Azurik is a young 'Lore Guardian'? who is given the task to protect the elemental discs that contain the souls of the Elemental Guardians. Each disc represents one element: Earth, Water, Fire, Air, Life, and Death. The world that Azurik lives in, Perathia, (which is roamed by some humans, but isn't Earth) is separated into the Earth realm, the Water realm, the Fire realm, and the Air realm. Azurik roams this planet, looking for the scattered pieces of the Elemental discs which have been strewn to the far corners of Perathia by his evil peer Balthazar. While looking for the discs, he also gains the skills to use his mighty staff, allowing him to wield the 'Elemental Powers'? against people and objects.
So what does Azurik have to do with all of these Elemental powers, discs, and realms? He must " restore balance to the universe.'? This is pretty original (sarcasm).
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
The gameplay was a mixed bag. I liked the fact that the Elemental Powers were tied to logical buttons on the controller. For example, Fire was red, Water was blue, Earth was green, and Air was Yellow (err, close enough). I enjoyed the fact that his powers could be used in combination. For instance, you can join the Fire and Water power to form Steam, which then enables you to melt ice (don't ask me why Fire couldn't melt ice, but I digress...). Also, certain powers will help your foes while others will hurt them. Therefore, you have to figure out the weaknesses of each character to make sure you aren't merely sustaining or improving their power while fighting them.
The downside is that at the beginning of the game many hours are spent just gathering these powers, and for a long while you don't really need them to fight people. Yeah, you could use your fire staff and fight them, but you could also do the basic jab move over and over and over until they die. Boring yes, but it gets the job done. This begs the question: 'Are the powers really needed for all that much?'? In reality, they do allow you to navigate to new areas and are useful under swarms of enemies, but when you go one-on-one with a bad guy they aren't really needed.
Like most RPG games, the goal is to find and gather an assortment of random items. This is accomplished by walking around killing some bad guys, flipping some switches, finding keys and unlocking locks. Unfortunately, there isn't a lot of discovery in the game, because you will usually just stumble across the item or object that you are looking for. Strategy and puzzle solving is somewhat limited.
My major complaint is the remainder of the controller functions. The Xbox has two nice joysticks which lend themselves well to natural motions like moving forward, back, left, and right with one stick, while using the other to rotate your position around the axis centered through the character's body. Unfortunately, the developers for Azurik decided to use a different strategy. One joystick moves the character forward, back, left, and right (okay, so far so good). The other joystick will rotate the camera (not the character) around his vertical axis. I can see this partly makes sense because the camera isn't actually from the character's point of view, but in third-person view. The irritating part is that if you rotate the camera while he's running he changes direction. If you rotate the camera while he's stopped you just spin around him. The same goes for moving up and down. You can move the camera up and down, but he doesn't really go up and down. Therefore, the camera could be positioned at the sky while he's running, but he's looking straight ahead as if he can really see what is going on (which is technically true, but since you drive him it doesn't really make a lot of sense).
I must have spent countless hours just trying to re-center the camera when fighting in one place, because I would keep moving around Azurik while he'd stand there with his back to someone. Although the right trigger will do this, it only gives you a perspective of looking down on him from an angle in the rear. This works for fighting, but is unusable for general navigation since you can't see over a rise in the road. This doesn't even take into account that the directional pad zooms in and out on him. Thus, I spent large amounts of time trying to get close enough to where I could see things, but far enough away so as not to miss obvious things around me. The whole controller experience lends itself to un-needed frustration and could have been handled much better by condensing the number of angles in which he could be viewed. In general, this isn't bad. It is appropriate, say, in a replay of a football scene where you'd like to view the tackle from different angles, but during a fighting game it just isn't valuable. Again, with a little more thought this experience could have been much better.
The graphics were not too great. At first I was tricked into thinking they were downright good, then I actually opened my eyes. The changing landscapes where you essentially have four different worlds in one make for very nice variety. Unfortunately, just changing the color scheme doesn't make bad graphics look good. For a PC I probably would have accepted a lot of it, but for an Xbox game I set the bar high enough that I can't trip over it.
When you look closely at things you will realize that they are just images smacked onto round or square surfaces. For example, in a cave with colors and shading that try to give the appearance of contours on the wall, it really just looks like a half sphere with 2-D pictures that try to give the appearance of 3-D. Here's a better thought, just make the 3-D world in actual 3-D... what a novel idea! It would have been much better to actually put contours in the walls and pitches and falls on the ground in diagonal directions instead of always up and down in straight ramp like fashion.
I learned to live with the fact that Azurik, although not four inches high, is basically a muscular Papa Smurf with a fighting staff and tattoos. Azurik actually looks pretty decent and so do most of the bad guys, but the landscape will let you down. More time spent on the landscape, would have helped appreciably toward making this a more stellar game.
I thought the sound was actually well done. The background music was just like a very good orchestra and had nice rhythms and beats. The entire effect was usually very somber and appropriate. I would almost be tempted to just let it play for a bit while doing something else around the house (and Dolby Digital would have sounded sooo nice).
The character voices got a bit annoying after a while, because they are ALWAYS THE SAME. Even Azurik never makes new sounds. When he swings his staff you get this "HYA HYA!'? No mater what range of motion or type of swing he makes, it's always the same drag. I felt like I was in a bad 80's karate movie. At least Bruce Lee learned to vary his high-pitched voice depending upon the move he was making -- Azurik should take lessons.
Originality / Cool Features
I liked the fact that you can swim in water. This was a nice change of pace from the typical walk around, jump around game. Azurik had nice swimming motions and he could zip around in the underwater world. One nit is that you can't go up or down while swimming. You are basically required to float up or down. It is somewhat irritating that the only swimming you can do is horizontal not vertical.
While we're talking about environment, we should talk about the world. Azurik's world contains the four realms and you can roam freely between them. Not all of them are accessible at first, because you need certain powers to unblock paths, but eventually you can just wander between them. This is interesting because there are no load times and you can just backtrack anytime you want. This is both good and bad. That bad part is you are never really sure if you've found everything or are even on the right track. I think the game is designed this way and it usually forces you to complete a certain number of things before you can get too far ahead. One time I think I took a wrong turn, slid down some ice, and found myself way back at the beginning with no way to go back. I had to wander through all the same areas to get back to where I was. This was frustrating and I pretty much turned it off after I got back to where I originally was (20 minutes later).
The enemy characters had nice variety and were well-developed. They also seemed to have pretty good AI. Certain groups of them would work in colony fashion, swarming and surrounding me while fighting. One bad guy is actually a nice little goat-like thing during the day and then at night he transforms into an evil goat with fangs and horns and will try to kill you -- that is pretty cool.
In summary, I would probably hold out on buying this game. It seems that it was more of an attempt to sell copies while people are clamoring for new Xbox launch titles to play, instead of really taking the time to make the game good. The plot was as dry as the Sahara desert, the graphics were weak, and the controls were downright comical. Unfortunately, many other games with lame plots choose to improve in other areas to distinguish themselves. I'm not really sure what Azurik did well in any aspect of the game. It had the potential to be much better, but just appeared rushed. I think if you find yourself saying, "I need some game' any game," you've got yourself a winner. In reality, once people get a handle on what the Xbox can do, I would expect games of this genre to be much better. For a first game on a new console it is tolerable, but it just gets boring over time. This game would be a nice weekend rental, but not a good Christmas gift.