Avatar: The Last Airbender for the Game Boy Advance is an action adventure featuring the characters and locations from Nickelodeon's popular cartoon show. You lead a party of three heroes through multiple portions of the Avatar world, using those characters' unique abilities to fight Fire Nation soldiers and work through puzzles that typically require some clever teamwork to solve. Even though the game's story isn't based on any specific episode of the show, fans will appreciate that the plot and dialogue hold true to the way key events and characters have been portrayed in the TV series. Meanwhile, the design borrows heavily from similar games--in particular, Nintendo's Legend of Zelda and Square-Enix's Sword of Mana--so while the game doesn't break any new ground, the combat and puzzles are generally satisfying.
In the world of Avatar, people known as benders have the ability to cast elemental magic. The world is split into four different nations, each based on the element the nation's inhabitants have mastery over: fire, water, earth, or air. For centuries, the four nations lived in peace. However, one day the Fire Nation began a campaign to conquer the other nations. According to legend, the only person that can stop the Fire Nation is the Avatar, the legendary bender that has the ability to control all four elements. The game, like the show, follows the travails of Aang, the last airbender and supposed Avatar, on his quest to awaken his powers and bring an end to the war. Since Aang hasn't quite mastered the other elements yet, he's constantly accompanied by a pair of friends, a fighter named Sokka and a waterbender named Katara, that lend a hand as needed. Together, the three set out to visit the different villages in the land to gradually push back the Fire Nation forces and get Aang the training he needs.
Each of the game's seven chapters consists of an above-ground area and multiple smaller caves or dungeons. In the above-ground areas, you'll talk to villagers and do battle in real time with the different Fire Nation soldiers that are situated here and there. Most of these encounters are the typical sort of Zelda-style fights, where you dodge attacks and mash buttons to dish out attacks of your own. Aang can swing his staff to hurt enemies, or you can cast an air wave to hit them from afar. If you want, you can toggle control to Sokka or Katara by tapping the shoulder buttons. Their attacks damage certain enemies more than Aang's do, particularly in the case of bosses. Swapping characters doesn't come into play much in the above-ground sections, but it's integral to solving the dungeons in each chapter. Caves and dungeons rarely contain enemies. Instead, they're chock-full of switches and objects that often can only be activated or moved by a specific character. Aang can push light objects from a distance with his air wave. Sokka can pull heavy switches, break some objects with his club and bombs, and use his boomerang to hit switches from an angle. Katara can use her waterbending talents to create an icy bridge across water, as well as to fill and drain containers and pools. Dungeons are set up so that you constantly have to swap between the characters, and sometimes split the group up, to make progress. In one spot, for example, you'll find that you have to use Katara's power to empty a container, Aang's air wave to shove the container onto a switch, and then Katara's waterbending to refill the container again so that it activates a pressure switch.
Thanks to the game's brisk pacing and the sheer variety of different puzzles it dishes out, you never get the feeling that you're going through the motions or constantly doing the same thing. When you start to tire of smacking around soldiers, you'll find yourself in a dungeon. When you've had your fill of one type of puzzle, the game introduces another one, or distracts you by serving up a chest containing a juicy upgrade for one of the heroes. As the game goes on, you'll acquire multiple upgrades that extend each character's health meter, lengthen the range of Sokka's boomerang, or increase the number of squares Katara can cover with an ice bridge. Each dungeon section seems to be just the right size, not too small or too big. Every chapter is capped off with a boss battle that ties the game's combat and puzzle aspects together. You'll need to swap characters to find out which attacks work and which ones don't, as well as to manipulate any objects in the environment that the boss puts up to protect itself. Of course, the drawback to such brisk pacing is that the game is over before you know it. You can blast through the story in just about four hours. It's a fun-filled four hours, but it's still probably a few hours shy of how long a game like this ought to be.
For the most part, the graphics and audio are typical of this sort of game. The top-down backgrounds and 2D character sprites are colorful and sufficiently detailed, but it's the large bosses and slick weather effects that make the strongest impression. The snow and rain effects that appear during the game's first two chapters are especially striking. Aang, Sokka, and the other characters have a good mix of attacks, and their moves are all fluidly animated. Character personalities are conveyed through periodic dialogue scenes, which feature text boxes and expressive facial portraits. The way the dialogue is written matches the way the characters talk on the show, and certain key events play out exactly as they did in specific episodes, right down to the slapsticky pratfalls that seem to follow Sokka everywhere he goes. The different musical pieces that play during each chapter do a good job of conveying a Far East sensibility, but the game otherwise comes across as quiet, since the only time you'll hear sound effects is when you're pulling an object or attacking someone. That sort of understated atmosphere isn't necessarily bad, but some footsteps or a recorded voice comment here and there would have been nice.
Fans of the cartoon will probably be satisfied with the GBA version of Avatar: The Last Airbender. The combat may be too straightforward at times, and the game is over much too soon, but the variety of different puzzles and the story's brisk pace ensure that the journey stays lively from beginning to end. It also helps that the characters, dialogue, and events are depicted in a manner that holds true to the style and happenings of the actual show.