Tivola’s ‘Academy’ series of games is becoming a prolific presence on DSiWare. In consecutive months we've had Model Academy and Beauty Academy. These titles have targeted pre-teen girl gamers and the latest entry, Dancing Academy is no different. We’re dusting off our dancing shoes to determine whether this Academy’s tuition can help us beat the dad-dancing blues.
The storyline in Dancing Academy is a feel-good tale that chirpily says the only quality needed for good dancing is confidence. We’re not sure we agree it’s that easy, but the script is so relentlessly cheerful that you can’t really argue with it. Your character is a shy girl spending the holidays dancing alone in her room when her famous relative, Aunt Tootsie, spots her potential and enrols her in a reality TV dancing contest. Before you can pack your toothbrush you’re bundled off to Germany for the first stage of the show, and so begins a tour to exotic locations such as Dubai, Tokyo and London. You need to impress two judges and a stereotyped guest judge from each region to win the contest and become the best young dancer in the world.
In terms of the game modes in offer, this single-player experience is the only mode available. You choose one of the three game profiles available and have some limited options to customise your character, choosing a name, hairstyle and first outfit for your dancing prodigy. There are 10 regional contests in total, each requiring completion of a training and contest level, and you're rewarded with unlockable outfits and cash prizes to spend on more clothes. Unlike Model Academy, you do not need to change your clothes to obtain better scores on a level, so this is only a minor extra.
The first major problems of the game are the controls and gameplay. You play exclusively with the stylus, and you complete dance moves by tapping and swiping on the touchscreen. Those who have played any of the earlier entries in the series will know what to expect; you tap circles in time, or tap and drag if circles are linked by a line. As you progress Aunt Tootsie teaches you new ‘Special Moves’ which involve a mixture of tapping, drawing a circle quickly, connecting dots and, in one case, shouting into the microphone. If you want to avoid the embarrassment of shouting at your DSi, a tap of the finger on the microphone works just as well.
The issue with this gameplay is that it becomes dull and repetitive very quickly. Tapping circles isn’t a stimulating activity, and the lack of variety and innovative use of the controls exacerbates the problem. The concept of a rhythm game on the DS has been proven with titles like Rhythm Heaven, but this lacks the creativity and innovation to make it work. Three difficulty modes add a certain level of challenge, with the ‘hard’ difficulty being absolutely fiendish, but this doesn’t make the experience any more enjoyable. Once you've been awarded gold trophies in all levels, which will take capable gamers no more that two hours, there is no incentive to play again.
As a dancing game it relies heavily on music to bring the fun. This title surprised us with songs such as Madonna’s Like a Virgin and MC Hammer’s U Can’t Touch This, but having dug out our parachute trousers to celebrate this revival we discovered these are rather appalling MIDI renditions of the songs. Some of them, such as Kelly Clarkson’s Since U Been Gone are simply bad, while Like a Virgin also has a bizarre Middle Eastern theme, making it both terrible and strange. We’re pretty confident that they are the worst versions of these songs ever produced, with some being so bad they’re funny.
The visuals use the same engine as Model Academy, so once again the 3D visuals are solid by DSiWare standards. The animation on your character’s dancing is well executed, while some of the moves are entertaining to watch. The rest of the presentation is passable, with still frames and text boxes presenting the storyline.
The problem with Dancing Academy is that it shares the same problems as the earlier entries in the series, while adding some new issues of its own. The gameplay is repetitive and unimaginative: whereas the other 'Academy' titles at least had a variety of challenges, this game will have you doing the same thing again and again. To add to the problems we have appalling music in the form of peculiar MIDI re-creations of well-known songs. There are limitations to DSiWare, but that isn’t an excuse for this poor choice of sound. These issues drag the experience ever downward; and we thought our dancing was bad.