Avalon Code
Reviewed by Brandy Shaul
Review Date Platform Genre Rating Production
2009-05-24 Nintendo DS Action/RPG E10 (Everyone 10+) Marvelous Entertainment / XSeed

For fans of the Rune Factory series, just looking at the box art of Avalon Code should immediately strike a chord. The characters look virtually identical to those from the Rune Factory series (specifically Rune Factory: Frontier, the most recent release in the series), but the comparisons between the two games seem to end there.

Instead of relying on incredible realism like is so expected from the Harvest Moon or Rune Factory systems, this time around Marvelous Interactive gives us a true action RPG, which, while lacking in "down home" activities like farming or forging, is brought to life with a unique and original gameplay mechanic via the Book of Prophecy.

That unique factor aside, the story strays little from expected RPG faire. The world is coming to an end, and it is up to your character (choose boy or girl) to record data on most every person, place, or thing available in the game, so that they may be recreated when the world starts over anew.

Other than that, the story is pretty bland, and isn't even fleshed out to something noteworthy until you've already played a large chunk of the game. What the story is made of however is all very linear, forcing you to travel from village to village via underground tunnels / dungeons, or grassy plains, through forests and across rivers battling enemies along the way.

At the same time, however, there is a large element of freedom in the title that allows you to take a break from the story and explore villages or natural areas at your own pace, which is a necessary action, if you wish to experience everything that the Book of Prophecy has to offer.

The Book of Prophecy can be thought of as a very large deck of trading cards, with each object, person, environment, monster or boss, flower, etc. having its own page or "card." Environmental pages are created each time you step into a new area, while other entries must be created manually by "Code Scanning" them into the book via the simple press of a button.

Continuing with the trading card reference, each entry, whether it be a person, a plant, a hat, a friendly cat, and so on comes with its own stats and codes, much like a trading card would. These codes are interactive, allowing you to change any person or thing in the way you see fit by either removing or adding codes (think attributes, statuses or abilities) from/to them.

For example, one of the first monsters you'll face in the game has a Stone code on his page. This creates a large challenge for you when fighting them as is. However, simply remove this Stone code from its entry (you can hold up to four codes sans pages) and you'll decrease the monster's overall power to a point where they can be defeated in just a few hits.

Your own weapons, accessories, and armor can be altered in a similar fashion. Add a lightning code or a fire code to a sword and it gains the power to either light torches (a necessary ability in dungeons) or adds an element of electrocution to your attacks. Furthermore, by combining certain codes, such as Hope and Light, you can cure illnesses in NPCs, or can otherwise alter an entity's state to help you (like adding a Forest code to a loaf of bread so that it restores more HP than without said code).

Since there are literally innumerable combinations of codes within the game, it is unfortunate that the Book of Prophecy, along with most everything else in the game, is so greatly left to you to figure out. You will be joined on your way by four elemental spirits, who can help you in battle or otherwise offer tips and hints as to how to complete the game, but regardless of their random appearances throughout your journey, the game's learning curve is still incredibly high, so high in fact that many players may put the game down altogether without giving the very complex gameplay a chance to click in their heads.

Not only does the Book of Prophecy lack in the user-friendliness department, but the controls are no better, forcing you to use most every face button and the stylus in unison in order to get anything done. While battling in real-time in fields or forests is achieved via simply moving your character with the directional pad and tapping either X or Y to attack (each button controls one of your hands, so that you can duel wield weapons), when you are first introduced to a new object or monster, you'll have to stop battling long enough to alter their codes to a state where you can actually defeat them.

Luckily, while you can alter codes and otherwise peruse the book while the world continues around you, you can also pause the game, allowing for a slowed pace, perfect for those who are a bit less experienced with the high degree of multitasking that the game demands. Or just for those who wish to not be slaughtered while they are trying to figure out how to create an illness or elemental weakness in an enemy.

Another nice touch within the book is the fact that once you Code Scan an object, it will stay in the book for the rest of the game, meaning that once you make an entry for a sword or piece of armor in the book, you can always go back and equip it, without having to collect it again. Likewise, the loaf of bread you earn very early on in the game serves as a permanent HP healer, as you never have to worry about finding an item shop or treasure chest containing healing potions again.

While this is all very convenient there is one catch, that being your character's very small allotment of magic points, which must be used each time you alter an entry in the book, equip or unequip an item, or use said loaf of bread or other object to heal.

Magic points can be renewed by napping in beds or by breaking certain objects in the field which replenish the gauge, but these objects are few and far between, adding a large dose of strategy (and more than a pinch of frustration) when you find yourself in a dungeon that requires you to light a torch to move on, yet you have no MP left to add a fire code to your sword. All of the above then causes you to backtrack to where you last refilled your gauge, or even worse to a bed, before you can travel all the way back to said torches and carry on.

The game's few flaws and lack of overall polish aside, there is something remarkably satisfying about having such a large amount of control over how the game plays out. Linear storyline or not, you can bend most objects to your will, thereby changing encounters by adding or removing difficulty, and even determining the outcome of various scenarios based on your actions.

All of this combines with the back-of-your-mind knowledge that whatever you do in the game will affect the way the next world is created to form a bit of a God complex. That is, if you hate a particular monster and decide to never Code Scan them, you can, in theory, remove the species from existence when all is said and done.

While the gameplay of Avalon Code is ultimately quite different from that of Rune Factory, technically speaking the games are incredibly similar, with the same anime styled characters complete with big eyes, bright, wild hairstyles and clothing that defies the law of gravity. Likewise, the soundtrack throughout the game is just as well developed as that of previous Marvelous titles, with a nice mix of both upbeat and mellow tracks befitting the overall theme and situation you may find yourself in at any one point in time.

Ultimately, Avalon Code is an ambitious project that offers a unique twist on the generic action-RPG formula, but is unfortunately far from perfect. The Book of Prophecy is an interesting addition to the game, but lacks the streamlined quality required to lessen the frustration one might face as they interact with it. However, at a time when I find myself yearning for something new to play amongst the same copy-and-paste formulas of old, Avalon Code earns my respect for taking a chance.

Special thanks to Sarah Irvin and XSeed for providing a copy of this title.