The Avatar: The Last Airbender/Legend of Korra universe is tailor-made for a good video game. It boggles my mind that the much-loved series still hasn’t gotten one.
The Avatar series, for those not in the know, is about a world in which many people can manipulate the elements — earth, water, air, or fire — through (beautifully choreographed) martial arts. Only one person, a reincarnating supernatural force with cool glowy eyes known as the Avatar, can use all four elements and, hopefully, balance a world in constant elemental conflict. The Legend of Korra TV series is a follow-up to Avatar: The Last Airbender, set 70 years later.
Short version: no, this isn’t the one with the blue cat people.
Legend of Korra attempts to translate the show’s main appeals — mesmerising action scenes and fun, believable characters — into a combo-heavy action game. It kind of succeeds at the former and fails miserably at the latter.
Let’s start with the basic premise, which is so forgettable that I’ve already nearly forgotten it. There’s this evil chaos mage who feels totally out of place in the Avatar universe, and he wants to Do Bad Things For Reasons and blah blah blah the spirit world. The story steals plot points and set pieces liberally from Korra season two — which it technically takes place shortly after — but there’s no character or drama to it. It’s just a bland chase through a series of bland levels followed by a decent-ish (though super clichéd) final battle, and it’s only a few hours-long, to boot.
The only non-Korra main character who even shows up is Tenzen’s daughter Jinora. In fact, the best part of the story, in my opinion, comes after the story itself is over, when Bolin and Mako (who are basically not present at all throughout the rest of the game) make fun of how preposterous it all sounds.
But the fights! They are… alright. Sometimes. Combos are relatively simple to pull off, relying primarily on two buttons and timing. The twist is that you can cycle through the elements as you please, each of which is suited for certain purposes. Water, for instance, can give people the worst wet willie from a pretty long distance, while fire is good for slugging it out up-close-and-personal. Earth, meanwhile, is slow but powerful (especially when it comes to breaking guards and knockback effects) and air can slice through crowds like none other.
On occasion, these gameplay elements come together to crackle with satisfying power. A Bayonetta-like split-second counter system aids in that, creating moments where you’ll, say, catch someone right as they’re dropkicking you, wheel around, and pulverize them into oblivion with a fire hydrant jet of water — furiously mashing X on every hit. As long as your timing is good, you can counter from any direction or angle. It’s damn empowering, when it works.
The problem with Legend of Korra‘s combat is that it’s actively inconvenient. Much of the game feels like a bouncer standing between you and the fun inside the club. After a brief opening segment the game deprives you of all elemental powers until you slowly unlock each one individually. Combat sans powers (or even with only one or two) is tedious and limited. I understand a desire to ease players into things, but Korra overdoes it.
Moreover, instead of using the early hours to teach you the ins and outs of each element, you kinda just have them unceremoniously tossed at you while the game bombards you with tutorials about basic things like how to equip items. Yes Korra, I know I have to equip an item before I can use it. You tell me every time I pause the game. Fuck.
Things get even more tedious when you factor in an inexcusably clumsy camera and attacks/dodges that lock you into animations, leaving you vulnerable too often. Most enemy types — of which there are only a few, used repeatedly and then given slightly better stats and used again — love to take advantage of both the camera and the unbreakable combat animations. Bosses adore their attacks with just enough strikes that your dodge — which inexplicably wears poor, apparently 87-year-old Korra out after three successive uses — becomes your undoing.
Toward the end of the game I squared off against two massive boss monsters at once, both of whom would mob around me and eclipse the camera. I could hardly see anything, which made effective countering nearly impossible. To make matters worse, the bosses had little tag-along jerkstore demons who’d burrow underground and uppercut me from behind when their big brothers stopped raining down blows. It was outrageous, like the developers had designed an encounter to take advantage of every flaw in their game. It might have been an interesting fight if, say, the goal was to separate the two behemoths, divide and conquer. Unfortunately the game offered no reliable way to do so. I felt like I was firing blind and hoping to off them before they offed me.
It’s not that Korra on normal is particularly challenging, it just feels… cheap. Battles rarely feel like evenly matched, edge-of-your-seat showdowns. Instead you’re either mowing down hordes of brainless thugs or getting trucked by cheap-shot attacks that add insult to injury. I never really found a satisfying rhythm. Just frustration between long periods of “blah.”
Even the game’s big chance to throw some adrenaline-pumping blast beats into that rhythm, the super-powered Avatar Mode, doesn’t show up until near the end of your first playthrough. Activating it allows Korra to briefly wreck everything in sight. Avatar mode allows Korra to go all Captain Planet on enemies, firing a ton of elemental attacks. It’s exhilarating, a nice antidote to how out-of-control combat normally feels. But you don’t get it until right before the final boss fight. You can replay with all your powers intact, but that’s kinda too little, too late.
It’s a surprise that such a sloppy game would come from Platinum Games, the makers of the excellent Bayonetta series. It’s like a B-Team developed this one, and they somehow missed capturing what games like Bayonetta — which offer a supreme degree of control to the player — are so great. The superficial markers are there, but the execution feels stilted and icky instead of slick.
In addition to all the elemental fighting, Korra offers another type of gameplay — segments where you ride Korra’s polar bear dog Naga. These segments are generally dull filler and culminate with what is easily the most infuriating moment in the entire game.
In general, the Naga segments are simple three-lane obstacle-avoidance marathons. Dodge side to side, duck fences, leap gaps, etc. But near the end, those mechanics are applied to a boss fight against three giant robots. Three hits were enough to kill me, and if I ran into a wall I’d go down with one hit. The robots, meanwhile, telegraphed attacks unclearly and took advantage of me getting briefly locked into animations on certain attacksall the while rotating in and out of my range so it took extra time to finish off any single one of them. I think I died more than 50 times before I finally completed it
It was not fun. At all. By the time I finished, I was angry enough to go into an Avatar State of my own, which involves using my own mastery of fire to put my controller inside a microwave. It was so bad, you guys. It was so, so bad.
I mean, when I think of Naga, I think of this:
And you know what? That’s what I imagine I’ll remember most about The Legend of Korra: rage-inducing moments. The rest of the game was so bland and tasteless that it will probably vanish entirely from my mind before the month’s end.
As a huge fan of the Avatar universe, The Legend of Korra is a tremendous disappointment. The series has so many great ideas, locations, and characters. Even the crappier seasons (Korra books 1 and 2, I’m looking at you) have heart and soul in addition to breathtaking action. Legend of Korra: The Game has none of those things — just a blank, glassy eyed stare. Avatar deserves better.