I’m familiar enough with RPGs to know that Avalon Code’s adventure elements isn’t exactly an RPG. Sadly, several inherent flaws temper a great deal of the ambitious innovation that went into its design, leaving behind an unsatisfactory experience filled with promise but short on delivery.
For reasons not explained, your character has been chosen to bear the Book of Prophecy and is thus tasked with recording information about the world before it is destroyed and replaced with a new one based on the Book’s contents. People, monsters, items, flowers, and maps each get a two-leaf spread in the book’s several thousand pages. There are also pages that will record every one of the game’s cut-scenes for your later perusal, which is a nice feature; your scores in a couple of mini-games are also recorded. Maps are automatically generated as you enter new areas, but everything else must be Code Scanned, which is fancy language for “smacked with the giant book”. This does not inflict any damage, and in fact nothing is aware of this even happening due to the book’s mystical properties.
Once an object is scanned, Avalon Code’s key innovation comes into play. Everything in the book is represented by several gene-like Codes in a grid called the Mental Map. Each Code represents a material, elemental attribute, abstract concept, or animal, available in seven different shapes and sizes. By combining these Codes in various ways you can change the nature of whatever you wish; for example, putting both Illness and Copper Codes in something’s mental map results in it either becoming rusty or tired. As you explore the world you can also scan tablets called Metalizes which contain recipes for various special items; sometimes you must first solve a sliding block puzzle (ranging from 3×3 to 5×5) in order to “translate” the tablet. Characters have aspirations that will suggest a recipe that will vastly increase their value — and sometimes free them of a detrimental “locked” Code that is holding them back.
As mentioned, each entry in the book has a value. Recombining Codes will often increase the value of objects and characters, while maps gain value either by exploring them or by scoring high in a dungeon’s segment. Each room of a dungeon will task you to either defeat all of the enemies or flip all of the switches, awarding you points based on how fast you complete the task as well as several other bonuses like not receiving damage or fighting with specific types of weapons. As the Book’s total value increases, the Book itself will level up; each time it levels up, it offers you a brief glimpse of the future, revealing new events.
Your character levels up as well, but in an unusual manner. There are five schools of combat (Swords, Hammers, Projectiles, Bombs, and Unarmed); as you fight, you gain experience in whatever weapon you struck your enemy with, and eventually level up in that fighting style, increasing your damage output or improving your special move within that school. Combat is mostly real-time hack and slash, wielding weapons in both hands (controlled by the X and Y buttons), although you can also juggle enemies via hitting the A button to trigger Judgement Link… which is the only way to recover health, magic, and mystic jewels (money), so you better get used to it. Your HP (a Zelda-style heart system rather than the usual RPG numeric totals) and MP are increased only when you scan specific tablets, most often after defeating a boss.
It is this unusual level-up system, combined with the mini-game nature of the dungeons, that start to give me pause when referring to Avalon Code simply as an action-RPG. Further clouding the issue is the fact that the plot and character development, my two biggest criteria for judging an RPG, are inconsistent at best. The narrative is broken down into several chapters (fitting the whole “Book of Prophecy” theme) that give you an ultimate goal, but otherwise just hangs in the background, leaving you to wander around randomly trying to trigger side quests from various characters, including pursuing one of several romantic interests (the game allows for both male and female protagonists). This is accomplished mostly by giving them gifts to gain friendship (their page will tell you their likes and dislikes), but there’s little rhyme or reason as to when a given character will actually offer up a quest. Even once you have fulfilled a character’s aspirations, however, there is often no significant change in their demeanors. It basically seems like all of that work is only paid off in a higher score for the Book.
Once you overcome the ultimate Big Bad, you are offered a glimpse at the world that will be created after the destruction of the current one, as influenced by the contents of the Book (including several questions that ask you “How will it be in your world?”), but you can continue to explore post-adventure areas at your leisure, further refining the future world through your actions. Whether or not you want to bother will probably depend on how much of a completionist you are and how tolerant you are of the game’s shortcomings and unusual style (like the dungeon design). Personally, I was most frustrated with the endless flipping of pages as you try to find appropriate Code pieces to complete recipes; the game (eventually) allows you four bookmarks that you can move around at will in addition to the pre-set bookmarks for the Table of Contents, Player Information, and Save/Load page, but what the Book really needed was a simple search function that could tell me, say, where all of my Silver Codes are currently assigned. I actually wonder how much of the 51 hours I currently have on my save file was spent simply rifling through pages to find specific Codes.
Frustrations and complaints aside, there are several original ideas contained within Avalon Code that I wouldn’t mind seeing again. While the actual execution of the Code-swapping was somewhat lacking, it is an awesome concept that deserves a better chance. Much effort was put into squeezing a lot of quality visuals and sounds out of the DS, which includes voice clips for most of the (in-engine) cut scenes. If we are to get a sequel, hopefully having most of the ground work already done will allow for more focus on the story and Code system. As it stands now, Avalon Code is worth checking out if you want to try something a little different, but not something I recommend going out of your way to pick up.
ESRB: E10 for Fantasy Violence and Mild Language; the romantic sub-plot never progresses much beyond hugging
Plays like: something between a Zelda clone and a regular action-RPG
Pros: Ambitious, unique concept
Cons: Questionable design choices, especially “mini-game dungeons”; plot and development lacking