Monday, October 30, 2006
Good: Full 3-D environments, voice-overs, interesting variety of gameplay
Bad: Ridiculously hard for a kid's game, problematic combat system, fetch quests, annoying soundtrack
Boss Fight One: Good way to punish your children
After over 15 years of gaming, I really should not be having difficulty clearing the first boss of a kid's game. However, that was the exact position I found myself in with the DS version of Nickelodeon's Avatar. With no discernable strategy or attack pattern, and very little in the way of control options on my part, I literally struggled to beat the first boss for nearly an hour. How do kids do this?
Much like the other versions of Avatar, this one picks up shortly after the series left off, with the main hero Aang up at the Northern Water Tribe. Shortly thereafter, the Fire Nation attacks the town, kidnaps Kitara, and Aang and Sokka set off to rescue her. The story is minimal for the most part, but it does an adequate job of taking Aang and Co. to a wide variety of locales, several of which will be recognizable to fans of the television show.
Also like the other versions, Avatar for DS follows an action-RPG-lite game model. Combat takes place in real time, and the party gains experience and levels for defeating enemies. Players can use the touch screen to access their quick items, view maps of the labyrinthian levels, and check on their character's statistics. It's all standard fare for veterans of other hack-and-slash RPGs, but it's a nice change of pace for children's gaming. The action takes place through a variety of 3-D maps similar in design to the PSP version, but this time the game actually features a rotatable camera. It's a seemingly obvious feature that is sorely missing in the game's various other incarnations.
Unfortunately, the plus of camera control comes at the expense of the battle system, which is completely different from the other versions. Whenever Aang encounters an enemy on the overhead map, the game loads up a separate battle screen where Aang and his companions run around performing a variety of attacks, defenses, and bending moves. It actually feels really awkward having a separate battle map, as fighting enemies on the regular map would have sufficed.
The battles themselves are also somewhat problematic. Aiming properly is tricky, given the battle screen's diagonal orientation, and it's also difficult balancing between offense and defense given the slight delay between actions. Additionally, Aang's AI controlled group, which grows to include Sokka, Katara, and Haru over time, is not the brightest group of game characters. They will often charge into the middle of enemies with little regard for their own health. You can switch which character you control in the middle of battle, but that just means your previous character will join in the suicide party. Also, as previously mentioned, some of the boss fights are obscenely difficult, with little to no observable patterns or strategy.
Apart from the sketchy battle system, Avatar for DS actually has a fair amount of variety in terms of gameplay. In addition to the usual mix of exploration and fighting, the game also has several small minigames, a unique herb mixing system, stealth segments, and even some simple problem solving. While none of these elements are particularly amazing, they do provide a nice break from the monotony.
Unfortunately, everything is over too soon. The main adventure feels somewhat short, and most players will be able to blow through it in a weekend. The lack of multiplayer is very curious, as this type of game would have been perfect for co-op. As is, you're left with the short single-player adventure and not much else.
Graphically, Avatar looks surprisingly good for a DS game, and does a good job capturing the source material. The inclusion of pre-rendered videos is a nice touch, and the 3-D environments are impressive for the system. The character models are rendered in 2-D, and look adequate. It would have been nice to see the models all in full 3-D, but what is there is fine.
Sound is also good for the most part. The inclusion of voice-overs is a nice touch and something that would be great to see in more DS games. Sound effects are for the most part passable, although somewhat forgettable. The soundtrack is hit-or-miss, with a few OK songs and some that really grate the nerves.
The DS version of Avatar is sure to please some fans of the show with its presentation, but the flawed battle system and difficult boss fights are sure to turn others off. If they fix these things for the inevitable sequel, they might actually have a winning action-RPG for the kids.
First Play: 6.0
Replay Value: 5.0