Avalon is a beautifully illustrated casual simulation game that focuses on gathering resources and exploring a magical forest. It ditches the traditional top-down point of view in favor of a sidescrolling 2D perspective which, surprisingly, diminishes that cerebral simulation feeling. As with any casual sim, it's easy to see the influence Virtual Villagers has had, but Avalon strays well off the rails with its setting, graphical style, and the ability to inspire you to explore the world around you.
In Avalon you assume the role of a Fairy Queen on a mission: go to the world of Avalon, occupy the island, and find the four elements that will restore magic to the Fairy Kingdom. This translates into you, the player, managing an ever-growing community of fairies who need to gather resources and explore every niche of their setting in order to find each element. You don't have to worry about caring for each worker beyond keeping a stockpile of food, freeing you up to explore the landscape and mine it for secrets.
There are three resources to manage in Avalon, each one gathered from landmarks scattered around the screen. Food feeds the fairies and comes from berry bushes, while pollen is used to spawn new fairies and comes from flowers. The magic resource comes from glowing white flowers. You'll also encounter random (and not-so-random) objects and events that may provide additional resources. They could also harbor danger, however, so it's your choice what you want to make of them.
While food and pollen are both important in their own right, magic is one resource you'll want to keep well-stocked. There are a dozen or so special objects in each area that can be investigated and nurtured further. These small irregularities (a beetle squirming on a branch, a mysterious moving bush, a piece of rotten fruit, etc.) are mysteries waiting to be uncovered by the fairies' magical powers of chanting, an ability that consumes magic. These secrets often open up new areas, new abilities, resource bonuses or more mysteries that need to be solved. Assign a worker or two to sing to these objects and see what happens.
One of the more interesting aspects of Avalon is its choice use of mini-games. Harvesting resources can be a slow process that requires very little intervention on your part. What better way to pass the time (and give your harvesting a boost) than to play a game or two? Click on the buildings to start a mini-game (assuming you've unlocked it). Each one lasts only a minute or so and, surprisingly, they're much more than a simple clone of a game you've played a thousand times over. I especially enjoyed the fan-blowing pollen game, and the bonus it provided was even better.
Analysis: Avalon achieves a near-perfect balance between open-ended gameplay, linearity, exploration, and the repetition of tasks. Your chief activity will be deciding how many fairies to allot each job. My normal setup had just a few workers gathering food and pollen while everyone else was off gathering magic. An equal number of fairies were tasked to singing and solving mysteries. Beyond this, however, you have little control over what happens, only the order in which it does. Even though you're walking down a straight path, you've got the freedom to stop and smell the enchanted flowers along the way.
Avalon takes place in real-time, meaning the fairies perform their duties even while you're away. The forced pace is meant to encourage short but frequent spurts of gaming. Avalon isn't as sluggish as, say, Sprouts Adventure, but it felt quite a bit quicker than Virtual Villagers. You'll get many hours of enjoyment out of Avalon, but those hours will be spread across days as you play for short bursts, checking in on your fairies several times each day.
The interface in Avalon is very simple and lets you point, click and assign jobs one fairy at a time. Unfortunately there's no way to select multiple workers at once, and when your community grows to be over a dozen strong, this becomes an issue. Further complicating matters it the fact that fairies usually wander around once they complete a task, meaning you'll have whole groups of workers doing nothing with no way to find them except by scrolling through your entire flock one fairy at a time. There really needs to be a way to select fairies by status, specialty, or group location.
Avalon is an addictive piece of entertainment that lasts a good long time, even if some of that enjoyment is postponed because you're waiting on the fairies to do their thing. Avalon isn't as open-ended as most sims, and the replay value is minimal at best, but the game will enchant you from the start and give you plenty of enjoyment throughout.