Release Date: October 10, 2006
Licensed games, as I've said a hundred times before, are a dime a dozen. Being published for every children's show, movie, or toy line that could potentially be seen as "hot" and coming out on possibly every system all at once, including the Atari 2600, the amount of licensed games that come through WorthPlaying's doors is almost like a carpet-bombing of mediocre. Even if there are true gems there, they're buried in so much mediocre tripe that it's hard to see even the roughest diamond.
Thus, when a cartoon as popular as Avatar: The Last Airbender doesn't have a game made from its setting in almost two years after the show's initial success, it brings notice. Hey, for a license, this game took a particularly long time to make so maybe the developers actually put some effort into the creation.
For those who aren't into cartoons, or who have been living under a rock since 2004, Avatar is the story of Aang, who is the newest incarnation of the Avatar, a being who is the personification of all of the planet's elemental power. Naturally, in order to be interesting, Aang only has the power to grasp these techniques; he's still a budding novice, having mastered his native Airbending skills (skills that deal, naturally, with the manipulation of air and wind) but having a shaky grasp on anything else.
The four elements of the world are split into four nations – Earth, Air, Water, and Fire – and it's with the attacks of the warmongering Fire Nation that Aang and his companions get drawn into a completely original plot spanning multiple chapters and taking place in between the first two major storylines of the show. Unfortunately, being an original plot placed in the middle of a separate continuity means that many of the story's major villains are side characters at best, leading the way to a paper-thin character of a machine menace behind everything.
Paper-thin fits a lot about Avatar; it's quite obvious that, even though effort was put into the game's engine, the original writers for the show were not present in the game scripting. A lot of opportunities present themselves for the trademark humor and character development of Avatar to shine through, but none of them are really capitalized on. The story is shaky at best and really doesn't hold up to the franchise's quality.
Luckily, the system holding it up is fairly solid, if a bit predictable. If you've ever played Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, X-Men Legends, or any other game entirely identical to that, imagine a watered-down version of that system. Attacks come in four-hit combos, and each selectable character has four special moves available to them. You have four characters at your control throughout the game, and you can easily swap between with the push of a button. Sadly, the four characters all operate roughly the same, so it's simply a matter of controlling whoever is there, and occasionally switching to Katara, the group's waterbender, to heal her allies.
In addition, Avatar equires you, like any good action/RPG, to perform quests for random townsfolk. Usually, this is relevant to the storyline and the flow of the game, requiring very little arbitrary fetch questing, but in each stage there's at least one Momo-oriented mission. Momo, again for those not knowledgeable about the series, is a winged lemur adopted as a pet by Aang; you can control him with a simple button press for use in scouting, or far more commonly, sniffing around for the trinket du jour that John Q. Randomguy needs for his Potion of Whateverness. Since each of these quests counts towards a chapter's rating, and since you can't revisit areas after that chapter is concluded, completionists will be found sitting in front of their consoles, tearing out their hair as they try to find that last invisible doodad.
A final flaw in the gameplay comes in the form of the combat. It's simple, yes, but highly repetitive. In addition, you get all four characters of your group fairly early on, and afterwards they sort of follow you about like lost puppies, guided by the AI alone until you take one of them under direct control. A multiplayer mode, like in many other games, would have improved Avatar's lasting power significantly.
The graphics hold up decently, a good example of cel-shading done mostly right. In what may be the most uncommon reversal in gaming nowadays, the game looks horrid in still images, but in motion, everything seems to flow together seamlessly. Effects from skills and attacks are simple, focusing less on pizzazz and more on functionality. Unfortunately, the models have oddly inappropriate hitboxes, and there will be times when it looks like characters are attacking the empty space in front of them and are still doing damage.
Sound is, as to be expected, fairly average. Much like other titles in the top-down hack-and-slash category, music is non-existent except for a few minimalist passages when you enter a new area. The combat sounds are the typical fare, but in what may perhaps be a shocking turn for licensed games, THQ either managed to book the actual voice actors from the show, or incredibly good sound-alikes.
Sadly, Avatar: The Last Airbender falls into a trap that many games of its type do – it's already been done by another, more successful, less licensed title. If you liked Diablo or D&D Heroes, Avatar has that special kind of gameplay you're sure to love, for as short as it lasts. On the other hand, if you're simply a fan of the show, Avatar lacks that certain witty charisma of the series, lending itself to little more than an uninspired hack-and-slash that just happens to use characters and settings from the television show. Luckily, Avatar: The Last Airbender has a certain level of accessibility and simplicity that the six- and seven-year boys getting this game during the holidays shouldn't be that disappointed.