Along with the Damsel in Distress, the Heroic Sacrifice, and Turret Sequences, the biggest trope in video games is without a doubt the depowering of the protagonist. You start off fully torqued and hit the ground running. Smash this, kill that, all without breaking a sweat. Feels good to be strong.
And then it’s all taken away from you. In a blink, you are reduced to the larva form of your formerly heroic self. You can still smash and kill but without nearly the same efficiency, potency, or flourish. It should by all means be the driving force behind the story: find the bad guy, get your powers back, and kick some ass. And it works.
Well, it works sometimes. We know, as an industry, that it works. Just about every God of War game contains this trope in some form (how many times does Kratos rise up from the depths of hell?), though 2007’s God of War II showcases this most effectively right at the start. Still a raging deity from the end of the first game, Kratos is killed by Zeus and loses everything. We then spend the game repowering.
This example (and the rest of the series) succeeds because the core of the franchise is a functional combat engine. Even with the various weapons and magical attacks, the mechanical foundation of God of War is still engaging. Countering, blocking, dodging, and murdering all feel so good even without the various cherries on top. There’s enough meat on the bone to support a game on its own, but the appendages allow the narrative to stretch and flex.
In fact, the depowering additionally serves to strip bare the game’s skeleton and show that it still works. It’s brazen and a bit cocky, but it’s well earned. It’s most reminiscent of the Metroid series where Samus also has a nasty habit of being depowered. Most likely to maintain universal consistency and keep the escalation in any given story interesting, the intergalactic bounty hunter often finds herself sans bonus weapons and armor, the most efficacious example being Metroid Prime 2: Echoes.
And yet those games till work because that series is not necessarily about having those weapons but about getting them. I don’t mean from the perspective of the plot where we find our inciting action, forcing us to unravel thread after thread in the pursuit of abilities but that the driving force of the moment-to-moment gameplay is the desire to find more things.
To get into tight spaces, we need to be able to become a Morph Ball. To open up this last door, we need the Ice Beam. The Metroid games are wholly built around the idea of exploring areas to find the need for an upgrade, not just for the sake of becoming more powerful. (It also doesn’t hurt that it’s fun being able to do more things.)
The reason I bring these considerations up is because of the recently released The Legend of Korra video game. Based on the popular cartoon series on Nickelodeon, it tracks the story of subsequent Avatar Korra following the progenitor series Avatar: The Last Airbender. Placed between seasons two and three of the television show, Korra faces a chi-blocker named Hundun.
Hundun manages to strip Korra of her powers basically right from the get-go. You get the taste of all of her elemental powers—courtesy of being the Avatar, the only being in the world at any given time able to bend/control water, earth, fire, and air—and it is fantastic. Each element has meaningful variance (as they are based on different martial arts disciplines).
Air is fast and sweeping, keeping up combos. Water snaps out far and wide, making sure no foe is out of reach. Earth is slow but hits hard. And fire wrecks up close. It adds strategy to an otherwise basic fighting structure. The game functions much like Bayonetta, another Platinum Games product, but fails to deliver on the bombastic combos and hardening difficulty of varied and unrelenting enemies.
Instead, much of The Legend of Korra is steeped in timed counters, which isn’t a terrible idea, but it doesn’t inherently have a lot of variety. This is where the four elements would have stepped in and relieved the pressure of the struggling combat systems, but following the introductory stage of the game, we are stripped of such privileges.
This renders the fighting in a supposedly fighting-centric game rather tedious. Enemies tend to dawdle and for the majority of the game, we don’t have any extended options to entice ourselves with variations on the same theme. Not that getting the powers makes the last quarter of the game all that much better, but it is an improvement.
The depowering in The Legend of Korra fails to make a positive impact because the game doesn’t fall back onto anything worthwhile. Unlike God of War where the combat was still taut and exploratory despite the lack of discrete options and Metroid where the focus is discovery and the finding the need for those powers, The Legend of Korra does it for the sake of finding a narrative and mechanical impetus for progress.
Oh tropes. You do have a knack for making a good thing bad.