Innovation in gaming can be a tricky thing. For every game that we consider truly innovative, there are another dozen or more whose attempts at trying something different fall completely flat. There are the occasional strokes of genius that make us wonder how on earth no one thought of it before, yet there are many games that leave us wondering why on earth they attempted it in the first place. It’s a risky proposition, especially since most publishers are unwilling or unable to take risks with an unproven IP that uses a new and innovative system. They might catch lightning in a bottle (Puzzle Quest, anyone?), or it could fall flat and become a miserable failure.
Avalon Code is a DS action-RPG developed by the same folks that handled the 3D revamps of both Final Fantasy III and Final Fantasy IV. Regardless of what you thought of those titles, you couldn’t deny the high production values. In Avalon Code, they stepped away from the pre-crafted template of the Final Fantasy series and tried stretching their legs with a new IP. It is built around an incredibly unique Code system (hence the name) that brings something completely new to the action-RPG table. How did this fare, and were they successful with their attempt? Let’s take a look.
Everything about Avalon Code is high quality. Taking place in a medieval fantasy world, the anime inspired character designs, unique enemies, and whimsical town architecture are reminiscent of Final Fantasy IX. It’s all fully 3D and looks great, especially considering the DS’ hardware limitations. Each character and enemy is animated extremely well, and I never encountered any sort of framerate hiccup or slowdown. It was refreshing to play a game that used such a bright and cheery color pallette, and it was a welcome change from the gritty grey and brown that have dominated the last few games I’ve played. It may be a bit too cutesy for some, but it’s obvious that a huge amount of effort went into creating the world. Some of the detail work in the towns, on the character’s outfits, and in the monster design and animation is truly impressive.
My only real issue was that the map system was extremely lacking. It only displays the current area and not the layout of the overall world, so I found myself lost. A lot. I also wish there was the ability to zoom in or out on some of the levels, as I felt like a wider view would have been a big help in planning for attacking enemies.
A catchy orchestral soundtrack and quality voice work round out Avalon Code’s presentation nicely. While the voice-overs are sparse and some of the voices are a bit grating (one of the overly-bubbly spirits in particular drove me nuts), the overall quality is excellent. Nothing to complain about here. Standard action-RPG controls are the order of the day in Avalon Code. Movement with the D-pad, standard and special attacks with the face buttons, and dodging with the shoulder buttons. Pretty basic stuff, none of which requires the stylus or touch screen. The Book of Prophecy, however, is completely navigated by the stylus. Since you’ll be constantly accessing this book (more on that in the Gameplay section), it makes for some rather awkward transitions switching from button to touchscreen control on the fly. Nothing that can’t be handled by experienced gamers, mind you, but Avalon Code probably won’t be held up as the model for gameplay controls anytime soon.
On the surface, Avalon Code is a pretty standard JRPG. You step into the shoes of a teenage boy (or girl, your choice), who is – of course – the “Chosen One”. However, instead of saving the world, you’ve been tasked with cataloging everything in it for posterity. You see, the world is dying and the celestial powers-that-be want to make sure they have a record of everything for the next time around. In order to make this record, you are handed the Book of Prophecy, which serves as your virtual hard drive to make a copy of literally everything in the world. You get tangled up in a grand adventure along the way, but it is a refreshing change from the standard “teenager saves the world” premise typically found in these titles.
Avalon Code’s main hook and innovation lies with the Book of Prophecy. Every person you meet, every monster you fight, every flower you see, and every weapon you come across can be scanned with the book to reveal their genetic traits, or “codes” (this is done by smacking them over the head with the book, which I found endlessly amusing). These codes are displayed in a Tetris-like grid of interlocking squares and rectangles and come in a huge variety of different traits and abilities that give some hint as to their overall makeup. For instance, the town guard might be endowed with Justice and Freedom codes. A goblin might have Stone, Forest, and Fame. The sick girl in town might have an Ill or a Shadow code that is causing her affliction. There are seemingly endless combinations of codes, and you – as the Chosen One – have the ability to manipulate them at will. Not doing enough damage to that Goblin? Pull out his Stone code and you’ll find yourself doing significantly more with each swing, or drop an Ill code on him to make him less powerful. Think that Land Squid has too many hit points? Yank his Fame code and his health pool will drop in half. Want to add a little “oomph” to your sword? Plug in a Fire code and it will start doing major damage. It is an amazingly unique and endlessly flexible system that allows you to literally tweak the genetic makeup of nearly everything you see in the world. You can also scan Tablets throughout the world, which provide Code “recipes” to bolster for your weapon, or use Codes to complete puzzles or unlock doors.
Unfortunately, I found that while all this flexibility was neat, it was also incredibly daunting. Paralysis by analysis, if you will, since the sheer number of code combinations is absolutely staggering. Those gamers who love tinkering with endless combinations of stuff to see what they do will absolutely be in heaven, but I found the complexity to be somewhat overwhelming. The layout of the Book of Prophecy doesn’t help much either, since navigating through it quickly becomes a huge, repetitive chore. You’re basically required to commit to memory which monsters or items contain which codes. This isn’t a big deal when you only have a few monster and character records, but when you need that fire code and have to randomly start flipping through a hundred individual monster records to find the one or two that have it, it becomes infuriating. Adding to the frustration is the fact that you can only have 4 codes in inventory at any given time. So if you want to add that Fire code to a specific item, you first need to find a different item that has room in it’s grid to dump one of your existing codes, then go back and grab the Fire Code to put in inventory, then navigate to the new item or monster and insert it. I felt like the bulk of my playtime was spent juggling codes around instead of actually, you know, playing the game. It’s an incredibly cumbersome process that gets really old, really quick.
Outside of the Code mechanic, the gameplay is pretty standard action-RPG stuff. You wander around the country side, navigating Zelda-style through individual rectangular areas. Each area typically contains a few monsters and possibly an item or two for you to scan. There is a huge variety of monsters, which is both good and bad. Good because you’ll always be running across something new, and bad because every new baddie will drop another entry and additional codes in the Book of Prophecy that you’ll have to end up shuffling through later. You’ll explore through all sorts of towns and dungeons (the latter using an interesting mechanic of a timed goal for every room), in your ultimate attempt to catalog everything in the world in the Book of Prophecy. The writing and story are generally well-done, and the game’s unique premise kept me playing despite the horrible clunkiness of the Code system.
Avalon Code is a decent size game, but its length feels artificially extended since you’re spending half your time dinking around with Codes and the Book of Prophecy. There is the occasional side mission, but not much incentive to go back and play though once it’s done. I mentioned it before, but it’s worth reiterating that gamers that enjoy experimenting with different Code combinations will have an absolute blast with Avalon Code, and likely spend a ton of time with it. I found it to be simply frustrating, but I’m sure there are folks that will enjoy it. In the end, Avalon Code is a unique game that is hamstrung by from some incredibly clunky interface and navigation issues. I applaud the developers for trying something new, but the system they put together needs some work in order to be truly enjoyable. As is, playing Avalon Code felt much more like work than fun, and it was tough for the game to develop any momentum when the player is required to constantly be fiddling with Codes and shuffling through the Book of Prophecy. It’s certainly worth keeping an eye on this series, though. There’s decent potential here, if (and this is a big if) they can figure out a way to streamline the Code mechanic.