible gods and it has to split its attention among multiple characters and storylines. Cara Hillstock, primary writer and the other half of Illus Seed alongside Hargrave, not only succeeds but delivers some of deepest, most heart-breaking and enjoyable plots I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Every path’s story is written with the utmost care and attention, plot holes are non existent, the humour is warm while gently riffing both gaming and YouTube culture and every characters develops naturally, even Hana, who can go through some massive u-turns in personality depending on the player’s choices. No character is left behind or forgotten, even the rival group Hidden Block Club (again, based on the real life Hidden Block cast and partially voiced by all of them) are great characters that add more layers to the narrative. This is character piece through and though and while there are interesting set pieces it’s Hillstock’s characters that bring them to life and make the player care.
It’s not perfect however. I feel that Hillstock sometimes forgot that she was writing for a game so when the narrative came up to a choice, there wouldn’t be enough warning and I’d get stuck in a choice, unable to go a step back and create a save state so I could make a different choice later. Remember that common problem I was talking about? It’s almost directly caused by this and while the games does allow you to save at decisions using the right click nothing indicates that you can do this making return play-throughs more arduous than they need to be. Some routes and endings are also much harder than others, infuriatingly so with Shane, and this can detract from the story as some players may end a route feeling that the narrative was not worth the effort. The combination of these two factors can dampen the experience overall. The game could’ve done with one last proof reading too as spelling mistakes are common, but Illus Seed are working to correct this so I’ll pay it no mind.
Coming down to the visuals and sound, the game is just above average for its genre. While no songs will truly stick in your head (although Mai’s theme being a slower version of ProJared’s show intro is a nice touch) and no backgrounds will really pop out they are both bright and energetic and will suck you into the world. Hargrave’s sprite designs are a nice mix of Japanese animation quirkiness and western animation sensibilities. A swing in any direction would have put too many people off but I feel that these designs have the potential to appeal to the most players, maybe even those who aren’t entirely sold by the concept.
So while I still have my differing opinions on Kickstarter, I consider Asagoa Academy a game to go on the “pros” list (even if it was delayed twice). It’s problems, while irritating, pale when compared to the well told stories, the adorable characters, the great humour and the love for both dating sims and the gaming community in general that radiates off this enjoyable game. Let’s just hope that Mighty No.9 keeps its release date, otherwise my “cons” list is going start hitting the floor.