"Activision is showing a new Platinum game next week."
Hearing those words from one of my industry contacts, there was only logical response: "I'm in." Platinum may not have a true breakout hit under their belt, but there's no denying their credentials as an action developer. Their presence at Microsoft's E3 press briefing is proof enough of that.
Nevertheless, the next words were enough to throw me for a bit of a loop: "They're making a licensed game. It's the Legend of Korra."
I was surprised, to say the least. Plenty of studios do contract work on the side, but it's rare to see developers with Platinum's pedigree making games based on Nickelodeon TV shows, even those as well-regarded as Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. There are success stories out there—CyberConnect2 has been making solid Naruto games for years now—but the news was still enough to raise a few eyebrows. Honestly, my first reaction was, "Is Platinum in trouble? Do they need the cash that badly?"
Whatever the reason, it turns out that Platinum's team hadn't even heard of Legend of Korra before Activision approached them with an offer to make a game in the series. Being a western-developer anime, it has yet to be licensed in Japan, making it virtually unknown. Upon first hearing the name, producer Atsushi Kurooka jokes that he said, "Korra? What's that? Like Coca-Cola?"
After seeing the show for themselves though, Kurooka says that the team was surprised and impressed: "It's so well-balanced. It's got interesting action, a really good story, comedy, and romance. In terms of story, we were really impressed by how it delves really deep into personal relationships. It's not the sort of maturity that you would expect from a regular children's program. We thought that was really interesting."
Being an action studio, Platinum also appreciated the thought that went into Korra's action sequences, and the way that they were inspired by real-life styles. The Legend of Korra is the sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender, which was a similarly popular show that aired on Nickelodeon until 2008. Both are based on the idea of elemental martial arts practicioners being able to harness air, water, fire, and earth, each with their own specialty. Amusingly, the lack of a translated version meant that the translators had to go to special lengths to get Platinum a version they could watch. They ended up transcribing scripts from whole episodes and dropping them into Word documents, which the team followed as they watched.
"We had two screens, one with the show and one with the document," Kurooka says. "We were torn between wanting to watch the action and wanting to understand what was going on." Ultimately though, he says, Platinum liked what they saw enough that they decided that "the brand was worth pursuing."
The game Kurooka's team has come up with should be familiar to many Platinum fans, albeit with cel-shaded graphics. A third-person action game, it is very much in the mold of other Platinum action games like Bayonetta in its emphasis on timing-based combos and combat flow. Legend of Korra's system is based on heavy and light attacks, with certain inputs—square, square, square for instance—resulting in special attacks. In addition, Korra can switch between all four bending styles on the fly, which plays a heavy part in creating a successful combo chain.
"It's a more compact schedule than usual, but we have a lot of super experienced guys on the project, and we've been able to squeeze in a lot more content than you might expect for a downloadable game." -- Atsushi Kurooka
The twist is that it's also possible to charge up attacks, which forms the crux of much of the strategy during a battle. Knowing when to charge up is a necessary skill, since it results in more powerful moves for a time. There's a risk-reward elements to it, since charging leaves Korra completely vulnerable to attack. But as with everything else, there's an art to being able to charge on the fly.
Being a licensed game designed with kids in mind, it almost certainly won't be punishing as, say, Bayonetta at its hardest. But this is also Platinum we're talking about, and they're not ones to skimp either. Even at this early date, it's easy to see that Korra's combat system is considerably deeper than that of most licensed games. It's not unusual to see licensed games try and ape some of the established concepts from bigger budget titles, only to come often come off feeling watered down and inferior. The Captain America: Super Soldier adaptation from a few years ago is a case in point. But with due respect, Platinum is obviously not a Next Level Games or a High Voltage Software either.
"It's a more compact schedule than usual, but we have a lot of super experienced guys on the project, and we've been able to squeeze in a lot more content than you might expect for a downloadable game," Kurook says. "One thing we're looking forward to fans experiencing is the final boss fight. We think it's going to be super surprising. We think they'll look at it and go, 'This is Platinum Games."
In typical Platinum fashion, they intend to make sure gamers get plenty of bang for their buck. Though only 4 to 6 hours at the outset, it will include a New Game+ of sorts, with certain areas only being unlockable with the use of a particular bending style (Korra loses her powers early and spends much of the game getting them back). Platinum is also squeezing in a Pro-bending minigame, with separate attendant minigame.
For Platinum, working within a different universe with different rules has been an interesting challenge. This isn't the first time they've worked on a property other than their own; but unlike Metal Gear Solid Revengeance, they've been in charge of the project from the start. Though Kurooka wouldn't elaborate one way or another, Nickelodeon is undoubtedly very protective of what has become something of a prestige franchise for them, and anything Platinum does has to work within the bounds of the universe. Nevertheless, they've used the opportunity to experiment a bit with their house style, introducing concepts like charging and working to make sure that the various bending styles can flow into a single combo.
The more I think about it, the more I think this is simply a case of Platinum looking at a project like Korra and saying, "This looks fun. Why not? Let's do it." They've certainly never been shy about taking on a challenge (see again: Metal Gear Solid Revengeance). And what could be more challenging than making a really good licensed game on a compressed time schedule? When I ask if they would consider taking on such a project again, Kurooka pauses for a moment to consider.
"It's certainly a possibility that we could do something like this again," he says. "Our philosophy is that we want to do high-end games on next-gen hardware, and we'll go wherever we can find a challenge worth taking on."
For Platinum, The Legend of Korra is just such a challenge. And assuming it measures up to their previous work, which there's no reason to believe it won't at this point, fans of the series are in for a treat.