Review: Surviving High School (DSiWare)

If only the real thing were this much fun

With this downloadable title, EA provides a very entertaining and engrossing experience that many will unfortunately write off based on its name alone. The game is almost completely text-based, which means that there aren't any explosions or fancy graphics, but the story and characters are funny and interesting, making this title very much worth your while.

In the main adventure, Football Season, you progress over an eight-week long semester of high school culminating in the big homecoming game and dance. The story begins as you and the pretty, popular Beth hit it off while she shows you around. Quick! Make her laugh with corny pick-up lines! Match the first half with the appropriate ending; you've got four choices, and the clock is ticking. Do well and you'll get in good with the girl, do poorly and you'll just confuse her. The two of you are interrupted, however, by her jealous boyfriend Adam, the star quarterback! Will you try to beat him up or convince him that it was just a misunderstanding? What will the nearby goth girl Raven think of your decision? Throughout the game, you'll make choices like these that will determine the contents and conclusion of your semester.

The simple presentation features still illustrations of locations in front of which text boxes narrate the activity of a scene, displaying the dialogue of characters whose animated pictures appear. In other words, if you don't like reading, this game isn't for you. For those with an open mind, though, there's a lot here to enjoy: it's all well-written and quite entertaining, and the characters themselves are interesting and unique. A number of catchy (but not too catchy) songs score each scene and swap in accordance with the mood.

The game progresses as you make choices leading the story in one direction or another. While a few of these alter your situation drastically, most simply change someone's opinion of you for better or worse. This will affect the game's outcome, but until then, many of the elements remain basically the same. For example, picking between the popular girl or the goth chick is the game's first big decision, and whereas Beth will take you to the beach and Raven to the vampire costume ball, you'll still have very similar dates with either at dinner, the movies or the mall. While these situations play out differently depending on the girl, you'll still have to budget your dinner bill and deal with an embarrassing run-in with some teachers at the cinema. Regardless, the story is a lot of fun to play through and most of the correct decisions are less obvious than they seem, adding a deeper level of fun and challenge.

Throughout Football Season, you'll encounter three mini-games at certain intervals. The pick-up line scenario discussed above is an example of Trivia, which you'll play every time you go to class and at other hard-to-predict moments, like when your football teammates decide to test your knowledge of the school mascot. You'll play Word Search whenever your character faces a different type of test, a task that presents you with a block of letters within which to find and select certain words. While usually quite simple, it's timed and sometimes uses a high standard of scoring, making it a potentially intense experience. Finally, there's Football, which you play once a week. At each down, different amounts of yardage pop up on the screen and almost immediately disappear. Your goal is to click the amount that the defensive or offensive team will gain. It too is simple but challenging, and the ticking clock can make for a surprisingly exciting experience.

The main objective of it all is being a well-rounded student, and that means equally balancing your popularity, strength and grade point average. Every day after school you can work out, do homework or watch television (giving you something interesting to talk to people about and thus increasing your cred), and you can always cut class to hang out instead. It's not a very complex affair, but you never know when you'll be asked to, say, bench press a cheerleader, a task at which if one were to fail would compromise popularity points and the opinions of one's peers.

Football Season is beatable in a few hours (depending on how fast you read and the impulsiveness with which you make decisions), but Surviving High School also includes seven very different and often challenging episodes starring other kids from the same universe. Some of these are quite reminiscent of a Choose Your Own Adventure book, while others present less story-based challenges. In Making Some Dough, for example, you'll have to carefully budget your time and raise enough money to save the local bakery. A different episode, Wrong Side of Town, follows the geeky Brendan as he makes his way back from the rival school's neighbourhood fighting bullies RPG-style. The only dud of an episode is the secret, unlockable one, As Time Goes By, which, while entertaining, feels like a very rough draft of the main game that's so pared down that it's comical.

As with the main story, re-playing these episodes will reveal alternate scenes and outcomes, but the varying routes that you take might end up being quite similar to each other. They are much more challenging, however, and even when it seems that you've done everything right, the game lets you know when you could have performed a little better. This and their inherent entertainment value will keep you coming back for more, even if you do have to re-read (or click through) large portions of the story.

Conclusion

This game provides a very fun, funny and engrossing experience featuring a cast of interesting and likeable characters. Its stylistic simplicity may deter some, but those who don't mind reading will find much to enjoy. Diverging scenes and choices make its main story and unique episodes worth a second play-through, although re-experiencing the large portions they have in common can be a bit tedious.

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