The Legend of Korra review: elementary

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform 360, PS3, Win, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Activision
Developer PlatinumGames
Release Date

Even in its best moments, The Legend of Korra is a nonstarter.

Though it's created by lauded developer Platinum Games, The Legend of Korra lacks the depth of this team's best projects. It doesn't have the intense, combo-heavy combat of games like Bayonetta or Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. But it also doesn't have the style apparent in the studio's simpler brawling efforts, like 2009's MadWorld.

Whatever your preconceived notions of a Platinum Games game, The Legend of Korra is not likely to live up to them. The studio's talent and track record aside, I found it adhering more to my expectations for a licensed title based on a cartoon. It's a shallow, short experience full of segments that feel poorly designed and ill-considered — albeit one with just enough fan service to tide over those pulled in by a world and characters they love.

The Legend of Korra lacks the depth of Platinum's best projects
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That world would be the one of The Legend of Korra, a Nickelodeon cartoon sequel to the popular Avatar: The Last Airbender series. In the universe of the show, talented people learn the art of "bending," or manipulating one of the elements. One special person, known as the Avatar, is able to master all four elements, bending earth, fire, water and air at will.

The titular Korra is said Avatar, and her extensive powers should be fertile ground for a great game.

Unfortunately, Korra's gifts are hamstrung from the beginning. Set between the second and third seasons of the show, The Legend of Korra sees the protagonist going up against a mysterious baddie named Hundun who has the ability to drain away her bending powers. In true video game fashion, Korra starts the first level with all of her powers intact, allowing players to briefly feel like a badass before those abilities are stripped away.

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Korra spends two-thirds of this five or six-hour adventure attempting to recover her lost bending skills. You unlock each element one by one — it's never really explained why Hundun is able to drain her powers once but not a second time which means you're locked to only using water at first, then water or earth, and so on.

This slow burn toward a fully powered main character wouldn't be an issue except that The Legend of Korra is already a pretty shallow game. Regardless of which bending skill you're using, you only ever have two attack types — a weak attack and a strong attack. You can earn new combo possibilities by leveling up or purchasing scrolls in a shop between stages, but they only provide a slight bit of padding to an overly simple system.

The ability to swap between four different elements adds a necessary layer of strategy to The Legend of Korra. Each element makes Korra's attacks feel suitably different. Water allows her to hit enemies from a distance, earth attacks are slower but hit harder, air is best at doing damage to large groups of enemies, and so on. I actually found myself enjoying swapping between powers depending on the situation, which makes the decision to lock them away at first all the more baffling.

While The Legend of Korra improved once I had unlocked all four elements, that isn't to say it actually became a good game. Though swapping between the powers is fun, I was very rarely pushed to do so in interesting ways. Aside from the final boss, who can create shields that can only be broken by a certain element, enemies don't show any obvious weakness to specific elements; choosing a powerset became more a matter of preference than something I needed to master.

The Legend of Korra obsessively repeats more unique fights
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One big reason I didn't feel stretched to use different powers is that The Legend of Korra's pool of enemy types is disappointingly tiny. I fought the same handful of three or four nameless enemy goon variations from the beginning to the end. In the final chapters, a few more imaginative monsters were added to the mix, but it wasn't enough to kill the monotony of each battle.

It doesn't help that The Legend of Korra obsessively repeats its few more unique fights in increasingly frustrating scenarios. That mini-boss encounter against a giant monster that you survived by the skin of your teeth? You can rest assured that before the level is done, you'll be fighting two or three of those dudes at once, probably in a smaller arena filled with environmental hazards or endlessly respawning waves of smaller enemies.

So the combat is shallow, repetitive and bad at using the one mechanic that could have added some depth. What about the non-combat stuff?

Well ... there isn't much. Running off the beaten path to explore The Legend of Korra's levels was an alright distraction, but side paths are short and rarely require more than a little basic platforming. The levels are also really bland in design; don't expect any earth-shattering next-gen visuals here.

At a few points throughout the game, you get the opportunity to play "pro-bending," which is basically the Avatar universe's version of dodgeball meets sumo wrestling. Two teams of benders face each other on a raised platform, and the goal is to knock members of the other team off the platform. Matches are incredibly simple and quick to complete, but I enjoyed them more than fighting the same giant robot for the fifth time in a row. You also unlock a full pro-bending tournament mode after you complete the game.

On the other hand, The Legend of Korra also features one of the worst mini-game additions to an action title in recent memory. Several levels end with a segment where Korra rides her polar bear companion Naga. These bits are auto-runners — that is, you can't make Naga stop moving, and your only recourse is to dodge left and right, jump over or duck under obstacles.

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The Naga segments are frustrating and feel out of place — more like something that belongs in a bad mobile game cash-in. Even worse, they culminate in one of the most annoying standalone parts of a game I've played all year. The final Naga section is actually a boss fight, where you need to focus on both attacking and dodging against three different opponents who require way too many paw swipes to take down.

Wrap Up:

The Legend of Korra does a disservice to its much-loved source material

That moment was the final straw, where I really started disliking my time with The Legend of Korra, but it's symptomatic of the game as a whole. It demonstrates a handful of good ideas but no proficiency at putting them to meaningful use. It's clear that Platinum has some understanding of what makes this cartoon so beloved by fans, but I can't fathom why it would settle for such a mediocre experience in light of that.

The Legend of Korra was reviewed using a final downloadable code for the Xbox One provided by Activision. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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