Role playing games are rapidly becoming a staple genre for the Nintendo DS, with more and more quality titles arriving on the handheld. With Final Fantasy games, Dragon Quest releases and even new titles in the form of Nostalgia and Sands of Destruction, there is a lot of competition among a crowded market so Avalon Code needs something special in order to stand out. While it has an original idea and is quite charming, key gameplay faults prevent it from riding amongst the best of the genre.
Starring as either a hero or heroine, you awake in a field where pages from the Book of Prophecy are scattered and fall from the sky. Upon picking up the pages, you end up befriending the fire spirit of the book who informs you that the book is there to make a record of people, objects and places in the current world. The prophecy foretells that the current world is due to be destroyed so the book is required to capture the information of all the things within it so they can be transferred into the new world. Yet something sinister is trying to bring about the end of the world quicker than anticipated and is out to prevent you from saving the contents of the current one from destruction. In order to fulfill the prophecy, you'll need to track down the other spirits while making a comprehensive record of your journey. It's not the most original storyline, particularly from that of an RPG, but it is simple enough and is well portrayed throughout the game's cutscenes which easily rank as being the finest the Nintendo DS has to offer. Cutscenes are the only times where you'll hear voices and these can vary from decent acting to sounding a little too forced for the ocassion.
The premise of the game, the Book of Prophecy, makes up the bulk of the game's mechanics and is highly original. Using the book on items captures it on the page with its essences, which you can then move to a different page on your weapons or elsewhere to your advantage. Fighting bosses relies entirely on this strategy – scanning a boss first will give the vital stats such as HP but also what elements are making up its strength. For example, if steel is present on its page, removing it to another page will dramatically drop its HP, lowering its defences as you have just removed its main strength. With other enemies you can add sickness to their pages so they slow down enough for you to attack, and moving elements around to yourself can alter the abilities of your weapon. It's a great idea and means that most battles require strategy before you even start to attack.
Although exploring towns and talking to characters make up some of the adventure, there are two main gameplay sections in the form of battles and the dungeons. Battles are quick and fluid due to being more action-oriented, and dungeons take on a different structure with progress taking place from room to room. Each room has a set objective, whether it is dispatching a certain number of enemies or hitting all the switches in order to clear it and you are awarded badges (bronze, silver or gold) depending on how quickly you manage it. It's certainly a refreshing take on the old type of dungeon exploring and means that many are as much about puzzle solving as they are about good old-fashioned strength.
However its main gameplay hook with the book also highlights the game's main weakness – it's just ridiculously annoying browsing through to find the data you need. Need fire on your sword? Did you move it from a boss to another page? Remember where it is? No? Then you'll have to go through the entire book just to find it. Found it? But do you have space for it? Your character has a ridiculously small amount of slots to hold required elements so if you don't have room, the ones you do will need to be shifted to a different page before the one you want can be placed. To make matters worse, moving elements around uses MP so if you run out, you'll have to fight a few battles to build it up again or, in the case of a boss fight, lose deliberately, select continue to start the fight again and replenish your MP bar. It's all a bit crazy and could have been implemented in a much better way. Although there is an index for different sections, this doesn't make browsing through the book any easier. The constant switching from the touchscreen book mode to the button-driven aspect of fighting isn't a particularly intuitive experience either: as the book is involved with everything you do (we really do mean everything) it doesn't take long before its limitations begin to become increasingly obvious.
With over twelve chapters, and the first four alone taking up about twelve hours, it's a sizeable quest that will last a fair while for those prepared to persevere. Those who have ever become obsessive over their RPGs in trying to locate every item and sidequest will find that Avalon Code has plenty to offer, with thousands of pages in the book of prophecy to be filled with every item, flower, weapon, blueprint and location hidden away in the game. It's even possible to give presents to other characters in order to raise their opinion of you and there are unlockable mini-games later on in the adventure that enable you to win prizes.
Avalon Code isn't by any means a bad game. It's got some stunning visuals, comprises one of the most inventive battle systems to feature in an RPG and has plenty of depth throughout its lengthy duration. We also found the towns to be charming to visit and although none of the characters are deep, it's nice to encounter them on your journey. Unfortunately the game mechanics revolving around the Book of Prophecy are deeply flawed, making it frustrating to participate in battle when there are reams of pages to scroll through just to reach an important element and let down what could be an essential purchase. Those prepared to persevere with the game's flaws will find there is plenty of potential here but there are better experiences to be found elsewhere.