As part of its ambitious vision to build next-generation digital learning tools, Amplify, the education division of News Corporation, brought on a dozen indie game studios in 2013 to develop a suite of educational games focused on English Language Arts (ELA) and STEM. The bundle of 30 games was released on March 2015.
We got our hands on the pack and took a look at the flagship title—indeed, the one that garnered the most adulation: Lexica, a role playing adventure where players explore different worlds featuring characters from literary classics.
Lexica is not just one game, but a collection of 13 fully-realized ELA mini-games wrapped in a grand role playing adventure targeting middle school students. The majority of the activities in the main game involve collecting items, completing quests, and playing mini-games.
You begin by choosing an animal avatar to represent your character, then set off to explore the beautifully rendered castle-library of Lexica. Soon you run into a man reading the book, Peter Pan. Much to everyone’s surprise, your presence causes the story to come to life and a massive pirate ship appears from the book. Walking a bit further, you run into Cheshire Cat, from Alice in Wonderland. Next, you must search for another character’s missing Tarzan of the Jungle book. (No, this is not a Disney game.)
The next few activities involve fetching items for various characters hanging around the library. Along the way, you meet more literary characters, read short descriptions of novels, and get to very briefly play some mini-games. (And holy cow, there are a lot of mini-games. More on those in a bit.)
You can jump and punch, but there’s absolutely nothing to punch in the first level. I find this particularly vexing. Why not wait until there are actual enemies present (which don’t appear until about three hours into the game) before unlocking the punch? There are also a few platforming challenges, all of which I found to be either trivial or extremely frustrating. Overall, I was not too impressed with the movement mechanics.
Along the way you meet more characters, complete quests, and explore new areas. The characters look nice and have some entertaining dialogue, but they suffer from a fairly severe case of uncanny valley syndrome: they look realistic enough that their stiff, mechanical mannerisms feel jarring and unnatural. Considering the range of literary characters represented (from Cheshire Cat to Tom Sawyer), the game could have benefited from more stylized artwork.
The thirteen mini-games embedded within Lexica are also accessible from the main menu, which is definitely the preferred way to experience them. Accessing them through the main Lexica adventure lets you play them for only a short time, giving you a brief taste of the good ones and forcing you to engage with the bad ones. Which leads me to ask, why embed them in the adventure game at all?
Thirteen games is a lot, and with no in-game descriptions, how is one supposed to know which ones to play? Fortunately, I have played through all thirteen and ranked them in reverse order for your convenience.
13. Venture: A repetitive adventure-themed interactive worksheet where you answer multiple-choice grammar questions and collect coins, which is fun until you realize there’s nothing to buy with the coins. I felt cheated.
12. Spell Stone: Slightly misleading title… There are no magic spells. The full title is actually “Spelling Stone” (and the Amplify website lists it as Spell Tracer). This is a puzzle game where you construct words based on prefix and suffix formulas that is fun for about two minutes.
11. The Whereabout: A map of the world. That’s it. I spent a few minutes poking around trying to see if I was missing anything and as far as I can tell, it’s really just a map. Still more enjoyable than Venture and SpellStone. (Note: I've been told that the map expands as you read books on the Amplify Reader but I did not experience this in my own playthrough.)
10. Sentence Sensibility: A scramble game where you arrange words into sentences from famous literature. Nothing special. Play #5 on this list instead.
9. Tomes: An interactive story with nice art and lots of dialogue to read. I read through the first few chapters but with so many other games to play, I didn’t stick with this one too long.
8. Ink Blott: A cute maze game where you swap prefixes and suffixes to create words that unlock new areas. Starts off fun, but gets tedious after the first few levels.
7. Mukashi: A relaxing game where you fly a dragon around collecting words to recreate and remix traditional Japanese folk tales. Flying around feels great but there are some issues with creating grammatically correct sentences that do not make sense thematically. For example, I had to choose whether a fisherman was “noble” or “treacherous” which I thought should have some impact on the story, but both answers were actually accepted. However, it did not accept my sentence, “The hockey monkey replied, ‘I keep my liver in a jar in the forest!’” Come on, Amplify! If you’re going to allow context-less creativity, you have to allow hockey monkey.
6. W.E.L.D.E.R. is a cross between word search and match-3 (i.e. Candy Crush). You swap letter tiles on a grid to create words for a pretty fun way to pass time. The game isn’t terribly exciting, but is great as a pick-up-and-play game.
5. Page Invade: A tower-defense-esque game where you attack monsters by creating sentences from a collection of words. The funny thing is that by incentivizing sentence length but ignoring semantics, the game does a pretty good job of testing grammar. I enjoyed making sentences like, “These alligators get my lumpy grapefruits some more moons.” The game is also pretty difficult and I, an avid gamer and cunning linguist, ended up failing a couple of levels.
4. Story Cards: Think Magic: The Gathering meets Literature class. In this game, you collect cards based on literary characters and use them to battle your opponents. New characters can be earned by reading and answering questions from their respective novels in the eReader. Great idea, great game, poor single-player AI. Find friends to play with.
3: Master Swords: A neat little RPG where the power of your attack depends on the point value of words you create from letter tiles (think Scrabble). Amazingly, the game takes the word you create and turns it into a battlecry. I created the word LOX, and my character attacked a Greasy Gramlin while shouting, “I’ll devour you like a bagel topped with delicious LOX!” Seriously impressive and quite fun as well. I kept playing just to see what sentences the game would make from my words.
2. Twisted Manor: This. Game. Is. Incredible. It uses 2D sprite animations that blend beautifully with 3D environments. The art is creepily cool, the lighting is great and the literary puzzles are cleverly executed (There is a glass of wine and a glass of water in this room. Fetch me the former.) There is a good amount of reading comprehension required to solve the puzzles and the atmosphere is engrossing enough to keep players wanting more. This game NEEDS a public release.
1. Shelf Life: I debated long and hard between this and Twisted Manor for the top spot, but ultimately Shelf Life won me over. In this game, you run along sentences, picking up words to defeat other word-obstacles further along. Hard to describe, but trust me: the game is incredibly clever and fun. Solving puzzles will require carefully reading sentences to find keywords that might prove useful for overcoming challenges. I love the creativity and attention to detail in the puzzles and animations. Truly a delight to play.
Purchasing the Amplify ELA bundle also comes with a library of over 600 books available within its eReader—which might be worth the subscription price on its own. With a full complement of literary classics like The Call of the Wild, Bridge to Terabithia, Gulliver’s Travels and Pride and Prejudice, along with some quirky choices like a biography of Derek Jeter and a book on the 1969 Gay Rights movement, the Amplify Library offers an impressive variety. Many of these also have questions along the way to test reading comprehension, which can unlock new Story Cards for your collection. I do have some reservations about reading long tomes like David Copperfield on an iPad, but hey, maybe I’m just a dinosaur.
There’s a lot to like with Lexica. It inspired me to read Rime of the Ancient Mariner for the first time, partly because of the in-game teaser blurb, and partly because I wanted to unlock the Albatross Story Card. Or maybe I read it because I already enjoy reading adventurous fiction. Hard to say, as I definitely didn’t feel compelled to read 500 pages of Little Women.
The hundreds of classic stories available to read at anytime on the Amplify eReader are easily worth the current price of $7 per student per semester. And with that, you get an enormous amount of high quality supplementary content as a bonus, including a handful of amazing mini-games. Really, you can’t beat the value.
Is it perfect? No. The main Lexica adventure has a lot of problems. It is likely that many kids in this seven-second-attention-span generation will lose interest after playing some of the weaker mini-games, or the rather slow-paced main adventure. The best parts of Lexica are the mini-games like Twisted Manor and Shelf Life, which are not particularly easy to find or identify. The students who will enjoy Lexica the most are those who already enjoy reading, and isn’t it the job of educational games to engage those who are not naturally inclined towards a subject? The tech requirements may also be prohibitive, as Lexica will only run on an iPad 3 or later.
Aesthetics: A+ — Everything in Lexica is polished and beautiful.
Gameplay: C+ —The main adventure is clunky and the mini-games range from mundane to fantastic which averages out to… average.
Academic Value: B- — I imagine many players will open Lexica, pick an un-fun mini-game like Venture, then quit the game without learning a darn thing. I penalized half a grade for that.
Educational Value: B — If your students are willing to spend some time with Lexica, there is a ton of reading fun to be enjoyed. IF.