Avalon Code Review «

Avalon Code is the most heartbreaking kind of game: The kind of game you really want to like, but ultimately can’t. The kind of game that’s bursting with creativity and ambition, but constantly trips over its own good intentions. The kind of game in which the qualities that make it sound so compelling on paper end up being the very stumbling blocks that make it such a chore to play.
You certainly can’t fault Avalon’s pedigree. It’s the work of Alundra creators Matrix, best known for programming Square Enix’s recent Final Fantasy remakes, and in many ways it feels like something of a spiritual successor to their PlayStation cult classic. There are lots of puzzle dungeons, for one thing, including the obligatory sliding ice block puzzles that drove so many Alundra players batty. And you certainly can’t fault Matrix’s technical expertise: Avalon looks and sounds great, with a mellow soundtrack and in-engine cutscenes that look even better than Final Fantasy IV’s. Whatever dark pact the studio forged to earn its ability to wring every last drop of power from the DS’s humble processors is in full effect here.

Click the image above to check out all Avalon Code screens.
Even more enticingly, Avalon is that rarest of creations: a wholly new series that doesn’t feel compelled to dumb itself down for the half-wit idiot children most developers apparently assume is the core DS audience. While the storytelling is fairly perfunctory — your mute protagonist wakes up one day as a harbinger of the apocalypse and seems pretty OK with that fact, no questions asked — it has the benefit of building on a fascinating premise around which the entire game revolves.

The world is about to end, and you, the hero/heroine, are tasked with recording everything of worth in order to help populate the world that follows. You accomplish this by smacking things with a magical book, which then preserves a record of the target’s essence. Enemies, friends, gear, plant life: it’s all in the good book. Once something has been stored in the book, you then have the power to reorder its code, a grid of attributes that define that object’s nature. This comes in pretty handy when you face off against a boss, since it allows you to (among other things) remove the creature’s strength attributes and replace them with weaknesses; swap out “steel” for “ill” and suddenly a monster’s health is halved.

Naturally, you get more experience for facing tougher monsters, so ambitious players can crank up the difficulty by adding powerful codes to their enemies. Even then, the battles aren’t terribly overwhelming thanks to the Judgment Link system, which allows you to juggle an enemy (or two, if you’re good) for increasing damage. Each successive hit sends a foe higher and higher, with each successive impact hurting more and more, until you eventually launch the monster into space to explode in a shower of light, experience points, and health drops. Play it right and you can wipe out a souped-up boss in a single link attack.

Avalon Code ‘Debut’ trailer These eponymous codes are a brilliant concept, essentially grafting the sci-fi concept of hacking into a medieval fantasy RPG, and at first blush you’ll find that editing enemies and equipment to your own ends is incredibly fun. Unfortunately, as the game progresses, code-hacking becomes less an opportunity and more a bothersome drag. Code information is stored in the Book of Prophecy, which occupies the DS’s bottom screen. The virtual book concept is as clever as reconfiguring enemies, yet when combined with the code management process it quickly becomes Avalon’s ultimate downfall. Before long, you have hundreds of pages to thumb through, and while there’s an index to jump to specific categories, you’ll eventually find yourself spending most of your play time simply trying to find the page you need. (To make matters worse, your current spirit companion hovers about on the upper screen the entire time, nagging at you to speed things up.)

The game is at its worst when you build up an extensive library of code fragments and need to assemble specific “recipes.” You can only keep four code chunks in your personal queue; the rest have to be placed in the grids of monsters, NPCs, and equipment until needed elsewhere. When you’re trying to find that single 1×1 “freedom” fragment you left somewhere amidst hundreds of pages, paging through the virtual screen is a lot less enjoyable. Especially when you’re doing it for the tenth time in a given dungeon because you need to change a weapon’s attribute once again in order to activate an elemental switch or whatever. Before long, every cute little animation of the book magically rewriting itself chafes at your nerves; every stray bit of code you’ve misplaced becomes your worst nemesis. What seems novel and unique when you’re managing a few dozen pages with 3×3 code grids becomes the least entertaining onus imaginable once you hit 300 pages of 4×4 grids.

Click the image above to check out all Avalon Code screens.
The final insult? Each time you move a chunk of code around, you expend a small amount of magic. Nothing is more infuriating than spending 10 minutes rearranging a boss’ code, only to run out of magic as you’re about to place the last fragment — well, nothing besides dying as a result, which forces you to start over and muddle through the whole process again, except with only half your max HP and magic.

It kills me to see such a cool feature become such a huge drawback, especially when these problems could so easily have been avoided. If the game simply let you queue up as many code chunks as you like, the whole process would be quick and breezy. Even a simple search feature in the book to let you hunt down code fragments by type or shape or size would have been great. Instead, Avalon is bogged down by an unwieldy feature tied so closely to the game’s mechanics that after a while even the simple act of switching weapons becomes a burden.

As with so many boldly innovative games, Avalon proves that the main downside to new and untested ideas is that they’ve yet to be refined into something that works smoothly. There’s a lot of quality content here for anyone with the patience to suffer through the clumsy implementation in which it’s presented. Yet despite these incentives, Avalon ultimately feels like a promising prototype for a brilliant game that has yet to be created.


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