"For example, The Burning Earth picks up right after a large battle against the Fire Nation and has Aang and his two compatriots, Sokka and Katara, off to train in the ways of Earthbending. If this last sentence read like a foreign language, Avatar: The Last Airbender - The Burning Earth is not the game for you (unless you have a child, cousin, niece or nephew under the age of 10 to explain things)."
When it comes to licensed video games, especially portable ones, things are usually pretty bleak. Most properties don’t make the jump from television or movies to video games with much grace. Often, nearly everything about the film or show is lost in translation and fans are subjected to terrible game after terrible game. Avatar: The Last Airbender is a massively popular action cartoon that has built a large following of devoted fans, despite the fact that it airs on Nickelodeon, a network known more for its comedic NickToons than serious, action-oriented programming. As with most television shows of this kind, video games staring Aang, the Last Airbender of the show’s title, have begun popping up, though mostly on Nintendo’s Wii and DS systems. The newest game, Avatar: The Last Airbender - The Burning Earth, is best compared to those candy cigarettes they used to sell everywhere before they were banned – both allow the younger set to emulate the conventions and behaviors of their elders, but both leave the user (or player) extremely dissatisfied.
Before we get to why The Burning Earth will most likely leave you with a burning sensation--and not a good one--let’s talk about the story, graphics and sound. If you aren’t familiar with the show, this game is definitely not the best place to start. The Burning Earth is a sequel, both in terms of the television program and the game. The previous Avatar game, Avatar: The Last Airbender, was released on the DS late last year. While that title covered the story of the show’s first season, The Burning Earth picks up at the beginning of season two. Neither game is meant for non-Avatar fans; plots, situations and characters from the show are introduced in game with little to no background information to bring an Avatar virgin up to speed.
Being that The Burning Earth is a sequel, things are all the more confusing if you aren’t already familiar with Aang, his crew and his world. For example, The Burning Earth picks up right after a large battle against the Fire Nation and has Aang and his two compatriots, Sokka and Katara, off to train in the ways of Earthbending. If this last sentence read like a foreign language, Avatar: The Last Airbender - The Burning Earth is not the game for you (unless you have a child, cousin, niece or nephew under the age of 10 to explain things). What I’ve just relayed about the game’s plot may seem like it was read off the game’s packaging, but neither the box nor the game itself even gives you as much information as I have here. Like I said, if you don’t know the story, The Burning Earth isn’t a great place to pick up.
It is at least pleasant enough to look at, though the graphics certainly don’t push the DS hardware to the limit. They are bright, appropriate and match the style of the show rather well, however. Each of the game’s characters are well-rendered 2D sprites and the enemies and surroundings aren’t too bad, either. The Burning Earth is no Castlevania or New Super Mario Bros. in the graphics department, but the game is by no means an ugly one. The main complaint I had with the graphics is that all the action takes place with an isometric 2D/3D perspective and some of the environments are overly bland and flat, making navigation an issue. Near the beginning of the game, you’ll be spending some time in a fort with sloping paths leading to the entrance. The paths are all so flat visually that you’ll be stuck, though only momentarily, trying to figure out the dimensions and where to go next. The high point of The Burning Earth’s graphics is the assortment of character portraits found at the bottom of the screen. Sure, they are static portraits, but they keep the player aware that they are playing an Avatar game.
There isn’t really too much to say about The Burning Earth in the sound department. The game features a few lines of spoken text in each chapter, but overall, you’ll be reading most of the exchanges. The background music gets old after a while, but it fits the style of both the game and the show. You certainly won’t be humming any of the tunes, but you probably won’t automatically turn down the DS’s volume each time you play.
Remember that clever candy cigarette comparison from earlier in the review? This is where that comes into play. Avatar: The Last Airbender - The Burning Earth is, for all intents and purposes, an action RPG that has been scaled down to suit the tender sensibilities of the younger gamers out there. While I’m all for games for kids and using simplified versions of gaming mainstays, The Burning Earth takes it one step too far; the game should have been short and simple, all while using scaled down versions of concepts like leveling, inventory management, quests, etc. Instead, it's too short, too simple and even the most basic of ideas are dumbed down enough to make the experience feel like a proverbial ride on the short bus of the gaming world.
Everything about The Burning Earth too simple, making the game an insult to the intelligence and gaming prowess of even the most inexperienced of players. Things that tend to matter in most action RPGs--levels, combat, etc.--none of it makes too much difference here. Fighting is a one-button affair that is never challenging due to an overabundance of life boosts and power ups. Even leveling up your characters seems to make no discernible difference in their abilities. You’ll be button mashing your way through wave after wave of generic enemies, with three interchangeable characters who, aside from their animations, are literally the same.
The Burning Earth’s biggest issue, though, will only be noticeable to veteran gamers. Kids will be annoyed with it as well, but probably won’t be able to articulate exactly why. What am I referring to? The Burning Earth somehow manages to take the most annoying part of the ‘random encounter RPG’ and mix it with the usually fun conventions of an action RPG. When you see an enemy onscreen, it will immediately charge you. The problem is that you won’t be able to start fighting immediately. Instead, you’ll be warped to a ‘fighting arena’ that looks suspiciously like the area you just came from. You’ll fight one or two enemies, kill them and be warped back to the area you started at. At first, it’s disorienting but it quickly becomes extremely annoying and severely takes away from the fun of the game.
All in all, Avatar – The Last Airbender: The Burning Earth isn’t the worst game out there. Fans of the show might be able to find some pleasure in playing through the very short adventure, but I’ve noticed that in licensed game reviews, the old “fans of the show” line is usually code for “the game sucks.” With The Burning Earth, its almost true, but the game isn’t nearly as painful to play as the DS and GBA Naruto and Dragon Ball Z action RPGs, so there is something to be said for that, I guess. If you’ve got an Avatar fan in your home, you can certainly do worse than The Burning Earth, but you can probably do a whole lot better.
Freelance review by Jason Nimer (December 13, 2007)
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