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The Legend of Korra review: Bend it like Bayonetta

Anthony John Agnello
Anthony John Agnello|@ajohnagnello|October 24, 2014 6:30 PM
Bending the elements like folks do in The Legend of Korra is an intoxicating dream. Much as they did in the original Avatar: The Last Airbender cartoon, many people born in Korra's world can freely manipulate the four elements through martial arts. The Avatar, born into every generation to maintain the spiritual balance of the world Dalai Lama style, is the only one who can bend all four. Fire from your fingers, literally riding the wind, lifting up the earth to make an easy chair, and never needing a squirt gun; the promise of feeling unity with the physical world, even if you're just playing around, is mesmerizing. Who wouldn't want to do that?

That Platinum Games captures even a little of that feeling in its video game adaptation of The Legend of Korra is impressive, but physical fantasy is only one piece of the show's winning formula. Platinum's made a fun, flighty, sometimes infuriatingly pedantic game that's admirably old fashioned but disappointingly limited. The Legend of Korra is a strong body missing most of its heart.
[Images: Activision/Nickelodeon]
The strength isn't surprising. Anyone with a passing familiarity with Platinum's oeuvre knows about the studio's penchant for physicality. This is the studio behind superlative brawlers like Bayonetta 2 and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, games with outsized fisticuffs and demanding difficulty well suited to Korra's elemental, martial world. Taking place between Seasons 2 and 3 of the show, when Korra herself is reaching new heights of mastery of her Avatar powers, Platinum pairs its style well with her abilities.

Korra can switch between the four elements by quickly tapping the shoulder buttons, with light and heavy strikes producing different moves with each one. Busting up a Chi Blocker with quick fire bending punches, switching to heavy earth strikes for a huge tank, doing crowd control with air bursts and then firing off water missiles for distant foes takes practice but becomes a seamless process.

Combat in Korra is a measure slower than in Platinum's other action games, which suits the defensive, balletic fighting of the show itself. That's why it's essential to never forget the dodge on the right trigger and the blocking left trigger, which crucially counter moves if pressed right before an enemy strikes you. Korra can go down very quickly, almost unfairly quickly when facing one of the few bosses across the game's eight chapters, so rigid recognition of attack patterns and counter timing is the only route to success. The counterpoint between the meditative spirit behind bending and the game's inflexible difficulty is jarring at first, but it's a matter of perspective. Calmly observing enemies and reacting in precise ways yields victory, while chaotic button mashing and dodging will kill you in seconds.

If memorization and rough combat even on normal difficulty sounds unusually demanding for a short downloadable game based on a Nickelodeon cartoon, that's just the beginning. The barrier of entry to The Legend of Korra is surprisingly high, and not just because of its sometimes abrasive difficulty. Unless you know exactly who Korra is, how her world works, and literally all of the plot details for the first two seasons of the show, the game's more or less incomprehensible. Who are Chi Blockers? What's an Avatar and what's bending? Why can Chi Blockers keep Korra from using some of her powers? Since the story has Korra's powers locked up at the beginning and slowly returned over the course of the game, it doesn't mechanically overwhelm the player but that still doesn't provide missing context. Absolutely no time is spent bringing outsiders up to speed in Platinum's game, and even acolytes may feel a little lost because of how lonesome an adaptation this is.

Korra's struggles in the show are profoundly moving because of the people that surround her, yet she spends this entire game almost entirely alone. Her friends Mako and Bolin make brief appearances at the beginning and ending, while her surrogate little sister Jinora acts as a spirit guide helping Korra unlock her elemental skills at certain points, but the deep cast of remarkably complex characters that makes the show so rich is totally absent. When Korra finally confronts and conquers the sinister old man at the heart of the game's story, her accomplishments feel hollow inside her greater story. She doesn't share these moments with anyone, and neither does the player. Character is in part what draws people to tie-ins like this, and not getting to spend time with these people feels like a loss.

The pragmatic reason for their absence is clear. It's a lot easier to record dialogue with just a few legit members of the cast, and more efficient to make a small game if there are only a few specific characters. In fact, many rough edges surround The Legend of Korra that are likely the result of needing to make a game quickly and cheaply. Little irks like Korra's tinny walking sound effects which don't even sync up with her footfalls sit next to bigger things like the Battletoads-level cheap running levels with polar bear dog Naga. The latter of those pads out a very brief, 3-hour game but not well. Problems like that demonstrate how The Legend of Korra is lacking the exacting polish of Platinum's highlights.

They're ultimately not deal breakers, though. For all of those niggling issues, fighting as Korra is still exciting and satisfying, even when her air abilities become almost game-breakingly powerful in the final stages. In fact, the small problems, metallic difficulty, and ridiculous asides like the dog running sequences that make no narrative sense give Korra a feel comparable to great, imperfect tie-ins of the past like Sunsoft's Batman. Platinum Games may not have made a Legend of Korra game that plumbs the same well of soul that the source material does, but they've made something elementally entertaining all the same.

This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of The Legend of Korra, provided by Activision.

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The Legend of Korra review: Bend it like Bayonetta