One thing I've always loved is when you get so proficient at an action game that you are practically unstoppable. When the controls work well you feel invincible, almost god-like, as you cut a swath of destruction through the enemies you face. Heavenly Sword and the Ninja Gaiden series spring to mind. Of course, then there are the games where you play as a god, and are given powers beyond your wildest dreams to smite your foes. Devil May Cry and God of War redefined the action game experience for me, and I've enjoyed every one of them. However, greatness always inspires a slew of imitators, but usually these clones never quite live up to the ideal. With Asura's Wrath, I feared this trend would continue... from the trailers it looked like more of the same. But in the end I came away scratching my head, wondering what I had just experienced.
Asura is one of the Eight Guardian Generals, demigods who fight to protect Gaea from the corruption of the Gohma. Filled with a constant rage he is a fierce force on the battlefield, his wrath only quelled by thoughts of his family. His daughter Mithra is special: blessed with the ability to channel Mantra, she grants the demigods immeasurable power as the High Priestess. With her aid, Asura sprouts some extra arms and smites the evil monster Vlitra. All is well, evil is vanquished for the time being, and Asura is enjoying a well-earned respite. But then things go horribly wrong when he is framed for the death of the Emperor by Deus, the leader of Guardians. They kill his wife, kidnap his daughter, and cast him out. Asura falls from the heavens and finds himself lost in the purgatory-esque Naraka, where, with the aid of a golden spider, he climbs out 12000 years later on a quest to save his daughter and exact vengeance on those who wronged him.
Um, did you follow any of that? Nope? Good, neither did I. Apparently the legend is based on Hindu mythology, but I only found that out by checking Wikipedia. It's not a bad yarn, but as with most games like this, it's better to smile, nod, and take things for granted. The plot seems almost quintessentially Japanese and plays out in episodic form just like an anime, complete with "To be continued..." at the end of every chapter. In fact, half the dialogue is in Japanese, which is weird, if suitable (you'll have to play the game to see how that makes sense). Mix in a healthy dose of sci-fi/anime stylization, fast paced combat, and a ton of quick time events and that's Asura's Wrath in a nutshell... sort of.
Asura's Wrath blends a variety of play styles: the majority of the game is played out in arena style combat and endless waves of enemies, but there are also on-rails shooting segments, flight sequences, gallery shooting sections, and even a bizarre level that involves not looking at a young lady's cleavage (no, I'm not kidding... and yes, it's as fantastic and hilarious as it sounds). Each level, regardless of style, will go on indefinitely until you fill up your "Burst Meter" by attacking your foes and doing as much damage as fast as possible. When it's filled, push the right trigger and Asura gets really mad, essentially finishing the fight with an elaborate QTE.
QTE's are always a bit controversial; you either love them or hate them. I never minded too much in games like God of War because I always felt like it was balanced. However, in Asura's Wrath they are far too frequent. Regular combat is littered with them, the boss battles even more so. They even crop up in cutscenes from time to time, so if you happen to be taking notes on the bizarre story or (heaven forbid) taking a sip of beer, you'll miss them. What is odd is that this doesn't really affect the outcome, but instead the score you get at the end of the level. You're graded on time, battle damage, and your success at syncing the QTE's. Your success/failure rate in turn effects what you unlock such as concept art, movies, and the like. It's an odd system that rewards success, but doesn't really punish failure.
The highly stylized comic/anime graphical style is exceptional. The shading technique in particular is very well done. Asura's Wrath is gorgeous in a lot of ways, and I only encountered a few texture pop-in issues. What is decidedly odd, though, was a few moments of severely pixelated graphics that I was actually thinking it must have been intentional because they looked so bad. In between each level you are treated to not only a cutscene, but also a text based exposition that expands the plot. As confusing as the plot is, some of these moments actually do shed light on the proceedings. What I really like about them is each one has a different artist that did the drawings in the background. It's clever to see how different artists interpreted the same story. It was a nice touch.
But here's my problem with Asura's Wrath: they tried to do too much and as a result didn't get any of it exactly right. The story, bizarre and nonsensical as it is, finds some emotional connection about half way through, but then totally falls apart at the end. There are so many "Huh?", "Re-eally?", and "WTF?!?" moments that even a devoted anime fan like myself was throwing up my hands in frustration. In true anime fashion it goes so far over the top that any credibility or connection to the characters you might have gleaned is lost amidst flashing lights, giant monsters, seventeen final boss fights (that might be an exaggeration, but it sure felt like it), and a hell of a lot of button-mashing. I tried to feel some sympathy for Asura and his tragic story, but then he's not a very sympathetic character. To say he has anger management issues would be an understatement, and he yells so much that he was actually giving me a headache.
Combat is also a bit hit-and-miss. Actually, let me rephrase that, the melee combat doesn't work particularly well despite the awesome "Burst Limit" finishers. When it gets it right you feel suitably awesome, but even then I never felt like I was completely in control. There are some hit detection issues, and as with most third person action games, the camera can be a royal pain. This is only made worse by the environments sometimes blocking out everything as you pan around trying to see who is shooting you in the ass. What's worse is that the arena battles really begin to get stale and repetitive towards the end as the game stops introducing new enemy types. The shooting sections devolve rapidly into button mashing rather than actual targeting. For that matter, so do the QTE's which, by the end of the game, are enough to induce a carpal tunnel relapse.
The other big problem is just how short the game is. I beat it in an afternoon. But then I went back and subtracted out all the cutscenes, dialogue, and text based filler and realized that I had probably actually played the game for only two to three hours of the six it took to get through the whole thing. It was literally five minutes of gameplay, ten minutes of cutscenes... repeat. For a full priced commercial release that's just ludicrous. Considering the inherent lack of replay value in what is essentially a story driven experience, this makes Asura's Wrath even more insulting.
Again, I'd like to stress that I can see what they were trying to do with Asura's Wrath... make it into a new, immersive, interactive medium, transcending other story driven experiences. I can see how this would be a great game for die hard anime fans (again, I'd like to consider myself as such), but I don't know if Asura's Wrath would appeal to a larger audience. It's stunning to look at most of the time, but that can only carry the game so far... because after all, it's still a game. The nonsensical plot I can live with, as long as the gameplay makes up for it. And that's where Asura's Wrath really fell apart for me. I honestly feel that if they had focused on any one component completely I wouldn't have been so disappointed with the overall product... and even then the ridiculously short play time is offensive. If you're looking for something different, then Asura's Wrath is unique enough that it's worth a rental, but I can't justify spending full price for a game that's literally as long as the movie it's so desperately trying to be.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of Asura's Wrath purchased by the reviewer.