Every once in a while, us critics have to throw preconceptions to the wind and review a game that yanks us out of our comfort zone. School 26 is designed for a teenage female target audience, and as a cynical, overweight mid-twenties power geek, I couldn't be less prepared for the vagaries, trials and tribulations of "fitting in" and making friends at an American High School.
Nevertheless, I'm always up for a challenge. It's time to grab my books, hit up a kegger and show some school spirit!
After having to move schools twenty five times thanks to her aggravating new-age sensory healer parents, Kate is determined to make friends and find a niche at the twenty sixth high school she finds herself in. Once you've worked out the poorly-explained hub structure, you'll need to talk to a selection of colourful characters (including superior posh queen bees, nerds, class clowns and jocks) and get them to like you by listening to their various stories and responding with a selection of emoticons.
Responding in the right way, for example, by lending a sympathetic ear to someone who's pouring their heart out, makes them like you slightly more - and rewards you with 'insights' that can be used in a manipulation minigame.
When faced with someone who can be manipulated into becoming more trusting, Kate can use her sensory healing psychic powers to influence how they feel about her. It's a basic memory game that requires players to swap an unseen set of face-down cards with a randomly-selected deck, with the objective being to score either a low total, high score or hitting a certain number. Insights let you take a peek at a single card, and it plays out much like a tense game of pontoon. Or Blackjack. 21. Whatever you choose to call it.
I can't believe that I'm about to say this, but School 26 is actually a deceptively intriguing title. The principle is fairly basic, but the situations in which characters find themselves soon become more interesting than just standard high school shenanigans. Your prospective friends are more than one-dimensional cutouts thanks to some solid writing that deals with some shockingly explicit themes.
Naturally, School 26 soon becomes repetitive, aggravating and plain boring if you're not in the target audience... though I must admit to getting swept up in the narrative. For the purposes of the review. Honest.
Bizarrely, though, winning insights and influencing how much the characters like you is as simple as telling them what they want to hear. Despite the fact that the vast array of emotions seem to provide far more responses than necessary (especially since the difference between them is poorly explained), it seems odd that School 26 actively encourages you to lie to your virtual chums just to get them to hang out with you. In fact, the experience manages propagate the shallow cliquey cliches that I expected it to challenge.
Whatever you do, kids, don't be yourself. Be who the popular kids want you to be. Lie to make friends, conform to be accepted, flirt to get ahead and eventually you'll win the game and win at life. Or ultimately lose, depending on your point of view.
Graphically, School 26 displays high-resolution background artwork that looks attractive on an iPhone and extremely crisp on an iPad. Unfortunately it's let down by strange character art and bizarre facial expressions that betray some fairly crude design. Despite this, School 26 still looks good regardless of platform - though the cloying cheery visuals are evidently aimed directly at a teen audience. Which, considering the target market, is absolutely fine... but by reducing the characters to preppy sprites, the emotional impact of their various predicaments is arguably lost.
Ultimately, School 26's biggest flaw is the fact that the game is extremely short and designed for multiple playthroughs - but plays out the same way each time. It's a shame that character names and appearances aren't randomised with each subsequent run, with each playthrough representing another new school.
- The manipulation minigame is surprisingly engaging
- Sharp, capable writing with surprisingly deep themes
- Crisp artwork
- The definition of a niche purchase
- Deceptively limited emoticon reponse mechanics
- Strange conformist message
- Cheery visuals don't compliment the explicit themes
Summary: School 26 succeeds at being a solid and thought-provoking friendship simulator, though its shallow implementation and mechanics arguably undermine the point of the whole thing. But then again, maybe I just don't get it.
Developer: Silicon Sisters Interactive
- SD Version compatible with iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. Requires iOS 3.1.3 or later.
- HD Version compatible with iPad. Requires iOS 3.2 or later.