Code Lyoko is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very review. You can see it when you rummage around your local EB Games store or when you turn on the television during youth prime time hours. You can feel it when you slot the game card into your cherished Nintendo DS, when you turn on the power and wait for it to load, when you finally hear the catchy theme music. It is the licensed game that has been pulled over your eyes and consequently shoved down your throat, to blind and silence you from the truth. Fortunately I am able to tell you what Code Lyoko for the DS is like, so that you can decide if you really want to see it for yourself.
Sound a little familiar?
Code Lyoko is a French animation sensation about a group of students who, instead of studying hard about the things that matter, do battle against an oppressive entity called Xana, in the virtual world known as Lyoko. The resemblance to the Matrix saga is irrefutable: there is a sense of mystery and philosophy that pervades the show, and the geeky grade-schoolers are able to kick all sorts of butt once they have virtualised themselves into the system. Code Lyoko is in essence, The Matrix for kids.
The DS game of the same name follows the exploits of Ulrich, Yumi, Odd, Aelita and a few other non-playable characters as they attempt to thwart Xana’s nefarious schemes, with the plot following key events from seasons one and two of the animated series. In the real world you take control of one of the juvenile protagonists and guide them through the story in a point-and-click adventure of sorts. Think along the lines of Broken Sword, but with all the analytical elements removed. At any one time there is only ever a single person you have to talk to, or object that you have to find in order to move the game along. The ripped pre-rendered backdrops that depict Kadic Junior High School and its neighbouring town are visually gratifying, but with most scenes being vacant with regards to interaction, moving around the place soon becomes tiresome. What is the point of having colourful characters dotted all over when they have absolutely nothing to say!?
Code Lyoko is in essence, The Matrix for kids. The day to day life of these upbeat kids involves some rather menial tasks, like fetching the secretary’s secret admirer so that he can distract her whilst you sneak into the archives room and snoop around for a random item of vital importance. The goals are not clearly defined either and if you accidentally skip past the tail-end of any dialogue with a NPC, they will not repeat what they just said to you, effectively leaving you lost in the thick of things. Luckily a map can be brought forth which marks exactly where you need to go next. The problem here is that even cartographers would have a hard time orientating themselves with the poor layout of these diagrams. For example, your next destination may be the science building basement, but where exactly is the damn science building?!
After locating a couple of meaningless objects and plowing through mostly uninformative conversations (some do happen to be quite tantalising though), it is then time to enter the world of Lyoko where everything is in stark contrast to what I have detailed thus far. The stylistic 2D sprite work is now replaced with bland 3D modelling and suddenly the game transforms from adventure into beat ‘em up mode. Code Lyoko switches between these two genres, keeping tabs with the show’s reality and virtual reality segments. The path through the monochrome valleys is fairly linear, with some brief platforming sections and preset enemy encounters drawing out the expedition.
As one of the four heroes mentioned earlier, you have the chance to show the anomalous set of Xana monsters that you really do know kung fu. Tokens that you pick up en route may be used to purchase new combos, as well as to enhance life energy and Lyoko power. The 3 and 4-hitters are essential in putting down the virtual fiends before they sap your strength, but they are perhaps too effective at destroying everything from the tiny crab-like Kankrelats to the massive swooping Mantas; liberal use of one or two out of the four of five strings available per character will easily carry you through the entire game. If these manoeuvres looked cool it may have been bearable over this 6-8 hour long mission, but the animations are awfully stilted and this is not helped by the jaggy 32-bit era models. Even worse still is the (non-existent) collision detection that will let you get away with nailing airborne creatures with awry sword slashes that visibly do not connect. ”Stop trying to hit me and hit me!” – how untrue in this case. At least it makes battling a breeze for button-mashers though.
Each of the foursome also has unique abilities to help them overcome inanimate impediments. Ulrich can run at light-speed to make it across bridges before they do a spin and throw a slow-poke into the abyss; Yumi is able to levitate boulders to clear away such obstructions; Odd can climb up specially marked walls; and Aelita can float across chasms like a bird, like a plane, like a Superman game (you should know what that means). However, the Lyoko powers are vastly underutilised here. Because their use is restricted to specified hotspots, there is no freedom of exploration to be had. If I can fly, I want to fly whenever and wherever I please dammit!
As one of the four heroes… you have the chance to show the anomalous set of Xana monsters that you really do know kung fu.Rounding off the virtual tour is a small selection of vehicular levels that put you in control of a hovering bike, scooter or skateboard. It is a nice change of pace from walking about plain landscapes to er… speeding past them. Controls are limited to left, right and centre, making these bits play out a lot like those retro, top-down car racing games where your focus is on swerving around and about incoming traffic without crashing and burning. Some more like this would have been great, but before you know it, you will be back to burning the kilojoules on foot.
Any journey would be boring with no-one to talk to. Lyoko doesn’t make any exception here, but at least the BGM is groovy. The DS’ified music tracks are lifted straight out of the show giving as authentic an experience as possible. Sure enough the happenings in the real world, where more relatively interesting events take place, are home to the best of the bunch – light, moody, jaunty and expressive. The music combined with the impression I got from the slightly rushed, and hence fragmented turn of events, was enough to make me take a gander at what the cartoon had to offer. I will leave my opinions on that for another day, but even if you are not a follower of the show, you may still find something you like here, especially if you are into the Matrix overtones.
Once you have reached the end of it all, a hacking minigame is unlocked for your perusal. No it is not like Enter the Matrix’s hacking mode. In Code Lyoko you hack by fitting Tetris-shaped blocks to completely fill up a given frame. It is the same minigame that is strewn throughout the main adventure, but completion of the 50 here will earn you passcodes that give access to bonus online content, namely pictures and videos. It is not very exciting, and fans are sure to be disappointed by the absence of any additional in-game content.
If you are a keen Lyoko devotee, this being the only Lyoko game available right now will probably read as a ‘must-have’. But don’t kid yourself into taking the metaphorical red pill (that is the ‘wonderland’ one, kind of like midazolam…); Code Lyoko is a mediocre game based on an interesting animated venture. It has enough story going on to spark interest in non-watchers, but on its own there are too many blanks to make complete sense of it all. The dual genre concept is not developed enough both ways; it steals some inspired gameplay styles, but fails to meet the standards that have been set by the more specialised games. It is all too easy to put forth a bunch of good ideas on paper, but programming it all to work cohesively is much more difficult and this is the fruit of such laboured efforts.
So what did it need besides a miracle? Depth. Lots of depth.