The Legend of Korra bends the elements in a new game from the Bayonetta studio

It’s easy to write off The Legend of Korra as kid stuff. An animated Nickelodeon series that’s inspired by Japanese anime (but created by a pair of Yanks). And a spin off from the Avatar: The Last Airbender series doesn’t exactly scream “adult-oriented subject matter.” It is, however, perfect fodder for the spectacle-driven beat ’em up video game combat that Bayonetta developer Platinum Games has a knack for.

PlatinumGamesThat’s what the team on Platinum’s upcoming Korra game thought when Activision first brought the project their way. “We watched Korra and thought it was on par with some of the best stuff that we have in Japan,” Platinum producer Atsushi Kurooka told Digital Trends in a recent interview (through a translator). “It took lot of influence from things that you see in Japanese animation and it was incredibly impressive. It was up there with a lot of our greats.”

Activision jumped when Nickelodeon first offered up the opportunity to tackle a game based on the Last Airbender spin-off series. The department that pairs the publisher’s licensed properties with development studios came up with a list of possible candidates, and Platinum was on it. Activision producer Robert Conkey knew right away that they’d found their studio.

“I couldn’t think of a brand that’s more up their alley,” Conkey said. “The action that happens in the show plays right to their strengths. It’s super fluid, it’s fast-paced, it’s got spectacular aspects to it. It just felt like the perfect fit. So we brought it to them and they were just as excited about it as we were.”

Kurooka saw Korra as something of a challenge. Platinum has largely worked on its own creations since the studio was founded in 2006. Even last year’s Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, a spin-off of Kojima Productions Metal Gear franchise, stepped away from the series’ established framework for a very different type of game, one that felt uniquely Platinum. This is a studio that’s proven itself with complex beat ’em ups again and again, and while Korra fits that style perfectly, it’s also the most restricted the team’s ever been in terms of realizing a vision.

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“We hadn’t had many rules they needed to follow [before Korra]. It was more, ‘Oh, this might be cool, let’s do it,'” Kurooka said. “We considered it a really interesting challenge in terms of showing the world that we’re a versatile studio that can handle a variety of situations. For Korra, there’s a very strictly defined world that we needed to keep within. We felt like it would broaden our skillset to show that we could pull that off, staying inside the Korra world while still realizing the Platinum action style that we’ve become known for.”

From what we’ve seen of the game so far, the dev team hits that balance. Visually, the linear, level-based brawler looks like the TV show. Cel-shaded characters in the foreground play well against seemingly hand-painted backdrops. The animations pop impressively, bringing to mind Ubisoft’s Naruto-inspired adventure/fighting games. The screen gets very busy whenever combat reaches a fever pitch, but not in a way that renders the action difficult to follow.

“We felt like it would broaden our skillset to stay inside the Korra world while still realizing the Platinum action style.”

Then there’s the combat depth. On the surface, The Legend of Korra features basic brawler controls built around light/heavy attacks, dodges, and blocks. Platinum isn’t in the business of making button-mashers, however. Time a block right and you’ll parry an incoming enemy attack. Start a combo with one bending ability equipped — four unlock over the course of the game, corresponding to earth, water, fire, and air elements — and you can switch to any of the others on the fly.

Combat is designed so that each element complements the others, to better promote more varied combos. Earth, for example, is great for area attacks and for knocking enemies up into the air. Start out by sending a foe skyward with an Earth attack, then transition to juggling him using Water’s ranged attacks. You can then leap up with Fire armed, using fast, short-range melee attacks to finish the job, or dash through the enemy using Air so you can switch back to Earth and start the whole process over again.

Korra also has the ability to charge up her Chi by pressing and holding one of the attack buttons, releasing it when an onscreen visual cue comes into contact with her body. Do it successfully and you fill up a meter that, when charged, powers up standard attacks with additional oomph. It’s all about going bigger. Attack with the Earth element armed, and Korra starts hurling giant boulders. Attack with Air instead, and each swift melee strike spits out a herd of miniature whirlwinds.

The elemental “bending” that’s at the core of the series isn’t fully powered up from the outset. Each element has 10 levels of progression, and all four of them have to first be unlocked as the story unfolds. In the series’ universe, Avatars like Korra possess the rare ability to bend all four elements to their will. Unfortunately, some stuff happens at the start of the game that robs Korra of her abilities.

“I’m not going to go into too much detail on it, but a mysterious old guy … appears and ends up taking away Korra’s bending abilities. Her bending abilities have been taken away before by Chi-blockers … but that only lasts like an hour,” Conkey said.

“This time it feels like it’s something a little more permanent, and it’s not something that anybody’s seen before. So the story involves Korra figuring out (a) can she get her bending back and (b) who is this guy and what is he doing here? He’s hired this army of thugs and they’re everywhere; they’ve invaded Air Temple Islands, they’re all over Republic City, and she needs to figure out what’s going on.”

That’s as much detail as Activision or Platinum is willing to share about the story at this point. It’s set between the second and third seasons of the TV series, picking up after Korra’s season-ending decision to (spoiler alert) leave a gate to the spirit world open in the real world. The events of the game deal with the consequences of that decision, concluding with an epic boss battle that Platinum created in collaboration with the showrunners.

“We’re really excited about the boss battle at the end,” Kurooka said. “We worked together with the show creators — it was a collaborator between Platinum and the creators of the show, Mike [Dante DiMartino] and Bryan [Konietzko], and their team. Working together with them, everyone agreed on and determined the concept, and then it was up to Platinum to figure out how this villain would work. We think it’s going to be really awesome, the type of action you’ve come to expect from Platinum.”

The Legend of Korra comes to PC and PlayStation/Xbox consoles in 2014 as a download-only game.

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