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RELEASE DATE (NA): October 10, 2006 GENRE: Action-Adventure
// review by EscapeRouteBritish

EscapeRouteBritish: The Last Discbender.

Inspired by Asian culture, folklore and mythology, The Last Airbender tells the story of the young boy Aang, frozen in ice for a hundred years. It is an animated series that spawned movies, video games, and other forms of media. The first console entry based on the series was released on every major platform at the time: PlayStation 2, GameCube, Xbox, PC, and even the Wii where it was butchered with motion controls and regular freezes, as though that port had been the one trapped in ice for a century. This review focuses on the PS2 entry, though it could easily apply to any of the other console releases.

The presentation is sometimes solid, sometimes messy. Character models are very much on point, with a nice degree of cel-shading that accentuates the show's anime-influenced appearance. They animate smoothly and look especially nice in the cutscenes, where the PS2's standard def visuals go a long way towards blurring the jagged edges. The environments, however, are anything but impressive — looking like they belong to the previous generation. When playing, I joked that THQ Australia's environment artists probably only had experience working on games for the original PlayStation, but I would be surprised if this is far from the truth. The geometry is extremely basic, and the textures are blocky and generic. Textured backdrops in the flying scenes don't always fill the whole screen, characters assume the T-Pose when not fully in the frame during cutscenes, and most damning of all, the game's camera is either not zoomed in enough or not zoomed out enough!

The sound direction doesn't fare much better. While the voice clips are clean and easy to hear, the sounds crackle and pop like a famous breakfast cereal. They're terribly canned, loud-peaking sounds that have been plopped in without even the simplest attempt to clean them up. The soundtrack was unmemorable; I can't even recall a single melody or tune.

How to bend air in 99 Easy Steps.

Aesthetically, the game most resembles a dungeon crawler such as Baldur's Gate or Diablo. The gameplay is also similar, in that your time is either spent talking to townspeople and accepting quests or going out into the wilderness to beat up a bunch of animals and collect money or important items. There are four playable characters and the game gives you many opportunities to give them all a test drive — Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Haru — who each have different attacks, stats, and skills. As you defeat enemies and fulfill quests you earn experience points. These level up everyone equally, so you don't need to worry about individual experience levels or team balancing. Many reviews stated that the RPG mechanics were unnecessary, that they added nothing to the experience. On the contrary, I believe it felt good to unlock moves and skills steadily as I progressed, powering up in time for some of the harder bosses.

Navigating the game's large levels is a pain. The mini-map's green arrows have a tendency to lead you toward brick walls, unpassable gaps and right into enemy groups you didn't have to face. If you have a handful of quests open you have to juggle which mission marker is which — tricky to do when the game yields no helpful answers. Most quests are skippable entirely if you want a breezy experience, but some "skippable" quests are anything but, with the game telling you nothing and offering no story progression until you get someone a wick for their candles or something equally as uninteresting.

The combat is simply enjoyable, and if the game focused on adding a few extra mechanics such as dodge rolls, counters and throws, it would be even better. It isn't always clear when attacks are damaging the enemy, and I find it baffling that the damage indicators are turned OFF by default. Highly recommend you turn those on immediately upon starting up, as these make it obvious how glaringly useless Haru's earthbending powers are. Barely any of his attacks connect, at all. My genuine suggestion is to stick with either Aang or Sokka as much as you can, because their attacks flow best and most comfortably.

The regular enemies are bad enough, but the boss battles — they're arduous and irritating. Immediately, your three teammates charge full speed at the boss, dying in seconds. You're left to pick up the pieces and take on the boss by yourself, which requires eating through all those health items you picked up. Hey, I was keeping those for a, umm, rainy day? At least this makes the game challenging somewhat, a welcome change to most licensed children's video games of the era. If the problems with balance, control, and navigation were fixed, this could have been something quite remarkably special. A welcome start for Aang and his friends, but a long way to go for me to consider it anything more than average.

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