Ouritsu Anapoko Gakuen
Image: Ancient

Ancient — the family company of VGM composer Yuzo Koshiro and developers of everything from Sonic The Hedgehog’s debut Game Gear outing to Gotta Protectors for the 3DS — released Royal Anapoko Academy in Japan on 16th December 2021. Like much of its output in recent years, this light-hearted RPG is an irresistible mix of faux-retro style combined with slightly off-the-wall ideas centred around the magical academy of the title, a school where young warriors train alongside ‘Wild Fangs’ in bunny suits and a beautiful princess lives in the nearby castle.

The Japanese language-only Royal Anapoko Academy (or Ouritsu Anapoko Gakuen) gets very silly, very quickly — and luckily for everyone involved it’s deliberately so; the sort of game you laugh with because it's funny rather than at due to some embarrassing design misfire. Some of this manifests as moments that are consciously fishing for laughs. One early quest involves a drunk fairy queen, there's an entire four-panel comic dedicated to the classic ‘I can detach my thumb’ joke, referring to the age-old trick to as ‘Elf magic’, and the weapon shop owner has a humorous chart measuring their health, temper, and the state of their knee.

The moments in-between these bigger laughs are more subtle, a constant parade of smaller smiles to yourself as you perform such mundane and too-familiar tasks such as clicking through end-of-quest menus, character portraits moving themselves to the side so the text boxes don’t get in the way of their beautiful faces and tiny 2D fighters shoving each other out of the way as you scroll through the various options available in your party’s private room.

Ouritsu Anapoko Gakuen

Those little pixel-people really are incredibly expressive for their size, animated in a way that can only be described as ‘mischievous’ and boasting a real commitment to individuality rarely found in the RPGs of old that the game lovingly cribs its artist style from, each big-headed party member with mini stick-legs mere pixels wide a strangely accurate representation of their more detailed hand-drawn artwork.

In battle portraits hop from side to side as if they’re eagerly awaiting your commands, minotaurs really put all of their mighty weight behind a big punch, fireballs curl through the air towards the unfortunate beast on the receiving end, and spears are twirled with a flourish before they strike. There’s a special sort of “pop” to it all, an excitable energy that makes absolutely everything feel fresh and fun and fizzy.

And to think, all of that’s really just the big bow tied around a compelling battle system. Combat takes place within large tile-based arenas filled with monsters that move every time you do (think of the evergreen roguelike series Shiren the Wanderer). It’s entirely up to you where you go and who you decide to pick on first, although it’s best to take the surrounding terrain as well as any nearby nasties into account before you engage as other groups of monsters have no problem attacking you from the sides, or behind, or even squeezing into a free slot in the team you’re currently attacking if you're especially unlucky.

If it all gets too much, running away to an adjacent free tile is always a possibility… providing there is a free tile to run away to in the first place. Special skills can alter the landscape to your benefit; you can conjure fires capable of spreading across open grass and damaging anyone (friend or foe) who walks upon them, or even create (temporary) impassable holes to help keep you from getting flanked at the worst possible moment. You always have several tide-turning options available to you, enough to believe that for once general strategising really is as important as the 'hitting of slimes with sharp objects and spells' bit most games choose to focus on.

Once your group of four have got yourself in a good position (for now) and are ready to fight battles become a command-based affair, you begin issuing orders to individual characters which then slot into a timeline showing their order of execution (this includes enemy attacks). Some things almost always come first (such as the Action Point-restoring and frequently life-saving Guard ability) but others — a helpful defensive buff, a devastating lighting spell, an enemy bat deciding to use a ranged attack to hit the physically weak caster you placed at the back of your group — are less reliable.

Key to taking enemies down is clever use of your often unusual character classes, carefully managing their small quantities of AP, and selecting the right sort of skills at the right time to unleash devastating multi-hit combos

Each enemy type brings its own unique puzzle-like problems to the experience: slimes tending to multiply when hit; some goblins able to break off from the group and attack independently from a free side; large cats possessing a fearsome combination of deadly claws and a large pool of health. Key to taking each of these problems down is clever use of your often unusual character classes (you’re as likely to have a ‘Smile Bringer’ in a pretty dress in your team as you are a Cleric), carefully managing their small quantities of AP, and selecting the right sort of skills at the right time to unleash devastating multi-hit combos that deal far more damage than another round of standard sword/axe/hammer swings ever could.

These skills come not only from classes themselves but from books and weapons, too, giving you the ability to (lightly) customise your team however you see fit whether that’s giving an up-front fighter a permanent passive stat boost that’ll help them take a few more hits (and do nothing else,) or giving your thaumaturge an additional spell they normally wouldn't have. Anapoko Gakuen is balanced so these decisions are always interesting rather than right or wrong, the most powerful sword available not necessarily the most obvious choice depending on your current party, current enemy, and personal playstyle.

If there’s one complaint to raise against the game — an experience that’s otherwise incredibly easy to keep on having one more one more go at — it’s that, from what we've played, the vast amounts of (helpful) tutorial chatter don’t seem to keep pace with your own experiences. Now on the one hand we’re very glad Anapoko Gakuen doesn’t artificially restrict your ability to change classes and equip new skills, etc. until one of many in-game tutors are ready to talk about them (one particular positive of the fantasy school setting is that there are plenty of reasonable excuses for someone to stand at the front and teach your characters how to bash monsters), but the unfortunate downside to this is that there are times when you’re told about battle features long after you’ve already learned how to use them yourself.

At present, there's no word on the game being localised for an international release, but we've very much enjoyed our time with the game so far, so fingers crossed it's in the works.

Have you downloaded this from the Japanese eShop yourself? Are you hoping for an English translation? Let us know in the comments.