plasticpals's Avalon Code (Nintendo DS) review

A pretty, but ill-conceived mess

Avalon Code is an Action-RPG in the vein of The Legend of Zelda, with a twist. At the outset, the player has the choice between a hero or heroine who is destined to change the world. They alone have the power to alter the Book of Prophecy – which eventually lists pretty much everything in existence. How you alter its contents effects change immediately, and will also determine what happens when the world is born anew.  It’s an intriguing premise that certainly could have brought something new to the genre, but the game largely collapses under the weight of its own ambitions.

Avalon Coding

Central to the story and game play are the Avalon codes themselves, which are shaped like Tetris blocks and act sort of like genes or DNA. Almost every character, monster, and item in the game can be cataloged in the Book of Prophecy, each with its own semi-unique code. The player can alter an entry’s code, either by removing or adding as many code blocks allowed by a grid, with some interesting effects.

There are numerous types of code, starting with those based on elements such as fire, water, earth, and air. Some are based on materials such as iron, bronze, silver, and gold. Others are based on animals like cats, dogs, snakes, and birds. With such an incredible variety of codes, and each individual piece having its own shape, the challenge is fitting the right kind of code into the available code space.

You can weaken enemies by removing the codes that give them their strength, and replace them with codes like Snake, which poison them. This has the unfortunate effect of lowering the amount of experience points you can earn for killing them, but makes doing so much easier. Some enemies are invincible until you nullify and remove a piece of code. Friendly characters around town are often afflicted with some sort of problem, from sickness to cowardice, that you can alter by messing around with their Avalon code. And newer, more powerful weapons and armor can be forged by mixing various codes together.

Coding Headaches

To begin with, simply dealing with chunks of code is a nuisance because the game only allows you to hold 4 individual pieces on hand at once.  Meaning, if you try to remove a code piece and you already have 4 pieces in your inventory, you’re simply not allowed until you unload spare pieces into other pages of the book. That means you’ll need to find entries with enough space, or ones that you don’t mind altering by adding the unwanted spare code pieces.

This trial and error system is made even more irritating for every time you manipulate a code, you expend 1 MP. So if you are out exploring and you need to modify an entry in order to kill an otherwise invincible foe, you are stuck. And the game doesn’t make it clear what types of code will solve any specific problem. Combining certain types of code yields entirely new unforeseen effects. While some experiments are common sense (adding “fire” to a sword creates a flaming sword), others don’t seem to have any effect whatsoever.

Slowly but surely, the Book of Prophecy grows. At first you’ll only have a few dozen pages, but eventually you’ll have more than 200. Now imagine trying to find a specific character or enemy, or worse yet trying to remember where you left a certain piece of Avalon code that is just the right size and shape for a specific problem. Like real books, the Book of Prophecy has an index which makes skipping to specific categories faster, but you’ll still need to flip through countless pages to find the one you were looking for. There is no thumbnail view for characters, monsters, or even items!

You don’t notice it until a few hours into the game, but the sheer number of entries in the book means you’ll waste several minutes just flipping through pages every time you need to interact with codes in any way. By the time this sets in, the game has become virtually unplayable due to boredom, frustration, or some combination of the two.  Instead of being a fun system that lets the player freely alter the world and its contents, it is punishing and poorly conceived.

The Good Stuff

Outside of coding, Avalon Code plays quite a bit like most other Action-RPGs. You’ll wander around towns learning about its inhabitants and their personal problems, and go off to explore the world around you (which turns out is pretty big). There’s a good variety in the locales and enemies you’ll encounter, and it all looks very nice.  Matrix Software is one of the most skilled developers working on the Nintendo DS, and they know how to squeeze the most out of the system.  Event scenes look gorgeous, and the musical score is fantastic.

The game’s combat system has a slightly silly combo system that allows you to juggle enemies higher and higher, until they reach the outer atmosphere. You can restore some HP and MP by doing this, but it also takes up valuable time.  Dungeon-like areas are split into several rooms with different puzzle challenges. Most have a time limit, though some have simple block puzzles or jumping exercises. These sections aren’t that enjoyable because they weren’t that interesting or well designed, but they’re a nice break from the book stuff. The bosses were just ok, since they didn’t require any new or particularly interesting strategies.

Final Thoughts

With intimate knowledge of the Nintendo DS, Matrix Software produced one of the best looking games made for it. However, in the final analysis Avalon Code’s flashy visuals and enjoyable soundtrack don’t make up for its overly ambitious and counter-intuitive core mechanics. Had the designers kept to a simpler formula or abandoned the coding altogether, it would have gone a long way towards saving it. As it is, I couldn’t bring myself to finish it despite getting pretty far into it – and I really wanted to enjoy this game!
 
This review is a repost from my website: www.plasticpals.com

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