The world is doomed. That’s it. Done. Show’s over, folks. Nothing more to see, move along. Biblical stories predict how everything will be scoured by fire, and how it will be cleansed and purged in holy flames. They reveal how mankind will be judged, and what will be left behind in the wake of that burning, final cataclysm. Not exactly the most peaceful way to end things, but hey, it’s not up to us. Now that whatever god in charge has made its decision – and it’s pretty clear there won’t be any last-minute second thoughts – all we can do is just sit back and wait. It’s a pathetic way to go, isn’t it? Languishing through each day, dealing with the grim realization of your imminent mortality, fearing that the next second will mark the end of life as we know it…
Think that’s bad? Just imagine being the harbinger for it.
Avalon Code takes one of the most cliched plots in the RPG genre – the stoic, silent teenage protagonist destined to save the world – and makes a clever twist of it. This time, it‘s all beyond the point of salvation; the gods have already decided to wipe everything out, and it’s only a matter of time before things get biblical. Instead, it’s your job to decide what gets to survive and be transferred into the new world that’ll be created. Can you imagine the kind of pressure, that crushing burden you’d have to endure? That if you miss something – anything – it will cease to exist. Your family, friends, everything. What would you save? Would you even feel morally obligated to choose what stays and what goes? The gods might have given you the right to make the choices, but no mere mortal should ever have to make them.
But since you’re playing as a mute adolescent, the tension, emotional suffering, and all those other character developmental themes fall short of their potential. Rather than being a grim crusade to save as much as possible before the impending apocalypse, the game is more about going into a given town or dungeon and trying to find every last nook and cranny. Completionists will find themselves tapping the buttons next to anything that looks even remotely important, praying that it’ll up the in-game collection rating. Nearly everything with which you come into contact can be saved. All those generic NPCs you normally take for granted, the vase of flowers standing on the table, and the monsters you’ll slay during your dungeon romps can all have a place in the new world. That’s one of Avalon Code’s greatest strengths; while its world might seem fairly generic and linear, there’s a ton of stuff with which to interact and explore.
All of the stuff you find along the journey will be recorded in the Book of Prophecy, which operates like a glorified handheld Wikipedia. Aside from displaying maps, menus, and other game basics, it’s the central focus of the gameplay. Once you’ve found something worth saving, you can whip out the book, smash it over your target’s head, and nab another entry. While an object’s information can be important, its codes are what really matter. Everything you record comes with a set of codes that make up its existence; that little girl you found tottering at the village square might be gifted with a code for high intelligence, and that candle you grabbed might offer the fire elements you need. But it’s how these things are used that makes the gameplay so interesting. You have a rusted blade? Switch its rust code with one for fire and voila, you’ve got a flaming sword of death! See that Rock Golem with impenetrable armor? Steal away its rock code and shred it with only a few slices. Mixing and matching codes are what make this more than just a collect-a-thon.
It’s not perfect, though. It’s a brilliant idea – no other DS RPG has something this original – but its execution is ridiculously flawed. You know all those codes you‘ve been racking up? You can only carry four of them freely at once. The rest have to be stuck in the various entries in the book. That means you’ll be forced to place unneeded codes on the pages and come back when you need them. While that doesn’t sound so bad, there’s no search feature. Just an index to help narrow down the type of entry. If you’re looking for something important, you’re going to have to look through the book pages manually. That can be really, really tedious when you’ve collected dozens of pages worth of entries and you’re trying to find some code you got four or five hours ago on some throwaway NPC. Or if you look through the entire book only to find that you don’t have the right code, meaning that you somehow missed it and screwed yourself over. Thus you’ll end up spending more time stylus-tapping through pages – the tiny buttons and cluttered screen make for an unfriendly interface, by the way – than you will be doing any actual adventuring. It’s a needless chore that not only ruins a great concept, but could have been rectified with a few simple changes.
When you’re not hopelessly flipping through pages and nursing your cramped hands, you’ll be adventuring around the world. Aside from a nifty mini-game that lets you launch your enemies into the next galaxy, everything is standard action RPG fare; you hack and slash your way through roving bands of generic baddies, level up, and take down the occasional boss. The combat mechanics involve little more than pressing the attack buttons to pull off different combos or summoning a monster/ partner/ annoying mascot from the book. Since you can save anywhere and won’t get too badly punished for dying, you shouldn’t have much trouble getting through most areas. Rather than forcing you to go through a bunch of uninspired dungeons, the game challenges you to complete certain tasks to progress into the next room. While this breaks up the potential monotony, the tasks are bland and insultingly unoriginal. Even if you are responsible for choosing what gets to survive, you still have to light up torches, smash boxes, activate switches, and kill an assortment of foes before you can get where you need to go. Such missions are unimpressive and reek of wasted potential. Well, at least it offers a diversion from mindless combat and tedious menu browsing.
But what Avalon Code lacks in substance, it almost makes up in style. For a DS game, this is gorgeous. Considering how much of this game is focused on exploring and interacting with the in-game surroundings, it’s not surprising how much effort went into crafting all of the little details. It’s rendered completely in 3D, from the rows of wooden houses and shops circling the cobblestone streets to the local king’s ornate robes and graying beard. You can see how the water flows out of the fountains in the town squares, and how the breeze makes the clothes ripple and flap. But while the character models are incredibly intricate, they don’t look so good close-up; pixelated surfaces and jagged angles are mixed into all the other eye candy. The well-crafted cutscenes make up for it, though. The voice acting is surprisingly good, even if your character is practically silent. If all else fails, the stellar soundtrack (that title theme totally makes the intro) will make you wonder why more DS RPGs don’t have the same kind of quality. While the game is technically underwhelming, its presentation is among the best on the system.
If there’s one thing admirable about Avalon Code, it’s that it has ambition. It tries a lot of new things and strives hard to offer something original and engaging. And it’s successful in some areas; the story is a clever twist on an old plot. You’re not saving the world, but choosing what gets to live on. Rather than forcing you to endure some plain hack and slash adventure, the game lets you explore and catalogue all of the stuff you might take for granted. The code system is a great concept; being able to customize everything you find makes the journey so much more than a collect-a-thon. The stunning presentation shows what the DS can really do. But while Avalon Code has some great ideas, the execution is horribly, horribly flawed. The Book of Prophecy is poorly designed; it turns an innovative concept into an annoying, tedious, headache-inducing chore. The bland challenges and cluttered menus don’t help much, either. It’s a shame to see a game with so much potential screw itself over. Here’s hoping the new world offers something better.