Peru-based Bamtang Games only have the Nickelodeon Kart Racers titles to their name – a series where each installment has seen improvement over the last. When it comes to working this newfound expertise into another Nickelodeon franchise, a lot has been asked of the developer, we feel. Quest for Balance falls into a completely different genre, with this being a platform adventure featuring combat and a surprisingly strong focus on puzzle solving. It’s also intended to be the franchise equivalent of LEGO Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga, recapping key events of the entire (and long concluded) storyline.
This means the playable character roster regularly sees new faces introduced, Aang gradually learns water, earth, and fire abilities to match his air bending skills, and a slew of villains show their faces periodically for boss fights. The story is also spread across dozens of locations – villages, cities, castle fortresses, temples, forests, airships, and more. It’s a pretty tall order for what’s likely a small team.
The first problem coming to light is that liberties have been taken with the story. It’s faithful enough and easy to follow, but also heavily abridged. Quite often, text boxes are used to detail key events. Aang entering the Spirit World for the first time – a crucial plot point – a simply detailed, mid quest, via a paragraph of text. The same goes for the few occasions when Aang and friends are captured by the Fire Nation. Cut-scenes are reserved for the start of a new chapter only, and even then, the animation is far from cartoon quality.
Going back to the LEGO Star Wars comparison, Quest for Balance doesn’t play dissimilarly. Aang is joined by Sokka and Katara, with Toph added to the team much later, along with less predominant characters. They have their own skills – both inside and outside of battle – and must be swapped between often to harness their elemental abilities. This ties in heavily with puzzle solving – around half of Quest for Balance’s surprisingly lengthy 15-16 hour runtime is spent shoving and sliding boxes onto pressure plates, and creating safe pathways in order to light braziers with torches. The latter involves blocking water jets, creating ice ramps, moving platforms into place, et al. As the story unfolds, puzzles become larger in scale – never overwhelmingly complex, but I did wonder how younger gamers would cope, especially with later puzzles requiring multiple steps.
If you’re thinking that playing co-op with a friend would likely lighten the load, then you’re both right and wrong. Quest for Balance has a co-op mode, but second player interactions are severely limited and it isn’t drop in/drop out – instead, you’re requested to progress solo until finding a save statue, at which point a ‘Change Character’ option appears. This peculiarly worded option is where a second player can join, either locally or via online play. It’s a method so obtuse I initially believed the game shipped sans co-op. Presentation fares better elsewhere, thankfully, with well-designed menus and soft visuals with the occasional flourish, such as reflective water surfaces. The cavernous underground areas, however, aren’t much to look at. Character animation also appears unfinished – in one area NPCs were observed working with invisible tools – and the basic AI follow routines see Sokka, Katara, and Toph walk into hazards.
Despite the story taking place in a wide variety of locations, a pattern soon emerges with the game’s structure. Each chapter sees Aang and company arrive in a new location, where a main quest will be given, along with half-a-dozen shorter optional side-quests. Together with the ability to buy and sell items, including potions that temporarily increase attack and defence, this lends Quest for Balance a modern feel that sets it apart from the Avatar games of yore. Side quests mostly involve finding lost items, destroying things, and fighting bandits. Handily, there’s a log and a compass that guides you to quest objectives – and if you’re about to reach a point of no return, a prompt will appear so you can wrap things up.
Skill tokens are often handed out as rewards, permanently boosting damage, improving defense, and reducing cooldowns. Scrolls, meanwhile, mostly unlock new skills used to progress and are obtained by entering ‘Bending Challenge’ portals that relocate the action to mystical ruins. The music here has a calming influence, making it easy to focus on the task at hand.
Combat is best described as messy and chaotic. The idea is to lock onto enemies, flicking between targets with the analogue stick, and to either dodge or block attacks before retaliating. I never felt like I was in control though, which is partly due to the screen becoming a blur of elemental attacks. In addition to standard attacks, every 10-20 seconds a cooldown expires, allowing for Sokka to stun foes with his boomerang, and Katara to heal the party. Katara can trap enemies in ice too, which is useful. Swapping characters mid-battle – which is essential, as the whole party falls if someone goes down – has a slight delay, which sometimes resulted in a Game Over. Towards the story’s end, I was mostly able to button bash to victory – Katara’s ice whip deals heavy damage.
A few bosses required retries, with some required to be frozen on the spot by drawing them into marked areas, but generally, they weren’t too problematic. Neither were they particularly satisfying to beat, especially the hot-headed Zuko, who shows up several times only with more minions in tow.
To induce variety, once or twice per chapter a travel sequence occurs. Here, Aang rides Appa and must move out of harm’s way by switching lanes, a la Temple Run. Collision detection isn’t great, leading to mild frustration. The larger cities facilitate on-foot races against Momo, and these are more enjoyable. Incidentally, the cabbage merchant shows up in every town – complete with a cart Aang can “accidentally” destroy. Similar references are sadly few.
As pleasing as it is to see a new adaptation of the Avatar storyline – especially this long after the series ended – Quest for Balance feels a little rushed and half-hearted. I was constantly surprised by the number of locations, the length of the chapters, and the increasing complexity of the puzzles – culminating in a playtime of 16 hours, around twice as long as expected – but the majority of the experience is also oddly slow, with a lot of filler and repeated ideas. Fans will likely be left wondering why the dramatic and action-packed series they grew up with has been turned into a long succession of box-shoving puzzles. What should have been a bright and breezy affair is instead a slow burner.
Bamtang Games’ Avatar: The Last Airbender – Quest for Balance is out now on all formats. Published by GameMill.