Publisher : THQ
Developer : Halfbrick Studios
Release Date: November 12, 2008
It's hard to make a show that's cute, kiddy, fun, violent, action-packed and intended for preteens, but "Avatar: The Last Airbender" handled itself amazingly well. As one of the most popular shows on Nickelodeon, it set a high standard for cartoon entertainment with a concise three-season story arc and a compelling bunch of characters, all mixed with enough magical destruction and fights to mesmerize kids for 61 episodes.
Avatar: The Last Airbender - Into the Inferno has continued this standard of excellence in a surprising streak on the Nintendo DS. It not only performs competently in everything it advertises, including its little beach volleyball mini-game, but it also presents some moments of outstanding puzzle-solving adventure and an overall excellent set of controls to tie everything into a bundle as neat as the show.
Into the Inferno picks up the story with the beginning of Aang and crew's invasion into the fire kingdom to stop the evil Fire Lord Ozai from ascending to a megalomaniacal level of power and destroying the world. From the outset, the presentation lets you know that this will be Avatar "lite," thanks to a chibi style implemented to look better on the DS' limited hardware. On the cover, you can see that Aang's head is twice the size of his body, and while this may not make a lot of physical sense, it doesn't have to. It allows the players to see the range of expressions on the different characters in the game, as well as differentiate between the two benders who will be on-screen at all times.
The graphics are still a bit limited, and when things get especially frantic, such as during a boss fight, the game has a tendency to slow down, but nothing is truly broken. The title's simple aesthetics keep the bland textures from getting troubling, and the cartoonish exaggerations keep you smiling.
Unfortunately, the show's major plot points get lost in this super-cutesy presentation, even if they're mostly there. The overall story should be accessible to everyone, but specific plots and characters tend to be glossed over and unexplained. If you do not know who Combustion Man is, you're going to be very confused when you fight him twice. It's safe to say, though, that the target demographic for this game has already seen the show and knows what happens in the last season, regardless of how poorly told the story may be on the DS.
The most important part of the title, then, is definitely the gameplay, and while it may not be what you would expect out of an action-oriented series, it definitely delivers in its quality. Into the Inferno is an adventure game, not in that you'll be exploring open areas but in that you wander from place to place solving puzzles. The puzzle-solving incorporates the bending abilities of the available characters, from Aang to Zuko, and even manages to squeeze in Sokka throwing a boomerang a few times. Every level in the campaign is taken on by two of the characters appropriate to the situation, and they're tasked with getting from start to finish.
It's no easy task, though, and each character has to utilize his talents to survive each level. They're controlled almost entirely by the touch-screen, though a few simple tasks can be relegated to buttons. Left and right on the d-pad can switch between the two available characters, up separates them, and holding down the shoulder button lets them exercise their special talents in "focus mode." Focus mode is different for each character, but it's always essential to the puzzles at hand. Toph can move pieces of stone and wood across the screen, Katara can create paths of ice and eventually blood bend (it's less gruesome than it sounds), Zuko draws lines of fire, and Aang can do a little bit of air and earth bending as he needs it, creating whirlwinds or moving stone. Sokka, of course, throws his boomerang, though he makes up for this by being the only one able to manipulate mechanical panels.
You can't choose who you want to bring along, but each level is suited exactly for the combination of provided characters. If Toph is there, you'd better believe you're going to be finding creative ways to get blocks exactly where you need them. You're stuck with Zuko and Sokka? Oh, you know there's going to be a chance to set that boomerang on fire. The partners work as well together here as they do on the show, and it all feels so natural on the touch-screen that you can sometimes believe you're playing through key scenes, such as in the raid on the Fire Nation. It's amazing that they pulled together a head-scratcher that makes you feel like an empowered Avatar.
Needless to say, the level design is excellent and occasionally truly challenging. Most of the game consists of simple puzzles that you can solve given a minute or two, but a handful of them really pause the flow of the game as you figure out new ways to use your powers. The key to the game, and most fun puzzle games, is discovering your full capabilities. The reliance on this key mechanic is what keeps Into the Inferno accessible yet challenging and prevents it from being a frustrating parade of mind-benders.
There are a few issues with the exact execution, however. There are points, especially when it comes to using Zuko's firewall, where the detection of hits is problematic, or switches will suddenly trigger themselves, rendering a few puzzles completely useless. Jump detection is consistently buggy, occasionally dropping you through the universe just because you approached an edge and are pointing away from it. It can be a little frustrating, but the game is merciful. It takes five consecutive hits to die, which could almost never happen just from falling off a cliff. Anytime you're close, you can just take a moment to replenish, and then you're good to try four more times. It's an odd health system for an adventure game, but I view it as a kindness — that is, until you start encountering fire-soldiers relentlessly chucking fireballs at you, or you're being chased by Zuko's power-hungry blue-fire-riding sister.
The combat can be pretty clumsy in Into the Inferno, which is to be expected of an action game, but it doesn't make the deaths any less annoying. You can directly attack enemies with any character simply by tapping them when they're close, unless they're out of reach. If that's the case, you have to find a convenient pile of a usable element (pile of dirt, pool of water, etc.) to hurl at your enemies. Thankfully, Zuko can wield the same fire being thrown at you so he's a bit easier to fight with, but other characters are at the mercy of the available elements. It can be darn tough to grab those elements with the stylus and blocking incoming fire before you get hit.
Still, the boss fights tend to be appropriately epic and tied in well with the story. One of the most satisfying moments of the entire game was learning blood bending with Katara in the heat of battle while defending your friends. The final boss was such a departure from the rest of the title that it was disappointing, but almost everything else was a blissful puree of puzzle-solving and action.
I can't comment on the co-op action of the main game because there's no Internet support, and I was unable to test the multi-cart multiplayer experience, but I did get a chance to play a download game of beach volleyball. It operates entirely by touch-screen, starring whichever characters you've unlocked, and it's quite a fun little distraction. You aim the ball by stretching a line from where the ball is to where you want it to go on the opponent's side. You bounce the ball to keep it from landing just by holding your stylus over where it should land, and then you can try to shoot it over the net again. It's nothing major, but it's a fun little extra after you've solved the main campaign.
Avatar: The Last Airbender - Into the Inferno is the best darn licensed game you could possibly hope for and is a fun distraction in its own light. At a price of $20 or less, you'd be foolish to pass this up if you're looking for a pleasant puzzle-adventure game. Just about everything is done right here, and Avatar fans will be pleased no matter what. Give it a go!