Matrix Software, best known in the west for their PS One sleeper hit Alundra, have created an interesting title with Avalon Code, the story of a young protagonist, who is charged with filling an enchanted book with genetic and factual information, as a blue print for a new world in the face of an oncoming apocalypse, all of which is told through an action RPG for the Nintendo DS. This literary noah’s ark forms the unique central mechanic of a title that is equal parts a strong social message, a charming beauty to behold, and a frustratingly assumptive game that demands too much from its player.
Published by Rising Star Games Avalon Code is anything but average, the title is quite experimental in its narrative and dialogue, with lead character Yunil (or Tia if you decide to play as a girl) making some very interesting remarks throughout the course of the adventure. On their surface these statements, that include a question as to the real worth of a sword made from gold, are fairly innocent, but deeper readings within the context of the title reveal a principals-of-Buddhism-tinged philosophical dilemma. After all, what is anything worth when it’s destined to be destroyed? The title is very ‘Zen’ in this way, there’s a strong emphasis on impermanence, repetition and leading a good life within the world. But fear not, this isn’t Hideo Kojima level serious debate, and for every moment that makes you think, there’s a moment with an afro-adorned subterranean king, creepy looking love maniac and wise-cracking fire spirit. The games’ humour is quirky to the point of chuckle-some, but nothing to particularly write home about.
Zelda-esque melodies and upbeat tempo tunes permeate the entirety of the piece, instilling at times the sense of adventure Miyamoto’s franchise manages to capture so perfectly. The game is just as jaunty in its visuals as it is its music, a water colour world of high fantasy and adorable characters, a pastel hued fairy tale world that you’ll want to explore, just for the sights. The art is, at times, superb with great character design throughout, though the in-game animation is sporadic in its quality, ranging from fine to very poor indeed.
Combat is basic, but fun enough, with separate buttons for left handed and right handed weapons. There’s a dodge roll too, plus special moves and a particularly satisfying mechanic called ‘Judgement Link’, a kind of bad-guy-keepie-uppie that can add a little variety to the otherwise button mashing proceedings. Within a battle you’ll also be called upon to utilise the Book of Prophecy to capture information on enemies which, as it turns out, is a pretty novel way of integrating puzzles and combat. This book, you see, contains elemental puzzle pieces and other information to help you in your adventure. Once you ‘scan’ (by which I mean: hit upside the head) one of the world’s enemies, plants, stone tablets or innocent passers by, this data is stored and their genetic make up, if you will, is used to solve the game’s many problems. Unfortunately the book is cumbersome to navigate, so accessing exactly what you want from it, via the touch screen, is often a very slow experience.
Where the game falls down the most though is how it delivers vital information to the player, as Avalon Code throws new situations and puzzles at the participant without effectively describing how to approach them, let alone solve them. Take for example this classic situation: you enter a room with a shining green crystal and a closed door. You know you have to do something with the crystal to open the door so you press the action button on it. Nothing. You strike it with your currently equipped sword. Nothing. You try ‘scanning’ the crystal. You can’t. You start flicking through your inventory to see if you have anything obvious that might work. Nope. Only after all this do you happen to spot that an elemental property you picked up half an hour earlier, to no fanfare whatsoever, is roughly the same shade of green as the crystal and, after a lot more experimentation, you equip this to a sword and proceed to strike the crystal with it, opening the door. At no point has this been explained, at no point does your helpful sidekick suggest to do this, the game simply assumes that you’ll know. This wouldn’t be a huge problem if the title was completely linear, but sometimes you’ll end up searching every area you can access in search of a non-existent puzzle piece when you already have the tools to progress. There’s a hint button which tries to alleviate some of the frustration, but it isn’t flexible enough to cover each situation and at times exasperates the problem. Saying all this, the punishment for death is practically nil, so if you do happen to be taken out by a wandering beastie whilst hopelessly lost, it isn’t too big a deal.
The whole title feels very Legend Of Zelda-ish, from the way it plays, to its game structure, to the logic needed to progress, but if it was a Zelda game it would have been put together by Nintendo’s B-team. It’s not an awful title by any means and moments of it are truly quite exceptional. Yet there are some rudimentary design flaws here that really needed to be addressed before shipping. Matrix Software clearly have the capacity to create a stunning title, Avalon Code just isn’t it.
MLG Rating: 6/10
Platform: Nintendo DS Release Date: 12/03/2010
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a copy of Avalon Code for review purposes by the promoter. The title was reviewed over the course of one week on a Nintendo DS. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.