Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Avalon Code: Limitations of the Code

It certainly has been a while since I last posted an entry here...

In the interim since my last post, I have played through quite a few different videogames. I will try to make at least one post for every game I played in that time. Also, I have been taking a break from Persona 4 for about the same amount of time that I have been taking a break from blogging, so I will probably pick up my commentary about that game when I get back to playing it (which shouldn't be all that long now, though Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor is calling to me...). For today, though, the game I want to write about is a DS action-RPG called Avalon Code, which I completed a few months ago.

Avalon Code is something of an experimental game, basing much of its system on the idea of the "Book of Prophecy" that records the "Codes" of every object, monster, and character in the game world. The game allows you to alter these codes using the DS's touch controls, so that you can change the properties of almost everything you encounter. It is a system that promises an incredible amount of player freedom and seems like a great playground for player creativity, but it does little to fulfill those promises. In fact, the system seems to do little more than add a few unnecessary levels of frustration onto fairly typical RPG mechanics, and does little to live up to the concept's incredible potential.

Honestly, I really want to start this off by listing a few of the things in the Book of Prophecy that are implemented in an interesting way, but I seem to come up with a caveat for each one. The Book of Prophecy is an incredible resource of information, giving you a complete record of everything in the game and everything you have done that is available at any time, but it is so bloated with information that it can be really hard to navigate the Book and find the information you are interested in. Every section of the Book has a detailed index that serves as a shortcut for navigation, but the index is the same size for every section, whether it is a short chapter of just 10 entries or a bloated monster with hundreds, making the indexing either a bit excessive or totally insufficient, with little in-between. The four spirit bookmarks you are given help a lot to quickly find the information you need, but they come and go with the plot far too much and the spirits that accompany them are mostly useless and are annoying enough to somehow manage to overcome my fairly generous tolerances for irritating companion creatures (I mostly used the spirit that can't talk, and she still somehow managed to grate on my nerves). Still, all these complaints are insignificant compared to some of the real flaws in Avalon Code's system.

I may as well just tackle the big problems in order...

First, it is a pain and a half to actually do any serious modification to Codes using the Book of Prophecy. Codes take the form of Tetris-piece like building blocks that have attactched generic properties like "Fire" or "Justice". Each object in the book has sixteen spaces to place Codes in, and individual Codes may occupy from one to four spaces. The problem is that you can only put four Codes into a holding area that can be carried between pages of the book, and every other individual Code piece has to be attached to some character, item, or creature. This means that if you want to complete rebuild the Codes for a character or item (which is necessary quite often, for a reason I will get to later), you need to take apart all of that object's Codes a few pieces at a time, finding spots on random creatures and characters for the unneeded Codes as you do so, and then you need to hunt down all the Codes you need and place them a few Codes at a time on the object you are creating. To make this all the more bothersome, there is no way to have the game find the Codes you need for you, so if you need something specific, like a two-space Fire Code (this kind of need comes up a lot), you might need to manually search through hundreds of character, item, and monster entries looking for the Code you need, and you may do so only discover that the copy you have of the Code you need is attached to some item that you can't do without, forcing you into a hard choice and often making the entire search a big waste of time. A basic search function, or even a list of how many you have of each kind of Code, would have done a lot to make the system a lot more usable. Better yet, the system could have been designed without the "every code needs to have a place" and the "you only have a finite number of any given type of code" assumptions. Because of these choices, the Book of Prophecy system is extremely user-unfriendly.

The next big problem with the book is that you are only allowed to have a single version of any category of item at one time. There are dozens of different kinds of sword, but they all just variations off the same sword archetype that are created with Codes. As such, even if you have the knowledge and Codes required to make both the Kaleila Sword and the Rune Blade, it is simply impossible within to use both at the same time because both are created by modifying the basic Sword with Codes. This is somewhat acceptable, given the nature of the game system, but the problem is that changing between the different weapons requires going through all the hassle I just described in the paragraph above. You can't save a record of how the Codes were arranged previously, or create a second sword, so changing from one sword to another requires completely dismantling the sword you are currently using and creating a new sword. This makes experimenting and trying new strategies rather bothersome. And annoyingly enough, the game asks you to modify your existing weapons for unusual situations or rebuild your weapon into something an NPC wants as a present far too regularly, so you may need to disassemble even your favorite ultimate weapon every so often.

Still, the biggest problems stem from the fact that, for all the headaches you have to endure in modifying items and altering the Codes of monsters and characters, there really isn't any point in doing so. No matter what you do to the Codes of a character, it doesn't change the way that character looks, acts, or talks. No matter how you play with the Codes of an item, the amount of HP it restores and the amount of MP it costs to use still remain the same. The only properties you can change on a weapon are its attack power, its knockback power, and its element. The only properties you can control for a monster are its HP, its defense, its weight, and its element. Other than that, you really can't control anything with Codes. The only point in changing the Codes of a weapon is to maximize attack power, since even controlling a weapon's element is nearly impossible given certain aspects of the Code system, and one of the best weapons in the game, the main character's unarmed attack, doesn't even use the Code system! The only real point in changing the codes of a monster is to make it weaker by removing the Codes that increase its HP. Most of the items that you can create with codes are just variations of keys needed to unlock doors and healing items with different combinations of HP gain and MP cost. All told, it is simply boring.

One of the most tragic flaws with the system, though, is the simple fact that it doesn't reward creativity and experimentation. In order to get any real results from the Code system, you need to find recipes called "Metalizes" and follow them to the letter. If you want a powerful sword, you need to find a Metalize for a powerful sword and follow the recipe. If you want to create a new kind of healing potion, you need to find a potion Metalize and follow the recipe. If you don't have the Metalize, then you can't create the weapon or item you are trying to make, even if you use the right Codes. Nothing you can create without Metalizes compares to the power of items that follow recipes, and trying to improve upon a recipe by adding some Codes to a completed Metalize item tends to cause that item to revert more generic and useless form. Basically, Metalizes just take the place of the treasures you would acquire in a normal RPG, and the only point of the Book of Prophecy is to make you jump through some hoops in order to get less functionality from those items than you would get in said normal RPG.

The final tragedy of this whole system is that the Book of Prophecy doesn't have a vital role in puzzles, dungeons, or boss fights outside of its role in providing you with the keys, items, and equipment you need and the rare case of dismantling an enemy's invincibility. Almost all of the game's puzzles are solved by clever use of the "style" attacks you learn by progressing through the game and using the different weapon categories. So, even the potential for the Book to be used in puzzles and story events is squandered. In many ways, the "Scepter" from the old Playstation game Granstream Saga did all of the interesting things the Book of Prophecy did in a less user-unfriendly manner, so I really am not impressed by the few unique things Avalon Code does with the idea, and the all the complexity just feels meaningless.

Honestly, I can also name any number of other things I don't like about the system, like how the whole game is a slave to the idea of "Book Value", how only the four metal Codes are worth anything, how incredibly annoying it is to be forced to take a break from modifying weapons and go juggling because modifying Codes costs MP, how annoying it is that one guy can only be Code-Scanned in a single scene in the game (and I missed that chance), and countless other not-insignificant problems. I would probably need to double the length of this post to point them all out in detail.

What really bothers me is that I still really love the concept behind the Book of Prophecy. It has a ton of potential, and a game that realized that potential would be incredible. However, in the case of Avalon Code, that potential is completely squandered by a series of flawed design choices. Any game trying to fulfill the potential of the concept would need to re-imagine the implementation at its most basic level.

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