Developer: THQ Australia
Release Date: November 19, 2007
"Avatar: The Last Airbender" is a television series on Nickelodeon that, like Nick's shows occasionally do, shows surprising depth that belies its obvious target audience of the younger set. The entire series focuses on a boy named Aang, an "airbender" (basically, someone who can control air) and his quest to defeat the Fire Nation and prevent them from basically conquering the world. Along the way, he learns to master the other three canonical elements water, earth, and eventually fire and gathers friends to join him in his quest. This depth of plot and characterization has some real potential to translate effectively to a console game format, and it is my sincere pleasure to report that Avatar: The Last Airbender The Burning Earth accomplishes this task with admirable zeal, proving a very serviceable second chapter to this tale.
It would be a bit of an exaggeration to say that this title is graphically perfect. The simple truth is that close-ups reveal uncalled-for pixelation of the character's faces, and all characters have apparently learned to communicate telepathically, as lockjaw appears to have rendered everyone's jaw muscles incapable of movement. Regardless of this, The Burning Earth accomplishes a rather unusual feat: It's easy to have pre-rendered, immobile backgrounds that are visually impressive, but even those parts of the screen that change throughout gameplay have been rendered with uncommon attention and detail. The steam looks like steam, the towers look like towers and the characters move with fluid, easy animation that indicates that some real effort was put into making this game look good.
Throw in the fact that the characters are immediately recognizable even from the camera's three-fourths view, and you've got an offering that will satisfy all but the most hardcore of the show's fans. The only noticeable flaw is in the occasional tendency for a character to stand in mid-air while in mid-combat, perched atop nothing due to the restrictions of the battlefield as opposed to the actual presence of matter beneath the character's feet. This is a fairly small complaint, however, and one that is hardly ever a distraction.
The audio effects in The Burning Earth seem to have received similar attention. As I have not seen the show upon which this title is based, I can't comment on how accurately the game's voice actors match those of the show's, but each voice is immediately distinctive and recognizable even from the flippant comments tossed around during gameplay. Tones and pitches have been used to great effect, making sure that each character's words have feeling, and they follow the subtitles with almost perfect precision; while the producers may or may not have used the actual voice actors from the show, it's clear from the outset that whoever they used, those people were professionals. Even the sound effects are well conceived, with the water sounding like water and the sound of breaking wood sounding like breaking wood. Each one is satisfying and impressive, never leaving you feeling like whatever you just did was a letdown.
The unfortunate truth is that this title suffers from one great flaw: the gameplay. Don't misunderstand the previous sentence, though; each character has responsive controls for the most part, and Avatar is generally rather good at having the characters do what you want them to do. Jumping is fairly responsive, and the game's design rewards you for chaining consecutive hits together with additional experience, which lends a strategic element to combat that draws it away from the unenviable title of "button-masher."
The great problem is that there will be times that, due to the limitations of the hardware and THQ's general failure to synchronize the motions of the Wiimote with the actual on-screen action, you will find yourself laboriously attempting over and over again to complete the same task. In particular, there are times when a given character (you always have a buddy with you, and you can switch back and forth between them) will be called upon to perform a specific task by holding down the Z button and moving the Wiimote in a particular fashion.
For example, you might need Katara to create an ice bridge or throw water to put out a fire, and therein lie the game's greatest tooth-grindingly frustratingly moments. Of particular concern is the fact that Sokka's motion requires turning a crank, which involves you moving the Wiimote in a circular motion. While none of the tasks are terribly responsive, this one is particularly painful, often involving repeated attempts to get the game to realize that you actually are doing the motion it requires, but it's simply not noticing the action due to the limitations of the control scheme. This caused me so much irritation on more than one occasion that I simply put the game down for a while, and whereas an adult gamer tends to have developed patience with such things over the years, Avatar's younger target audience might very well simply put the game down and never pick it up again.
There is some real depth to The Burning Earth that will keep players coming back. There are secrets to find and health boosts to collect (six to an actual boost in maximum health), and while some of them are almost in plain view, others will require some real exploration of the environment. Alternate paths lead to interesting new views, a fleshing-out of the environment or even puzzles to solve. Such puzzles can offer anything from the aforementioned health boosts to important items to advance to the game to health potions that will keep you fighting. Trust me, given the sheer quantity of enemies to fight (never too many at once, but always enough to keep it interesting), you'll be needing each and every single one of those health potions. Boss battles can be unlocked for later replay, and talking to random characters can yield anything from inane observations to actual helpful information about your current goal.
In general, Avatar: The Last Airbender The Burning Earth offers a fairly rewarding and entertaining gameplay experience, successfully bringing much of the spirit of the show to the console without sacrificing too much in terms of quality fun. While there are portions of the game where the control will prove frustrating, it is largely a charismatic and enjoyable offering for the Wii and should definitely satisfy the Avatar fan in your household.