I Played With Fire in Platinum Game's The Legend of Korra
How far will cool elemental powers take you?
It was inevitable that we'd see a video game adaptation of The Legend of Korra. It is one of the most successful shows on Nickelodeon and is widely beloved by consumers and critics alike. Now, sure enough, Nickelodeon has decided to license out the brand so that a game can be made. What's interesting is that it's in development by storied developer Platinum Games, creator of Bayonetta and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. Platinum has made several critically-acclaimed hack-and-slash action games; now, it is trying to bring its expertise to The Legend of Korra.
I was able to see a demo and go hands-on with an early pre-alpha build of the PlayStation 4 version of Korra. I came away encouraged by the art style and some aspects of the combat, but uncertain if the developer can pull together its impressive expertise with the obstacles that come with making a licensed game.
I was immediately impressed that Platinum and publisher Activision are fully committed to cohesion and consistency with the franchise. They hired one of the writers from the TV show to pen the story, and the show's entire cast is providing voice-over. However, the developer's faithfulness to the franchise is most apparent in the game's art style. The cel-shaded characters look almost exactly the same as their TV show counterparts. Because of this, I was entranced by the way Korra looked, moved, and attacked. The care that has gone into making Korra in-game as similar to the show's Korra has paid off. When producer Atsushi Kurooka swung the camera around her, it could have easily been a scene in the show.
But the developer's devotion to the show's art doesn't stop there. Like in the show, environments are designed to look hand-painted so that backgrounds seem more like murals than in-game places. At one point during the demo, Kurooka paused at a lookout to show off the world and the detailed environment spreading out in all directions. Because of the flat, painted style, the game has an impressive draw distance and I was able to see everything in a huge area around the character. The developer also emphasized that the game's sounds, especially the ambient noises of the world, are virtually identical to those in the show. It's clear that Platinum wants you to feel like you're walking around in an episode.
At the moment, however, a depth and liveliness are missing in the backgrounds. The buildings are too flat, looking more like cardboard walls than any sort of solid structure. Cars don't seem to move along the ground as much as glide over the top of it. The environments are sometimes dull and plain, even though the developer promises that there will be many different settings in the game. Otherwise, though, the game's environments are very similar to the show's, which makes me hopeful that Platinum can get the feel of the world just right when the game releases.
After showing off the world, the developer demonstrated Korra's combat. Moves in the game are split into four different groups to correspond with the four different elements Korra can bend. By pressing the shoulder buttons, you can switch between the elements and, consequently, the different movesets. These aren't just the same actions reskinned, either: each element has its own specialization. Ranged attacks are exclusive to Water, Earth has slow, close-quarters attacks, Fire focuses on fast melee combat, and Wind gives you a balanced, versatile set of moves.
Each set has several different attacks, split between light and heavy strikes. Holding down either button will charge Korra and make her attacks even stronger. Different levels of charge are unlocked as the game progresses. The developer promises that the four different elemental sets allow for numerous different combos. Leveling up Korra will also unlock different light moves and collecting the game's currency lets you purchase heavy strikes and finishers.
When I saw Korra fight in the demo, I was struck by how interesting and exciting the system of elemental powers can be. Platinum has made sure that attacks are as fluid as possible, which means you can switch between elements on the fly, even mid-combo. He showed us sequences where Korra would bounce an enemy in the air with an Earth attack, shoot him with long-range Water strikes, jump up and land a dozen punches on him in rapid succession with Fire moves, then blow the guy away with a Wind attack. Finally, he would land and use one of the element-specific finishing moves to kill the enemy for good.
In addition to fluid offensive strikes, Platinum is also adding a counter system for players who wish to approach the game more defensively. If timed correctly, Korra can block and send long-range attacks back toward the enemy. Although this counter system works well, Kurooka said that the game is much more fun if the player takes advantage of Korra's offensive capabilities.
When I got to play a little of the game, I was initially impressed with the smoothness of combat. It was satisfying to string together several different elemental attacks into one long combo that ended with Korra punching an enemy into the sky. It was fun to use the elements and see the results of their power, especially when fighting other benders. These battles created chaotic scenes with huge ridges of rock punching up through the ground, fireballs flying all over, and tornadoes of wind sweeping enemies away.
I was only able to play a few minutes on the easiest difficulty, so most of the combo system is still a mystery. I wasn't able to experiment with different attacks within elemental movesets. During most encounters with enemies, I simply spammed the light attack button on whichever element made the most sense for where I stood. Occasionally I would throw in a heavy attack, but for the most part I simply relied on light strikes to take out enemies.
Although combat is the main focus of the game, there are several other parts that attempt to break up the long sequences of battle. There's a good amount of platforming and often secrets are hidden down paths that require skillful navigation of the terrain.
It was fun to use the elements and see the results of their power, especially when fighting other benders. These battles created chaotic scenes with huge ridges of rock punching up through the ground, fireballs flying all over, and tornadoes of wind sweeping enemies away.
There's also a strange mini-game that occurs after some levels that seems to be Platinum's way of getting Korra's flying mount into the game. Although there is an end, it has the basic mechanics of endless runners, and Korra must collect as much of the in-game currency as possible. You must guide Korra to the end without failing for the main story to advance. I'm intrigued to see how this minigame will mesh with the combat in the final game.
Lastly, Platinum is making a competitive arena mode, where you can take on other benders in 3 vs. 3 matches. Although this seems like an opportunity for online multiplayer, the game is only single-player, and these matches are fought against computer-controlled characters.
After watching and playing The Legend of Korra, I was left questioning if Platinum Games can balance the necessity for faithfulness to the show with deep and rewarding combat. The developer is juggling two very different forces with this project. On the one hand, it must deliver a product that embraces the world, the art, and the feel of a popular and beloved TV show. On the other hand, there's an expectation that a Platinum game will have quality hack-and-slash gameplay. The fluidity of combat and the character design make me encouraged that Platinum can be successful by the time the game is released. But my short time with the game was not enough to show off the deep combat the developer is promising. As a result, I'm excited to try out those elemental powers again and experiment more with Korra's attacks.
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