Much moreso than WiiWare, DSiWare has seen a significant number of non-game releases. Applications, utilities, programs...call them what you will, but they're not games, and they've not been exactly welcomed universally, either. Art Academy may well be poised to change that, not least because they've selected as their focus something that people can get more passionate about than clocks, maps and translators: painting.
Art Academy: First Semester is a creation tool, much like Flipbook Studio. Its usefulness is limited only by your own imagination...and abilities. But fear not, ye of little-or-no artistic skill: Art Academy comes with six very helpful lessons that will have you producing pieces much better than you might have thought yourself capable.
The point of Art Academy is not simply to dump you in front of a canvas and let you slap together some visual chaos (though you are certainly welcome to do so); it wishes to educate you. It wants to teach you what painting is all about, and how to do it effectively. It wants to compare for you the way light falls on different textures, the way items around you can be reduced to simple shapes and then built back up again, the way your choice of color and the direction of your stroke can have an impact on those who see what you create. Art Academy has noble ambitions, to be sure.
Wisely, even the simplest lessons have you completing actual pieces of art, rather than asking you to draw a shaded ball or something equally unlikely to excite you. You will learn those basic shapes, but they are always in service of a larger, tangible, more desirable end product. At the end of the first lesson, you will have drawn an apple. At the end of the third, you'll have painted a tree. The sixth level will conclude with a large wave crashing in the ocean.
There are also three "mini-lessons," in which you are given a photograph to paint from without guidance. These are essentially worthless, though, as you can import any photograph you like from your DSi if you just want to paint a subject without guidance. Feel free to use the mini-lessons, but don't be afraid to go way beyond them.
You move fast, but it rarely feels too fast. The lessons are structured logically, so that the student is never confused about why any particular step follows the previous one. Also helpful is Vince, your gabby mentor, who offers some theoretical background and classical examples of famous paintings to help you keep your own artistic development in perspective, but man oh man does that guy like the sound of his own voice. Vince is a good artist, but, like any good artist, he should probably learn to keep his mouth shut and let the paintbrush do the talking.
Ironically, this leads to one of the problems with the lessons: Vince will always explain what you are about to do, then he will show you how to do it, and then it will be your turn. That's great, and it's usually very helpful. But sometimes, especially in the later lessons, the explanation is presented so generally that you're not sure how or why he makes the artistic decisions that he then displays for you. He'll explain that he's about to add some highlights of a lighter color to his crashing wave, and he'll ask you to do the same, and that's great. But when he adds them, you might wonder why he's adding them there. Or why he's adding so many. Or so few. And since your wave may look nothing like his, how are you supposed to know where yours should go?
In real life, you could just ask your instructor to explain further. Every artist has his or her reasons, even if the reason is no more complicated than "it feels right." But Vince - if he has his reasons - isn't talking. Or rather he is talking. Endlessly. But not always about the things that are confusing you.
It's a nit-pick, but only slightly; for artists, decisions are constantly being made, and they usually don't even realize it. Artists build a strong, subconscious foundation of knowledge for themselves, and save their conscious decisions for the unique flourishes that give either the art (or the artist) its particular identity as something beyond "representation." But for students, decisions are not made subconsciously, and trying to learn art from somebody by watching them silently construct their own work is sort of like learning to play guitar by seeing Eric Clapton in concert, and just planning to do everything he did when you get home.
Aside from that quibble, however, the lessons are quite good. They are a lot of fun and effectively engaging. They also do a great job of teaching you how to use the individual tools and features that will really allow you to express yourself in Free Paint mode. For newcomers to the art world, the lessons provide a strong (if not entirely solid) groundwork upon which to build. For those whose hobbies already include paintboxes and palettes, the lessons are a great (if long-winded) tutorial on how to get the most out of the same tools in Art Academy.
The tools are extremely - and impressively - responsive, making some excellent and accurate use of the DSi's touch screen. Pressure matters, speed matters, length matters (quiet, back there...), and it all translates shockingly well. The pencils feel like pencils, the brushes take some serious skill to master, and the erasers actually work like erasers (instead of the localized "clear" tool that they are in most paint programs). In fact, the only downside is the difficulty of painting along the edges of the touch screen...and that's more a structural flaw than anything Art Academy can be blamed for.
As if it wasn't obvious, the Free Paint mode is where all of this release's replay value comes from, and it's quite easy to lose an hour of your time or more when you expected to fool around for only a few minutes; it's that much fun to play with.
Unfortunately, this also leads to another potential issue for Art Academy: will the Free Paint mode be the same throughout the series? It certainly seems that way, as there are several functions that don't get used in the lessons in First Semester (in fact, you're told at the end of the game that you'll learn to use them next time), which means that with Second Semester - and beyond - you might be paying full price for a handful of new lessons.
As such, the recommendation is a cautious one. If you buy First Semester, be aware that the lessons only reach a certain point, and to be trained on the rest of the functionality, you'll need at least one more release. If you're already familiar with the basics of painting and decide to start with Second Semester, you'll probably miss out on the tutorial for the first set of tools.
But none of that prevents First Semester from being a strong and rewarding release in its own right. Its six lessons will keep you occupied for several hours, and the creative potential of Free Paint mode is - quite literally - limitless.
Art Academy: First Semester is a fantastic program for creating art, though it doesn't offer much else. As such, you already know whether or not you want it. If you're looking to create art a little more seriously, or take some inexpensive (but helpful) lessons, the value is great. If you're looking for something quirkier with a greater focus on fun and immediate results, you might be left slightly cold. The upper cap to the lessons might seem a bit low to those who have taken art lessons in the past, and the instructions might sound sometimes vague to those who haven't, but this is a strong model for future non-game releases to follow, and it makes us hopeful for Art Academy titles to come.