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Review – Avalon Code

posted on May 6th, 2009 by golden jew

Video games have made me weep for a variety reasons. Terrible voiceovers, crappy graphics, mind numbing gameplay, irritating music – if it is horrible I’ve probably suffered through it. But I’ve never experienced anything like Avalon Code before. Not for any of the above reasons – to the contrary, Avalon Code has superb presentation, surprisingly good voice acting (on a DS game, no less!), and an intriguing plot with an excellent premise. What makes me weep is that Avalon Code is a game that is so close to being one of the greatest action RPGs I’ve ever played, but falls short for the dumbest of reasons that indicate – yet again – a developer did a piss poor job of seeing if their game was actually fun to play.

The game begins with your happy go lucky hero (or heroine, you pick, just remember Jesus hates gender benders) being informed that the world is going to end in a horrific cataclysm in the rather near future. You have been selected by the book of prophecy – a scary book with eyes – to “scan” in as much of the current world as you feel is worth preserving for the new world.

As you run about the world, you can scan any monster, person, certain items, just about anything that tickles your fancy. Further, items you can scan can then be used and customized, be it weapons, armor, bread, cookies, whatever. The result is an OCD gamer’s nirvana as you run about exploring every inch of the world and entering it into your creepy eye-bearing book.

When you scan anything into the book of prophecy, the item in question is acquired in the form of a “memory code” that occupies a 3×3 (and as you progress, larger) tile area. These codes can be filled with various attributes. These attributes come in a wide variety of flavors and sizes, from elements (fire, ice, shadow, etc), to materials (iron, copper, stone, etc), to creatures (dog, cat), to attributes (hope, justice, freedom) – you get the idea. In terms of enemies, if you find one with beneficial characteristics, such as “stone” (which increases hit points), it is in your best interest to remove that code, and if you’re feeling sadistic replace it with “illness” – or if you’re feeling whimsical, replace it with a cat code and make the creature cat loving. It is good to be the chosen one.

On top of this rewriting mechanic, different numbers of codes (up to five) can also be combined for different attributes – for example, two animals yields a “beast” characteristic. Different attributes are used in different ways – for people, giving them “aspirations” yields various in-game benefits. For weapons, armor, items and the like, you find recipes throughout the game which can then be applied to relevant scanned items to create new items. For example, you might make a gladius by combining a side scrolling memory code with a spaceship memory code – ok, that one doesn’t exist. You actually make a gladius by combining iron, fire, and justice onto a sword.

And this is where Avalon code falls down. Each entry into the book of prophecy has its own memory code and attributes. However, you can only store four codes at a time in a “free space” area for moving codes around. As a result, especially at the beginning, you will find yourself tediously stripping useful codes and dumping them on characters to be saved later. This is not a rapid process – paging through the book of prophecy takes forever because EVERY SINGLE FUCKING ITEM, CREATURE, OR CHARACTER IN THE GAME GETS ITS OWN PAGE.

Although you can skip to certain areas (such as “characters” or “boss monsters”), the process is still painfully tedious. Just to really kick you in the balls, moving codes costs mana, so in extended sessions you’ll end up having to go rest or whack monsters to regain your mana.

Because memory codes can come in different shapes and sizes, you can end up spending literally tens of minutes trying to find the right shaped code in order to make a particular recipe. This is not fun. As the game progresses, you get a few tools to make things easier – the memory code areas on entries become bigger, making storage easier, and you get “bookmarks” which allow you to rapidly turn pages, so you can bookmark a recipe entry, bookmark the item you’re trying to modify and not spend as much time paging.

But in all honesty, I would never have gotten that far into the game if I wasn’t reviewing it and to me that is a damning statement about a game’s quality. About two hours into the game I spent literally a half hour trying to make an item as my blood pressure increased to arterial wall shattering levels.

And this is what makes me weep for Avalon Code – because the rest of the game is an absolute blast to play. Your character is a two weapon wielding murder machine, with swords, hammers, bombs, projectiles and shields at your disposal. Gameplay is overhead 3-D view, and the graphics are fantastic. As I referred to earlier, there is quality voice acting, great music, and entertaining cut scenes. When I’m not fantasizing about throwing the game out the window while I try to make a recipe, I’m in awe of what they’ve pulled off on a DS game.

A big focus of the gameplay is crazy OCD-ness. Every room in the game has a base value to the book of prophecy, and you can find the “clickables” in each screen by jamming the examine button pretty much everywhere on a room; some items worth examining are obvious, others are painfully random. But, since finding stuff raises the value of a room’s page in the book of prophecy, get ready to go crazy. An extra incentive is that some screens, when fully examined, yield secret recipes. Start mashing that A-button!

The game is also full of various mini-games, for good or for ill. There is an affection system by which you can woo women (or men, if you play a female character; though I think you want to woo men as a man too because wooing yields recipes – I will gleefully swing both ways for treasure) by giving them stuff they like and talking to them. Eventually they profess their growing love for you. Unfortunately, the love doesn’t really yield much.

I was giddy with glee when I read in the manual that I could make someone my girlfriend. My first choice was the bitchy elf daughter of the mayor, but she wasn’t available for another two chapters (yes, I game FAQ’d it) and 10 hours into the game, I needed some material for videolamer. So I sucked it up and hit on the chick who was bed ridden and dying of some illness, thinking if the wooing process went badly I could just take what she wouldn’t give, if you know what I mean.

Well, about 20 presents later I fixed her incurable disease thanks to my awesome god book (sadly there was no memory code for slut I could put on her), but the stupid bitch still lies around in bed (explicitly not having sex with me) and only gives me what are scratch off tickets for a DIFFERENT mini-game. No blowjobs, no kinky S&M shit – much like my real love life, I was profoundly disappointed.

Beyond the silly relationship system and scratch off games, there are stupid “one square missing” 3×3, 4×4 and 5×5 puzzle games needed to unlock the more complex recipes, and a “judgment link” battle system where you juggle monsters by hurling them into the air and beating them over and over again. Although these minigames are somewhat amusing, I’ve found most of them to be a waste of time after the first or second try. Still, they add to the game’s already impressive depth.

But despite the fact the game might drive an OCD player to either joy or suicide, I find that I can play the game at my own pace and not feel like I’m missing much. Romping through the game’s rooms (many of which are time trial puzzle style games, with your performance directly impacting that room’s value in the book) and minigames is surprisingly fun, if not overly difficult.

The plot is compelling, and running amok scanning stuff doesn’t actually get old. But ultimately, the frustration with the memory code system makes this game a nearly disastrous dud. If they simply gave you a giant blank screen that was something like 6×6 to store your codes in it would be infinitely more enjoyable.

It is very bizarre, because it is clear the developer spent an inordinate amount of time building the memory code system – every character has hopes, dreams, likes, dislikes and a horde of memory codes. But to not be able to easily move the codes makes the game’s greatest asset a its ultimate downfall. Yet again, I wonder if no one complained about this during play testing because with a few simple tweaks this game would easily be one of the best of 2009 on the DS.

Unfortunately, I can’t drag the “frustrating UI” memory code off Avalon Code so unless you have a massive amount of patience for a crappy interface, I cannot recommend you pick this game up. The best we can hope for is a sequel that realizes people don’t like doing tedious shit in a video game.

3 Comments

  1. GJ said on May 6, 2009:

    I would like to note as an addendum, I have been greatly enjoying this game past the first few chapters once the memory codes become more manageable and you have more bookmarks.

    But I stick to what I say in the review–I would have given up on this game if I wasn’t reviewing it (I had to try to make love to the cripple) Sometimes games have tough learning curves, and I accept that, but for Avalon Code, it is poor design, plain and simple.

  2. pat said on May 6, 2009:

    why not make bookmarks something you just have rather than making them something you earn/only get later? does this make sense in context somehow?

    if not, the problem sounds similar to jays complaint (which he may have made to me offline, or could be on the site somewhere) that you have to earn parts of the battle system in ff12. not that ive played either game…

  3. GJ said on May 7, 2009:

    They are part of the story, because they represent spirits that join you, but the bookmarks themselves are purely convenience items (the spirits get their own page where you deal with them). So there is no reason you couldn’t have generic bookmarks that “turned into” spirit themed ones as you advanced the plot. Look ma, I’m a game designer!

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