Surviving High School, a new, mostly text-based adventure game from Centerscore, follows the travails of a transfer student as he goes from friendless weirdo to big man on campus. Historically, Centerscore has concentrated mostly on casual card games and other simple pastimes based on the Garfield license, so this journey through the sweaty corridors of adolescent angst represents a bold departure from the company's comfort zone. Additionally, it represents a somewhat unconventional move relative to the rest of the American mobile-gaming scene. It's a mostly successful experiment, too, because even though Surviving High School could have used more variety in its design, top-notch dialogue and an involving plot carry it through to graduation.
At the beginning of Surviving High School, you're offered a short tutorial that runs through the game's simple structure and interface. Surviving High School is episodic in nature, so the first chapter, "Football," centers around the high school football season in the fall. Basically, you've got a semester (roughly 10 weeks or so) to make the football team, become a campus superstar, date the girl of your dreams, and win the homecoming king crown. The school's guidance counselor will give you a questionnaire to determine your likes and dislikes as far as classes, hobbies, and friendships go, after which the game appears to adjust its internal starting parameters to match your answers. From there you're off to the races on your first day at your new school.
Surviving High School's gameplay follows the form of your planner, which breaks each day up into one- to two-hour chunks. Depending on the type of activity you're engaging in, the game switches from trivia to dialogue to button-pressing minigames. The early part of your day is typically occupied by your three classes, where you may be asked to answer a timed question regarding a particular subject. Get it right and your grade in that particular class will improve a bit. During class, you'll have frequent opportunities to pass notes to your classmates, flirt with the ladies, and even eavesdrop on them for all the latest gossip. You'll also have two or three periods of free time a day where you can choose to diligently do your homework, goof off by chatting on the phone or watching the tube, or exercise to build up your athletic prowess. A lot of the menu-based activities, like flirting, answering questions in school, or lifting weights, operate on timed menus. These menus often present you with randomly fluctuating cursors that you have to stop on the right decision. All you need to do to make the ideal choice is concentrate a little and keep your eye on the cursor...if it's moving around. Once you've tried out for the football team (in this chapter, there's no way to avoid participating, so you'll make the team no matter what), you'll have to go to both football practice and games. The sporting events test your acumen in a number of extremely basic minigames that range from stopping a meter at the right spot to catching falling objects. Finally, there are a number of "special events," like dates, meetings with your parents, and football team hazings, where you're offered the chance to navigate extended dialogue trees to make important decisions.
Generally speaking, all these activities form a fun, cohesive whole for the first half of the game. Surviving High School's dialogue is excellent, if not quite up to date on teenage nomenclature, and there are a ton of different conversations you can listen to and participate in over the course of the game. All the different characters in the adventure, from your fellow students to adults (like the football coach, for instance), have appreciably different personalities and aims. As a result, they'll react to your decisions in pretty realistic manners. Many of the characters are pretty funny, too. There's the pasty-faced goth drama queen, your histrionic Aunt Bertha, and the meathead senior jock that has it in for you. Dating is a particularly enjoyable diversion. In fact, it's very interesting to watch what happens when you try to finesse some money from your date. There's not much to the trivia and action-based minigames, though, but they do help switch things up a little bit from reading to action.
The problem is that after an hour or so of play, some of the trivia questions start to repeat, and the physical activities become more annoying than diverting. Football games and practice are a particular chore, as there are seven games during the season that follow the exact same format of eight minigames, in addition to there being several practices over the week. These are always introduced with exactly the same tired dialogue, and it's not very difficult to achieve a positive result. A certain amount of action is great, but you'll likely find yourself wishing that Centerscore had devoted more effort to coming up with more special dialogue situations and plot points. These sequences, which are the most interesting parts of the game, are simply too few and far between, especially given that it takes two or three hours to get through the semester. On the other hand, there are plenty of different angles from which you can approach the game, and there's enough content that you'll get new results each time you play it. It's cool to play through Surviving High School as a complete nerd and then turn around and try it again as a mean jock.
Surviving High School's presentation is very solid, if not totally spectacular. The character art is small, and there aren't too many different backdrops to represent the game's different locations. However, each character has several different facial expressions, and the visual style is appealing. The game makes great use of music and sound, so when you watch music videos, for instance, you'll get a five-second snippet of screaming guitars. Similarly, there are a lot of different sound effects and themes to represent other events. There's so much sound on offer, in fact, that you may wind up tapping your foot to a few of the catchier tunes. Interestingly, the title song even sounds like it's straight from a TV high-school drama.
Overall, Surviving High School is a diverting play that could have been even better with a little more fine-tuning. Its basic premise, which involves reliving the ups and downs of high school, comes through brilliantly, but there's just too much filler along each possible gameplay track to occupy you through the long scenario. Hopefully Centerscore will continue to refine its promising model in later chapters of the game. For now, though, Surviving High School is recommended for adventure game fans and for those who are looking for something a little different for their mobile game dollars.