When you hear that Platinum Games is working on a title, you generally sit up and listen, such is the general quality of their titles. You even take notice when you hear that they’re working on a title based on a Nickelodeon TV show for Activision, despite the quality of game that sort of sentence would usually result in. Even if you aren’t a fan of the show and don’t have any sort of clue what elemental bend attacks are all about, with Platinum involved, you’d at least have reason to listen in and find out what the skinny is.
But here comes a bad word, and that word is “unfortunately.”
Unfortunately, the resulting videogame version of The Legend of Korra that the company have come up with, is a letdown. Straight out of the gate, when the eponymous Korra is prevented from using her elemental attacks, you realise that there’s something amiss with the combat system. Two buttons are in play for the most part – X & Y – and they can be mixed and matched to create chains of attacks, not massively unlike you can do in one of the developer’s shining lights, Bayonetta. Also like that game, you can dodge with the right trigger and keep doing so to create flowing combat moves that are mixed with evasive manoeuvres that would make the sharpest choreographer beam with pride.
That is, until Korra randomly decides to stop and steady herself after a dodge, for what feels like an hour. You performed a dodging leap to the right four times without an issue, and then took a break. Try to do four again and she’ll just decide to freeze on the third one, for long enough a time that an enemy can get a shot in. Or two. Or three. Or fifty. But there’s another defensive move in your arsenal, and that’s the block and counter combo that comes into play when you pull the left trigger and also attack. It works – at best – about 50% of the time. You need to get your timing right of course, but more often than not when you know full well that you’ve hit the button at precisely the right time, you’ll either block and then not counter, or not block at all.
The reason we alluded to taking fifty hits is because the combat is generally incredibly frantic. It’s a rare turn of events when the game pits you against one or two opponents. You’re more likely to find yourself walking into a scenario where you’re fighting six or seven, with later levels providing double figure opponent counts. This means that there's some incredibly over-the-top combat going on at times, but not having a reliable defence mechanism when you’re facing such odds is tantamount to insanity. Fortunately, given that the majority of non-boss opponents can be bested by mashing the X button over and over and occasionally holding it down to charge up a more powerful attack, it isn’t something that will prevent you from finishing the game.
Was that all that was wrong with The Legend of Korra, it would probably be marked as a game that has a flaw or two. However, that’s far from being all that’s wrong with The Legend of Korra. Despite being a somewhat short experience, the game manages to cram in flaws with alarmingly regularity, in fact. In the very first chapter, you realise that lead character Korra is always running, for example. You can only move at a full sprint no matter how precise your handling of the analog stick is, and while sometimes this could be considered to be a benefit as it means that you don’t have to look at the generally sparse and unimaginative environments that the original Xbox could probably have handled while standing on its head, it usually leads to problems with the light platforming sections that are on offer.
Get past that and plough through to midway through the second chapter and you meet up with Naga, Korra’s polar-bear dog. What ensues is a somewhat unbelievably strange Temple Run-style game where – riding on Naga’s back - you must avoid hitting old cars and other obstacles whilst collecting spirit jewels, leaping over holes, and sliding under barriers. You have a destination to reach, but there’s no map. You just turn left or right when you hit a junction and keep doing it until the game has decided that you’re done. To say that the implementation is awful would be to take away from the fact that the very idea of the mode was a terrible one, as the coders did the best that they could with a somewhat ill-fitting design decision. The fact that the same mode appears multiple times, even as part of a utterly infuriating battle against three strong opponents later in the game, and the fact that your game can be over with one misjudged jump, just adds insult to injury.
The reason that design decision is ill-fitting though, is because you would kind of expect The Legend of Korra to appeal to younger gamers, given the target audience of the show and the name “Nickelodeon” being splashed all over it. Naga’s running sections do indeed appeal to that audience and they’ll probably think that they’re just fine (apart from the one where you have to fight), but then they’ll come to a boss and be completely and utterly devastated due to difficulty spikes that read like a seismograph during an earthquake. One minute you’re getting rid of bad guys left and right with simple attacks and the next you’re facing a boss that can move faster than you, has nine or ten different attack patterns, and requires - we’re not exaggerating here – a couple of hundred hits before he’ll even think of collapsing. In the very next instant, you’re back to wandering through levels and clearing sections without even having to think. You’ll be wincing in fear as you approach the final boss - there’s good reason to expect that he’ll be practically unbeatable - but there’s no need to be afraid, as he’s illogically a lot easier to beat than a lot of the others you will have faced. Also, by then you’ll finally have unlocked your massively overpowered airbending ability that can damage handfuls of enemies at once, and the ability to call upon your Avatar superpowers, so you can just cheaply toss out balls of fire over and over for a decent amount of the battle, without even worrying about what the enemy is doing in terms of retaliation.
This is all a shame as at times, The Legend of Korra does show flashes of the game that it really and truly should have been. A battle that goes to plan is one that nets you a Bayonetta-style platinum medal after you’ve stylishly dodged, blocked, counter-attacked, and struck with fury whilst maintaining the grace and poise of a particularly vicious butterfly. When you don't get that top medal, you should want to go back in and try to best your score. Problem is, that you more than likely won't want to do that as the outcome isn't really under your control. Battles rarely go to plan, with the usual cause being the game engine. Issues with the quicktime-event-powered “kung-fu” mode that triggers when you stand too close to an opponent are numerous, as are issues with the game’s “lock-on” system, which decides to deactivate whenever it feels like it. If you want to talk about the elemental attacks – the stars of an otherwise lacklustre show - we can tell you that we got through the story mode’s standard difficulty level without having to use the fire or earth attacks at all, due to the fact that the water attack unlocks first and is powered up to the point that when you unlock the others, they’re way too weak to use in battle.
The list of possible fail points goes on and on.
If you persevere and complete story mode though, you’re able to take part in three increasingly difficult “Pro-Bending” (no, non-fans, we’re not making it up) tournaments. These are three-on-three matches where you essentially have to knock the opposing team’s players off a platform. The first four events of the five that are available on each difficulty level are usually a matter of pressing X and occasionally dodging. The fifth one sees the AI team suddenly able to automatically block every other shot and hit you with fierce abandon.
The story isn't even much to write home about. Korra loses powers. Korra fights through levels to get powers back. Gets them. Fights man who took them away. It's hardly thrilling stuff, and leaves an overriding sense of rushed shabbiness in the air, much as the game does as a whole.
While this review of The Legend of Korra reads like a laundry list of problems, there are times when the game is genuinely enjoyable and shows masses of promise. Those times are all too rare however, and you’re less likely to be cracking a smile than you are to be cursing at a game engine that feels cheap, rushed, unpolished, and simply not good enough to compete.