Review: Avalon Code (Nintendo DS)

Avalon Code (NDS)
Publisher: XSEED/Marvelous Entertainment USA
Developer: Matrix Software
Genre: Action RPG
Release Date: 03/11/2009


You can always count on XSEED to bring over some interesting and under-the-radar games. Korg DS-10, Populous DS, and Dungeon Maker 2 are all games we’re had the opportunity to experience thanks to XSEED. Now they’ve brought over Matrix Software’s Avalon Code, which is basically a mix of Phantom Brave and Legend of Mana, two RPG’s I really enjoy.

However, Matrix Software is really only known for doing remakes. Dragon Quest V for the PS2 or Final Fantasy III and IV for the Nintendo DS. They only games they’ve ever really done from scratch are titles like Torenko: The Last Hope and Alundra. Although I hated the former, I really liked the latter, so I decided to give this game a try,

So how was Avalon Code? Is it going to be a sleeper hit, or will it remain an obscure title due to quality more than the size of the publisher? Let’s find out.

Let’s Review

1. Story

Hey Kids! It’s time for the apocalypse! The world is about to end and be replaced by a new one. You play as the stereotypical 16 bit era SILENT PROTAGONIST (although you can choose your gender). As the one chosen to wield the Book of Prophecy, it shall become your job to decide what makes it into the next world and what doesn’t. With the help of Rempo, the spirit of fire, you will run around the country changing reality with the book as you prepare for the coming Ghenna. Be careful as there are other people after the book who hope to shape the world in their own nefarious image.

Oddly enough though, the game rewards you for copying everything and anything you can into the book, which makes the whole point of the game redundant. After all, if you are copying the entire world, then you’re just remaking the exact same thing, perpetuating the cycle endlessly.

There really isn’t a lot of story to Avalon Code. it’s a pretty generic game in terms of characterization and plot. No one ever really gets developed, especially your character, although you can have some very two-dimensional relationships with members of the opposite sex.

The vast majority of the game is running around killing and copying things. Occasionally you’ll get a plot development such as getting a new spirit or saving a major NPC or figuring out block combinations to create a new power. You can also get story bits by earning enough book XP to level up the book (which is distinct from yourself).

Really though, the game’s story is quite dull and forgettable. With shallow characters and most of the focus on the hack and slash gameplay over the plot, it’s hard to really care about the characters in the game or the interminably long dungeons. I had a fun with this game, but at best the story was boring and blasé. It’ll do in a pinch, but RPG’s live and die by their story and this one certainly needs life support.

Story Rating: Below Average

2. Graphics

Graphics are fairly generic as well. The characters definitely have a Square-Enix feel as they are a cross between characters from the Mana series and the Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles games. You’ll have a slight feeling of Deja Vu with the visuals as you’ve seen these character designs and models dozens of times before in far better games. Even worse the cut scenes are very jaggy, even for a DS game and at times you feel like you’re back to the PSX era of graphics.

Monster designs are quite poor. Their on screen models are drab and ill-defined. The colour schemes, although they can change based on their “coding,” is always quite drab. In fact, every aspect of this game could have been improved by a brighter or shinier colour scheme. I could make the age old Gears of War joke regarding colour and insert Avalon Code as the named game and it would still work.

Backgrounds are mediocre. A great example is when you are in a cave, you often need to use the map to see the next exit rather than the actual in-game screen because it’s simply too hard to make out the proper exits.

Visually, the game is just an appealing. The colour schemes are al off, character designs are very similar to previous games by Matrix, but with more jaggies, and the monsters are just plain boring. There’s just not a lot to Avalon Code that will impress the graphic oriented gamer.

Graphics Rating: Below Average

3. Sound

The aural aspects of Avalon Code is one of its better areas. The musical score is enjoyable and fits with the high fantasy feel. There are times when I wished there was a more frantic pace to some of the songs, especially during boss fights, but this is a small quibble. What can I say? I like my big battle with more BPMs.

There is some occasional voice acting within the cart, but not a lot. The lines also tend to be the same few spoken over and over again – especially with your flame spirit pal. If you are easily annoyed by repetition, this aspect of the game will get under your skin. Still, what’s here is cute, if not especially good.

Sound effects are nicely done. As there are several different weapon classes in the game, it was nice to hear each one using a different sound effect. I also liked how added an elemental class to a weapon changed the noise of the slack or bludgeoning slightly. Like the voice acting, there’s not a wide range here, but what IS here is well done and helps to restore the suspension of disbelief when the story starts to drag or the graphics make the eyes glaze over.

Sound Rating: Above Average

4. Control and Gameplay

This is of course, the meat of the game and why I wanted to experience Avalon Code. I loved the that the game was supposed to be the world building aspect of Legend of Mana along with the title system from Phantom Brave (Classy Weed!). However, Avalon Code proved to be a bit of a mess with gameplay that defied common sense and it failed to live up to the promise of its creation system. In short, the entire “Code System” was a convoluted time consuming mess that could have easily been implemented in a better fashion.

In a nutshell, you have to go around and scan everything possible into your book by hitting the B button. Once you do that, the item, monster, flower, or person will show up in the book with a little bit of information about it and a “Mental Map.” The mental map is a four by four grid that contains little Tetris blocks corresponding to various traits such as fire, ill, stone, copper, freedom, faith and judgment. There are a lot of traits and when you put different traits together on a map, things can change and item titles or makeups can be rewritten. For example, let’s say you have a copper sword. This sword contains a single four square vertical block. Adding a second of these blocks will give you an Orichalcum Sword which is about four times more powerful. Then adding a single fire block make it a flaming orichalcum sword and do fire damage in addition to raising the attack value even more. Pretty cut and dry, right?

Well the problem comes in when you have to move blocks around from one item to another. You can only have four blocks total in your stock list. All the other pieces have to be stored within a page of the book. This means moving things around to make your enemies weaker or to create new items moves at a snail’s pace. Even at the beginning of the game, this is an incredibly time consuming process and you will spend more than half of your time with the game just moving blocks around. This really sucks all the enjoyment out of the game. An action RPG needs to be more hack and slash and far less anal retentive item management.

Navigating the world is pretty dull too. Besides scanning, you can mix and match different weapons and the X and Y buttons correspond to your left and right hand respectively. However, somehow Avalon Code has made hack and slash gameplay dull thanks to the fact that nearly every battle is more of a puzzle involving hitting switched, break boxes or just the generic “defeat all the enemies.” Because so much of the game involving hitting switched in the middle of nowhere, you again lose that all important suspension of disbelief and every battle starts to feel the same with the game just dragging around chapter four and getting worse past that.

You can learn special moves for each weapon, but in the end, they take too long to charge and in the case of the hammer move, which you must use to navigate through certain parts of the game, this move will also kill you as you can’t control the flying ability and you’ll often overshoot (or undershoot) the small piece of land you are trying to aim for, thus dying as if this was a platformer. Grrr.

Your main super move is basically the judgment link. You use the A button for this and it begins a juggling combo where you keep throwing the enemy into the air until it dies or you mess up on the timing. It’s like a bad version of the Judgment Ring form the awesome Shadow Hearts series. It’s another time consuming move that causes everything to freeze save for you doing this one weird attack.

There are some pretty big issues I have with the top screen management. First of all, your HP/MP bar likes to turn itself off intermittently and on its own accord, meaning you have to toggle it back on with the Select button. Second, if you scan something, the game automatically goes to the scan instead of staying on the map. This is acceptable if this is the first time you’ve scanned an item, but when it’s the sixth or seventh, this needing to pause the game and change things back to the map gets old quite quickly. Finally, refilling your HP and MP bars is exceedingly hard due to a lack of refill items in the game and there are several times where you’ll basically be stuck because you have to have a certain amount of magic points stored up in your meter, but you don’t have enough to proceed. This means you’ll have to walk all the way back to a dungeon and break some vases or boxes in a vain hope that maybe THIS TIME, a magic replenishment item will show up.

To be honest, the game just isn’t very well laid out and navigating through the book is more of a chore than bearing any semblance of fun. I really loved the idea of the game and in those first few hours, I was pretty hooked, but eventually the realization of how poorly implemented the code system is compared to Phantom Brave and how little to no “world-building” actually occurs in Avalon Code made this a pretty big letdown. There’re too many issues that this game suffers from in this area for me to have really enjoyed any of it. If anything, it’s made me look forward to the Wii based re-release of Phantom Brave.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Bad

5. Replayability

There are some slight story differences based on what gender you make your character. The boy can have romantic entanglements with female characters and if you choose to make a female protagonist, you can end up with one of several men. I fail to see the point in adding a dating sim aspect to a game when you are, in effect, the harbinger of the world’s destruction. “Hey baby. I’m deciding who lives and who dies. Wanna get a Jamba Juice?”

There’s also a few mini games such as a volleyball-esque Judgment link game or a quiz game. There is also something called “Zeno-9” that acts like a weird lottery ticket scratch off game.

At the end of the day, there’s not a lot to Avalon Code to make it compelling enough to play through more than once. Proceeding through the game is arduous and time consuming and you’ll find yourself bored before you’re even at the halfway point due to the repetitive nature of the gameplay and the poorly laid-out Book or Prophecy, There are things built into the game to try and keep it in your overall library, but everyone of them falls short of truly being entertaining.

Replayability Rating: Mediocre

6. Balance

Balance is hard to judge because the hit point bar is really just an orange bar with what are supposed to be leaves on it. In this respect the game is more like Legend of Zelda than a normal action RPG. However, your MP (aka Spirit Points) gauge is more akin to a traditional system of measuring. You can even go into your character sheet and see the exact number you have, something you can’t do with your else. This is an odd decision that becomes frustrating due to the fact your gauges turn themselves on and off with frivolity and you constantly have to toggle them back on. This of course means that there are many times when you have no idea how much health you have left and this can often get you killed. The same with the fact you have a move to get over gaps yet you can’t control when you stop.

There is no enemy A.I. the second you knock a boss down, just stay on them with hits and every time, you will kill them. They won’t have the chance to get another move off. It’s just hit hit hit dead. It’s so odd that randomly cannon fodder monsters offer you more of a challenge than any of the bosses.

Speaking of those cannon fodder monsters, it is very hard to hit a rushing small enemy. Part of this is due to the poor hit detection in the game, while the other side of the coin is that there’s no real way to tell when they are going to rush you until it’s too late. Even a book scan or judgment link won’t help you repel a rushing enemy.

The real place where balance is thrown out of whack is with the management of the book. As mentioned earlier the system for storing and moving around blocks in the mind map is a nightmare due to the fact you can only put four in the stock sidebar at a time. The system really should have allowed for at least twice that as the further you get in the game, the more you’ll be spending large chunks of time moving pieces around just to get pieces where you want them to be. This process could have and should have been streamlined by allowing more pieces to store in that stock sidebar.

Avalon Code feels like a rushed sloppy generic action RPG title where the key gimmick for the game was poorly implemented, weighing down the entire cart like a bag of cement. Pity.

Balance Rating: Poor

7. Originality

As you have probably noticed, I keep comparing this game to both a Nippon Ichi and a Square-Enix title, both of which I think are vastly superior to this DS title. The world building aspects, which are supposed to be the crux of the game, are nearly nonexistent. The switching around of code pieces is cumbersome and ironically brings down what would otherwise be a decent, albeit generic, action RPG.

To be honest, aside from the Book of Prophecy, there’s nothing truly new brought to the table and that’s definitely in need of a complete overhaul.

Originality Rating: Poor

8. Addictiveness

Like most hack and slash RPG’s, it’s pretty easy to get into the combat aspects of Avalon Code. I had wished for something a bit harder and with better A.I., but when in doubt, a button masher has its charms. Sure you’ll rarely if ever need to use the magic and all the battles will begin to blur together due to how generic the fights are and the nonstop hitting of switches or doing platformer bits, but when the game is focused on these areas, you’ll find yourself constantly progressing to the boss and then getting a tiny bit of poorly done story cut scene as your reward.

We already know my views of the book and the mental map problems and how that eventually kills the enjoyment of the game, so we’ll move on.

Basically, Avalon Code is fun in short durations or if you only play the first three chapters or so. By the time you hit chapter four, the lack of any depth or design makes you long to play something else. Nice ideas, but horrible follow through. Still, once you get into the groove, it is hard to put down.

Addictiveness Rating: Above Average

9. Appeal Factor

I’m not really sure who would like this title. It’s a decent enough little game. It’s just that its many flaws keep it from being a top tier RPG and mires it down in mediocrity.

If you’re looking for a paint by numbers RPG with a little twist to separate it from the pack, you’ll probably have fun with Avalon Code. The date sim aspects will probably draw in other gamers and people who generally like the strange and unusual will want to check this out, even with its flaws. There’s actually a lot of complexity to Avalon Code and for those with the patience to deal with it all, you might just find a game worth playing here.

Appeal Factor Rating: Mediocre

10. Miscellaneous

Avalon Code was a game that just didn’t resonate with me. It felt about ten years too late. Everything in this game has been done before and been done in a superior manner. If this was a PSX game from the late 1990’s, this would have been a really well received title. In 2009 however, there’s nothing that really stands out in this game. It’s the epitome of mediocrity. If you need a new action RPG with some slight dating sim elements or an interesting but poorly implemented stats system, this might be a the game for you. Everyone else though? You can find better ways to spend your thirty-five dollars.

Miscellaneous Rating: Mediocre

The Scores
Story/Modes: Below Average
Graphics: Below Average
Sound: Above Average
Control and Gameplay: Bad
Replayability: Mediocre
Balance: Poor
Originality: Poor
Addictiveness: Above Average
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
Miscellaneous: Mediocre
FINAL SCORE: BELOW AVERAGE GAME

Short Attention Span Summary
Avalon Code is one of those games that sounds great on paper, but is unable to live up to the potential inherent in the basic idea of the game. There’s nothing truly bad or wrong about the game; it’s just that everything Avalon Code has to offer has been done in numerous other games, including other games made by Matrix themselves. The crux of the game’s problems lies in the very poorly implemented Mental Map system and how awkward this system gets once you get to chapter three and beyond. At the end of the day, Avalon Code has too many flaws that prevent this from being a quality gaming experience and as such, prevents me from recommending it save to the curious or action rpg junkies.

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