A great game is like a Tootsie Pop: you slowly penetrate through the tasty outisde layers, which then melt away into an even more satisfying and chewy middle. Azurik: Rise Of Perathia has more in common with the strange rice cakes I bought a while back. At first taste, I wondered what all the fuss was about, but after two or three of 'em a nice buzz began to develop on my tongue, and soon enough the whole bag disappeared. The challenge, then, is to get the gamer to take that many bites, particularly when the two or three you need to start liking the rice cakes translates to two or three hours for Azurik.
Azurik's introduction perfectly magnifies every flaw in the game; unclear mission goals, aggravating water physics, ugly environments, abstract puzzles, laughable storylines, and a terrible mini-game where you play a firefighter putting out a birthday cake. Everything that could go wrong does go wrong in the beginning, which makes it no wonder that the shop to which Jeremy sold Azurik had so many copies returned. Most people (understandably) aren't going to tolerate such a lackluster opening when they could return it for a sure thing.
But when you dig your teeth into Azurik, the soft and sugary middle reveals itself. The initially infuriating controls become second nature after a bit of practice, and the "haze of confusion" Jeremy spoke of lifts, revealing a vast, untamed world to explore. Make no mistake, Azurik does not hold your hand in any way; you're on your own, and you have to figure things out by yourself. Though this can be a bit daunting at first, after a while it becomes refreshing not to have a fairy giving you hints every five seconds. When you locate another disk fragment or ability, you get a true sense of accomplishment from having found it almost independently. Azurik taps into the primal urge of curiosity we all have to find what is over the next ridge or through the next portal.
Azurik helps this open-ended concept work with some absolutely amazing environments; volcanoes, underground fire mazes, lush tropical forests, and ice caverns are all on the map. Although Jeremy dismisses these as "snazzier bells and whistles," they are very important to what makes Azurik work. After all, if the scenery weren't interesting, who would want to waste time exploring it? The stunning juxtaposition of two opposing waterfalls, one of fast-running water and the other of thick, molten lava, is more than just polygons or graphical tricks, it's art. It's too bad this doesn't extend to other areas of the game. Azurik himself animates stiffly and unnaturally, and is about the only decent-looking character model in the game. His enemies are not only grainy and pixelated, but their design is atrocious, including duck-footed dragons about as fearsome as the Teletubbies. The music just hangs there, the sound effects feel out of place, and the embarrassing weapons effects are ripped straight from a first-generation Playstation game.
When Azurik sticks to the exploration theme, it is a truly compelling experience. Too often, however, Adrenium seems to have lost their nerve and stuck with the genre's clichs. Of course, Azurik has end-of-level bosses, but without any of the creativity that defined the epic battles in past adventure games such as The Legend Of Zelda and Soul Reaver. Like these adventure classics, the enemies do little except get in the way of completing puzzles, but Azurik compounds this by making them exasperatingly difficult to kill, requiring long chain combos even when you've picked the "correct" elemental power to use against them. Adrenium also wasted a big opportunity by opting for the old console tradition of erratically placed save points. The main reason console developers have stuck with these are memory limitations, so why not use the ultra-convenient 'save anywhere' option now that you've got a huge hard drive to work with?
In spite of Azurik's rookie mistakes, I would recommend it to anyone looking for a good adventure. The main problem is the terrible opening; it is a lot to ask of someone that they spend two or three hours frustrated and confused before finally reaching the meat of the game. Regardless, it's a promising debut from Adrenium, and something they can build on with their next release. I too hope they are listening.
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