June 2021’s Steam Next Fest, which wraps up tomorrow at the time of writing, is a great opportunity for developers to get early versions of their games in front of a hungry audience — and for said hungry audience to try out some things that they might not otherwise have given much thought.
As I tend to do during these events, I picked out a handful of titles that caught my eye, with a particular focus on things that I either hadn’t heard of at all before, or which I hadn’t heard much about in the past. Black Academy, a game from Korean developer CatDoors, very much falls into that former category — but the promise of a roguelite structure combined with classic side-scrolling shooting very much piqued my interest. And so here we are.
In Black Academy, you take on the role of Rina, a nerdy girl who appears to be both a student and an employee of the school she attends. She feels doomed to a constant life of working overtime, but her life changes when she gets a surprise visit from a weird fluffy creature called Popo.
In traditional magical girl style, Popo informs Rina that only she can save the world from the encroaching darkness — in this case represented by “Black Companies” run by devils, of which Rina’s school is one — and that in order to do so she will need to wear frilly dresses and defeat the forces of evil with the power of shining stars, happiness and friendship. I’m paraphrasing, but you know how these things work by now, I’m sure.
The current demo of Black Academy, which represents a very early version of the game with a lot of features missing, chronicles Rina’s attempts to escape from her school as devilish forces assail her. Despite obviously having a lot of work left to do, this early version of Black Academy indicates that the full version of this game has the potential to be a great addition to the roguelite subgenre — and the use of shoot ’em up rather than platform game or top-down shooter mechanics makes it immediately stand out amid its peers.
Each level in Black Academy is split into a series of interconnected energy fields, each of which is essentially a brief shoot ’em up stage. These stages confront you with a small selection of enemies in a few different arrangements. While you can’t “learn the levels” in the same way that you can with a traditionally structured arcade-style shoot ’em up, you can learn the individual formations and the best way of dealing with them — and long-term success in Black Academy will be depending on you getting to grips with this.
Initially, the attack patterns don’t look all that threatening. You have a lot of space on screen, the enemies move at a relatively sedate pace (aside from the ones that pull back and “charge” across the screen) and bullet patterns are reasonably forgiving. But as you progress and the tension mounts, you’ll find that you really do need to maintain concentration, otherwise it’s easy to make silly mistakes by not watching what’s going on properly.
Rina begins Black Academy armed with a simple shot that allows her to fire star-shaped bullets ahead of her at a moderate speed, and Popo supports her like an “option”, firing small lasers that auto-aim at enemies. You also have access to three bombs (or “magical booms”, as the game rather charmingly calls them) which can be used to both cancel all the bullets on the screen and inflict heavy damage on all enemies nearby.
Things get interesting when you reach the end of one of these short shoot ’em up stages, though. Rina is presented with one or more portals through which to proceed, and by passing through one you’ll pass into a new energy field and thus another part of the level. If the energy fields ahead are simply “blank” on the map provided, they offer more shoot ’em up action, while if they have a special marker on them, they have some sort of unique functionality.
There are a range of different special spaces. Key markers heal you and give you a key, which can be used to open chests in energy fields marked with a chest, as you might expect. These chests typically contain a choice of three different weapons; the first one you collect is added to your inventory as a secondary weapon that you can switch to from your normal shot, but any thereafter can either replace your normal shot or the secondary weapon you picked up.
There’s a huge variety of different weapons, some more useful than others. There’s a rapid-fire star cannon, which essentially acts as a better version of the basic shot; there’s a random shot, which becomes more erratic and covers more area of the screen the more you move around; there’s a “Star Dance” cannon which acts like the wavy laser from R-Type; and there is a fine selection of things that you fire out then explode a moment later, homing missiles and numerous other means of dealing death and destruction to the dark forces.
Each weapon can also be upgraded; enemies have a roughly 30% chance of dropping little sparkly experience point pickups, and collecting enough of these to fill the meter on your current weapon powers it up in some way — usually increasing its fire rate, strength, projectile size and/or spread. But don’t get complacent; having a big “gun” doesn’t make Rina any less vulnerable, and it’s very easy to get lulled into a false sense of security when you’re covering the screen with your own bullets!
Other special spaces include shops, where you can spend the coins that defeated enemies drop on healing, weapons and other special items; “bee” spaces, which feature treasure chests guarded by bees who must be placated with honey waffles before you can take their booty; opportunities to permanently upgrade your power in some respect for a price; minibosses and, of course, the main boss which allows you to move on to the next level.
As you explore the level as a whole, you have the opportunity to backtrack to areas you’ve previously cleared and take different routes — thankfully in the case of the shoot ’em up stages, you don’t need to blast your way through the enemies again, simply pick a portal. As with most roguelikes and roguelites, it’s a very good idea to explore the level as far as you can in order to acquire as many upgrades as possible; not only will this score you more points — this is a shoot ’em up, after all — but it will also mean you’re in a better position to deal with more powerful enemy formations or bosses.
Black Academy plays well in this early form; the structure is solid and sound, and it works well with the shoot ’em up mechanics. And those shoot ’em up mechanics are, themselves, effective; Rina moves smoothly and responsively (though some proper controller support would be welcome — you’re best off playing the current demo with keyboard), and her small hitbox allows you to manoeuvre through complex bullet patterns without breaking a sweat. There are even score bonuses on offer for successfully “grazing” bullets, as in many other more traditional shoot ’em ups out there.
Where Black Academy needs a bit of work before it’s ready for final release is in its presentation — or perhaps more accurately the consistency of its presentation. The whole thing opens with an astonishingly high quality anime-style introductory sequence, for example, while the in-game visuals are a little more variable. Rina’s sprite is heavily pixelated, for example, making it look like it was drawn at a larger size and then clumsily scaled down to fit the game’s resolution. The game also lacks graphical options; while it’s a 2D game, the simple addition of a VSync option to reduce screen tearing on the scrolling would be very welcome.
The enemies have some good animations for what they are, but at present they lack a bit of variety and imagination. The music is excellent, but sound effects are somewhat lacking — notably, the boss fights completely lack any sort of audible cues and feedback for the various attack patterns, which seems like a significant oversight.
The game’s English script also very much needs handing over to a native English speaker; at present it’s got that distinctive sort of broken English characteristic of Asian games that have been translated to English by non-specialists or software. There’s an undeniable sort of “charm” to this, of course, but in a game that feels very slickly put together in other areas, a dodgy script always feels like a bit of a letdown.
But then, of course, it’s early days for Black Academy. The game is due to come out in November of 2021, and that leaves plenty of time for polishing, refinement and the addition of new features. Judging by the main menu of the game, most of which is inactive in this demo version, it looks as if there are going to be plenty of unlockables and things to keep you engaged over the long term, which is good; even at this early stage, Black Academy has a ton of potential, and I hope the final product ends up being as good as this demo is promising.
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