PSP Review - 'Avatar: The Last Airbender'

by Nathan Grayson on July 16, 2007 @ 12:30 a.m. PDT

Based on Nickelodeon's hottest new show, fans will play as Aang, Katara, Sokka and Haru as they grow into an unstoppable team utilizing the kung fu inspired bending arts through the Avatar universe. Players will explore the four Avatar nations in beautifully detailed environments and battle new enemies.

Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: THQ
Developer: THQ
Release Date: October 10, 2006

Avatar: The Last Airbender for the PSP is based on the Nickelodeon animated series of the same name. The animated series is about Aang, the Avatar — a person destined to stop the evil Fire Nation's conquest of the world. Throughout the series, Aang learns how to manipulate, or bend, four different elements: air, water, earth, and fire. He only has until a comet passes his planet to defeat the Fire Nation, or else the fire benders' powers will be enhanced by the comet, and they will take over the entire planet.

It makes for an interesting, mature plot (for a kids' show), but the PSP iteration has little to do with that storyline. Instead, a woman named Liam is creating robots that can bend elements because she thinks humans are obsolete. Aang and friends must stop her from attempting to fight the Fire Nation with robots. It's unclear why Liam's plot needed stopping, since she's trying to fight the Fire Nation. Aang has a deadline to meet, so it's unlikely that he can take a break from his training to fight someone who is trying to bring down the very same enemy. Even with these nitpicks, Avatar still has a decent enough sub-plot featuring everyone's favorite "Avatar" characters.

Avatar is a basic hack-'n'-slash action RPG in which you control up to two party members at once and fight off hordes of enemies. Your entire party consists of Aang (air bender), Katara (water bender), Haru (earth bender), and Sokka (uh, he has a boomerang). Each character has a few special attacks, but for the most part, party members are interchangeable. The game is played from an isometric perspective, just like almost every other game in this genre.

The only differentiating factor amongst your party members is their "bending moves," which are used to move or get past certain environmental hazards (big rocks, chasms, etc.). Depending on the hazard, you'll need a different character, but in order to switch characters, you have to go back to the hub area, which leads to a fair amount of seemingly pointless backtracking. Note to developers: Gamers don't like artificially lengthened games!

As you advance through the story, your characters earn two types of experience points. When you complete a quest, like running an errand for an NPC or advancing the main plot, you earn skill points for the entire party. It's up to you to decide how to distribute them to increase the strength and speed of your different attacks and bending powers.

The other variety of experience point is more typical of RPGs, which you earn for defeating enemies. Once you gain enough of these XP, you level up, and then you can distribute status points to make your characters stronger. Since characters level up separately, they each receive their own status points, which can be assigned to increasing honor points (hit points), chi (mana), and power (amount of damage dealt).

Avatar is broken up into chapters, and for each chapter, there's a new hub area in which you can save your progress and receive new quests. Merchants also sell healing items here, and some merchants can even craft or improve items for you, as long as you provide them with the correct materials.

Quests are the driving force behind Avatar, and, as mentioned earlier, they can be found in the hub areas. Main plot quests give you the bulk of your skill points, and you can't finish the game without doing them. However, the hub area side-quests are pretty unimportant, and they tend to be really vague; you'll be told to go do something, but won't be given any details. On top of that, your map is basically useless. Unlike other games of its ilk, Avatar's map is automatically filled in, and exploring doesn't expand it or make it any more useful. The only marker on the map shows your current location, so it doesn't give you any sort of indication about where you should go. This flaw artificially lengthens the game and makes it more tedious.

When actually fighting enemies, you have a couple of options. Either you can mash the X button to perform physical attacks or use special attacks with the Square button. Special attacks consume chi, but chi slowly regenerates on its own, so while you should use them wisely, you don't have to be overly stingy.

As with any decent hack-'n'-slash, loot flows from enemies like candy from a piƱata. Characters can equip the armor variety of that loot in four slots, which will increase defense and increase elemental resistance. Many enemies attack using the aforementioned elements, so having the right resistances can be even more helpful than a high defense stat. That's all well and good in theory, but in practice, it doesn't make much of a difference. By the time enemies start using elements, you're fighting robots that can use any one of the four, so it doesn't matter which resistance you selected.

The graphics in Avatar aren't great, but they get the job done. The characters are very plain-looking, and the game looks like it should have been cel-shaded. The environments are colorful, and there's also a nice sense of scale in some areas. It's especially apparent in the Earth Nation city of Omashu, where you can see lower areas of the town while you are at a higher elevation. For a title with an isometric perspective, it's pretty cool.

The music was all original, and none of it is from the TV series, but it still feels like it fits in the "Avatar" world. There is also a noticeable lack of voice acting; instead of using the voice actors from the TV show, the game uses text boxes with characters' faces so you can tell who is speaking. The only voice acting you'll ever hear is in the opening (ripped straight from the TV show) and from enemies who occasionally spout phrases like, "What was that?"

Even with all of the artificial lengthening, Avatar is pretty short. You can extend the experience by doing all of the side-quests, but they payoff is really not worth it. Despite the seemingly complex nature of the title, it's not that complex at all. It's a kids' license, so the game has been simplified for a younger target audience. The difficulty level has also been lowered, and the enemy AI was less than stellar; some foes walked into walls, and others never noticed I was there even while I was pounding them so hard that they flew into the air. Perhaps an appropriate alternate title could have been Fisher-Price's My First Hack-'n'-Slash.

In the end, Avatar: The Last Airbender for the PSP is a basic game that's just about right for its intended audience. The hack-'n'-slash gameplay is fun, the graphics are serviceable, and the audio is fitting, if a bit sparse, but the artificial lengthening of the game can make it tedious, due to the incessant backtracking you'll have to do, and the lack of a map. There's some complexity to the title, so it's not for the "Dora the Explorer" set, but if you need a game to entertain a 12-year-old (or you are one), you could do worse than Avatar.

Score: 5.5/10

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