Reviewer: George Damidas
Overall: 8 = Excellent
Asura’s Wrath is a wild concoction: a mixture of God of War‘s approach to melee and quick-time combat sequences, Stargate‘s mixture of mythology and science fiction, and the design aesthetics of Peter Chung—with a dash of steampunk. It’s part game, part anime serial, and part what-did-I-just-see, making for one of the most unique and polemical releases in the current console generation.
As one of the Eight Guardian Generals, Asura is a powerful demigod in the service of the Shinkoku Empire and Emperor Strada. His daughter, Mithra, is a high priestess who has the ability to harness mantra, a pervasive and potent type of spiritual energy, for the use of the Empire’s forces. Mantra is the key weapon in the Empire’s war against the demonic Gohma. An evil, corrupting spirit, the Gohma seeks to consume the souls of the people of Gaea. The goal of the Empire—a space-faring people populated by demigods, steampunk-esque automatons, and creatures based on a myriad of Eastern mythologies—is to save the souls of the innocent. For a while, at least.
After defeating the Gohma’s then-most powerful form, a massive rock-lava creature known as Gohma Vlitra, with the help of his daughter, Asura is framed for the murder of the Emperor and set upon by the remaining Guardian Generals. Out of a desire to start anew (the Great Rebirth) and troubled by Asura’s unpredictable nature, the other demigods—Augus, Kalrow, Olga, Sergei, Wyzen, and Yasha—follow Deus, the most powerful of the generals, in his plan of overthrowing the Emperor and betraying Asura. Usurping the throne also means taking control of and harnessing Mithra’s powers, which the seven accomplish by murdering her mother and turning the Empire on Asura. After a decisive battle, Asura is defeated and imprisoned in the underworld of Naraka.
After 12,000 years, Asura emerges from the depths of hell for revenge, and that is when the game proper begins. However, up to that point, the game already throws so many wild sites, encounters, and characters at you that the prologue raises just as many questions as it answers. Within the first few minutes of the game I was already perplexed because, like Nier, Asura’s Wrath cares little for convention, be it in presentation or formatting, and goes full throttle on the weird. The game begins with a massive battle in space, as Asura and the Guardian Generals lead the Empire’s fleet, spearheaded by a giant half-finished personification of the Brahmastra, against a fleet of Gohma ships that range from rocky spikes to huge jellyfish things. After a sequence that mixes Panzer Dragoon-style rapid and lock-on firing and quick-time combat sequences, I was left half-stunned at the game’s complete dedication to going all-in with everything—the number and size of on-screen objects, strange dialog, and surreal mixture of real-life deities and science-fiction trappings. From the outset, it’s obvious that Asura’s Wrath isn’t like most games.
And it’s not. At times, it’s hard to even classify Asura’s Wrath as a game, since some portions forgo any game-world interaction and are little more than a sequence of vignettes that you help along by tapping a button. Other portions are short brawls with carbon-copy enemies, such as possessed apes and pudgy, half-toothless creatures known as Doji, capped off with a ridiculous boss fight filled with face-smashings and ship-destroying punches. Hell, there are even fights when an armless Asura faces off against the gods relying solely on kicks and headbutts. With a combat system involving evades, weak and strong combos, long-range attacks, counters, and multiple gauges, there’s plenty for the designers to work with; they just seem to have chosen not to.
As the game title implies, wrath factors heavily into both the story and design. Not only is the game a prolonged quest for revenge, but most of the battles are won only when Asura unleashes his full fury on an opponent. His unchecked rage is frequently the only means with which he has to take down the remaining generals. But they aren’t really generals any more. During Asura’s 12,000-year absence, the higher echelon underwent a metamorphosis with the unwilling help of Mithra. By harnessing her power, they transcended demigod-hood and became full-fledged gods, renaming themselves the Seven Deities. They have also become something of a megalomaniacal cabal, frequently killing humans in order to fill their Mantra reactors with souls in order to power their fleets and Gohma-battling minions. Their increased power matters little to Asura, who will frequently sprout four extra arms just to punch them more. And more. And more.
All of this is played out in an eight-plus-hour experience (on Hard, and with many, many cutscenes) broken up into numerous episodes styled after an anime series. The narrative is so dedicated to the serial format that the episodes come complete with bumpers for non-existent commercials, “To be continued…” screens, between-episode text sequences, narrated episode recaps, and credit rolls for each of the three main parts. There are so many breaks that they can actually make things more confusing, as the game can abruptly switch gears just as it’s getting its footing. It also leads to weird sequences, such as dialog repeating after a five-second splash-screen interlude and levels lasting as short as half a minute—well, forty-seven seconds to be precise. But the setup works well overall and fits nicely with the unorthodox presentation style, including the unusual text descriptors that give the characters’ name, rank, and for the Gohma, impurity levels.
That sort of devil-may-care attitude towards convention carries over with the encounters as well. Imagine stopping a Budai the size of Jupiter from squashing you with an Africa-sized fingertip, ramming through massive spaceships like a guided missile, ripping apart space krakens, climbing your way out of hell while taunted by a golden mechanical spider, or pursuing a fleeing ape through a network of caverns in a high-speed pursuit in what might be the only cross of Space Harrier and King Kong to date. And that’s just a taste of what’s in store.
One minute you’re awakening from death to find the world tossed back to a near-Stone Age existence while gleaming ships fly overhead, and the other, you’re in a hot spring with an old mentor, given the option to ogle the scantily clad servant wench or pound down the wine on offer. In-between the more pedestrian grunt encounters are a string of scenes and events that I’ve never seen in a game before, making for a thrilling and frequently mesmerizing ride. While I’m not a fan of quick-time events, the God of War 3 approach of providing a generous input window and amazing spectacle makes their inclusion much more palatable.
Despite being linear, Asura’s Wrath is surprisingly varied. CyberConnect2 uses Asura’s long-range attack to maximum affect, with in-air and on-the-ground levels akin to the aforementioned Sega classics Panzer Dragoon and Space Harrier. A late-game switch also sees Yasha become playable, which isn’t a massive change gameplay-wise, but he is a bit faster. Although, his inclusion does bring up a curiosity: it’s strange enough that Asura, a demigod who regularly takes laser beams to the face with aplomb, can die from a few swipes of a grunt’s spear, but how does that apply to a fearsome god as well? Then again, that’s about the least bit of weirdness in the game. And all of those quick-time events do add up, though some can be pretty tedious (I never want to have to tap B again), as combat and quick-time performance is rated and averaged as part of an end-episode score. That score ends up being very important because, and this is a swift punch to the gut to find out, the true ending is only available for those who unlock the hidden final episode by achieving an S (highest ranking) on five levels or playing fifty episodes on the various difficulty levels. Fifty. With three difficulty levels, that’s a lot of replaying. There are some bonuses for your hard work, though, with different gauges unlocking as requirements are met that offer extra bonuses, such as a boost to defense.
For as interesting as the package is, Asura’s Wrath often stumbles when it tries to play as a traditional game. Combat is never fleshed out, and all of the tactical possibilities open to Asura are purposely left limited as they are little more than vehicles for him to build up his Burst Gauge in order to unleash monster attacks. To that end, the combat system is fine, in that it works to build up for a fight-ending finisher; however, for the player, getting to that point requires fighting the same lackluster enemies using the same handful of moves ad nauseum. While the encounters are often satisfying—see: uppercutting a giant demonic tortoise twenty feet into the air—combat is so basic and the quick-time events so plentiful that the comparison to God of War is largely superficial; one has a fleshed-out combat system, and the other has a few punches and a limited ranged attack. And while the possessed animals might have allegorical ties with the various religions represented, that doesn’t make them any more exciting to fight five hours in or stand out less amongst the far more imaginative main story and characters.
Have you ever wanted to battle a god on the Moon? Squeeze a god into mush? Or maybe just punch a rhino in the face?As disparate as these situations are, Asura’s Wrath has them all, and much more. But keep in mind that this is a very unorthodox game, one that seems to reveal in its own inner world and workings, which will no doubt put off some players. This isn’t a straight-up brawler, nor is it a Dragon’s Lair rail adventure—it’s something in between, but cranked up to a ridiculous level. There are sights and sounds in Asura’s Wrath that you will not experience anywhere else, and that’s really what the game is: an experience. Go in prepared for a strange, surreal trip and enjoy the ride.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)