Explaining Asura’s Wrath is like explaining what it’s like to lose your virginity – you won’t get the proper ‘feel’ until you try it for yourself. No matter how much you think you know before it all kicks off, you actually know nothing. It’s both an exciting and terrifying prospect, and one that ultimately leaves you satisfied but utterly confused.
Elements of Asura’s Wrath feel as familiar as an Andy Murray defeat at Wimbledon, but the way that they’re combined and presented is a welcome breath of fresh air. Third-person melee combat, reticule-based aiming and shooting and quick-time events are all present and correct but presented and intertwined with the story and dialogue in a way that will surely turn off as many as it will turn on.
For starters, progression is split into a chapters and episodes structure that is meant to mimic the seasons and …well… episode formation of Japanese anime TV shows. Each episode takes around 25-30 minutes to complete, further emphasising the serialisation structure and leaving you safe in the knowledge that some form of narrative progression will take place each time you play.
All of these episodes, without fail, are scientology-grade crazy and make no concession at all to a Western audience that may not be familiar with the rules and quirks of Japanese storytelling. The basic story is one of betrayal, revenge and a father’s love, but is told in the kind of convoluted way that Final Fantasy objectors complain about. All you need to know is that there are seven bastard-hard bosses that need taking out.
Literally, they play like an anime episode with you only taking up the controls during combat or one of the many quick-time events. Whole episodes can pass with you only interacting for about a quarter of the running time, which is precisely what allows the team at CyberConnect2 to throw the madness at us.
How do you make a boss fight against a buddha-esque demigod look good? By taking out all the gameplay apart from the quick-time events, of course.
The things is though, CyberConnect 2 get away with it because the whole thing is so outlandish, and looks so good, that you’re happy to let yourself get swept along in the tidal wave of timed button presses and onscreen explosions of crazy. That buddha fight (one part of a longer, multi-staged, boss fight) is stunning to behold and a testament to the power games have to make you feel as though you’re part of something.
While the gameplay for the sequence is minimal, reduced to smashing a face button and timing flicks of the analogue sticks, there’s just enough to keep you interested. Plus, I genuinely wanted to beat the giant buddha; not to prove my prowess over quick-time events, but because I wanted to see Asura succeed. Such is my penchant for muscle-bound he-men with spiked hair.
Speaking of spiked hair, the visuals and the episodic structure lend itself to the obvious comparisons with Dragon Ball Z. The similarities go deeper than the aesthetics and over-the-top scenarios, though, which makes Asura’s Wrath more like Dragon Ball Z than any of the officially licensed games ever have been.
During melee combat, Asura can build up a bar by giving and receiving damage. Once full you can activate ‘Unlimited Mode’, which causes him to glow and adds a little extra bite to his attacks. Basically, it’s super-saiyan mode by any other name and – while adding little to the depth of gameplay – is a nice insider nod to another franchise.
More powerful than Unlimited Mode is ‘Burst’, an attack that can only be unleashed once you’ve landed enough hits. During non-boss battles, Burst will usually end the battle and is balanced in such a way that prevents you from employing it until you’ve killed whatever number of enemies the designers have predetermined.
During boss battles, however, Burst will normally end one portion of the fight and lead you onto the next. Going back to the buddha battle (I don’t want to ruin the surprises held in the rest of the game… they are surprises), the three sections are ended by building up your Burst bar three times. Again, in gameplay terms, there’s nothing new. But the execution, visuals and high-concept narrative keep you coming back for more.
Aside from his fists, Asura can attack by firing bolts at his enemies. While these can be shot at any time, they’re ineffectual during melee sequences aside from when you’re fighting airborne enemies. At other times, in sections that feel very much like Sega’s Space Harrier, they’re your only option.
For example, the game’s prologue sees you flying through space engaged in an epic battle for the protection of your home world. Your job is to destroy the enemy space fleet while avoiding meteors and mechanical debris. Like Space Harrier this episode (as well as others down the line) are framed from behind Asura as he rushes forwards, which allows for a wonderful view of the action that is both technically and artistically good looking.
The only issue here is that there’s so much going on during the shooter levels that it’s hard to work out exactly what impact you’re having on the battle. Your only means of measuring success is the rate at which your Burst meter is filling up, which can be slightly off-putting.
And that’s really Asura’s Wrath in a nutshell… you’re not always sure what you’re doing, but you know you’re progressing in the right direction. If you’re looking for something easily explainable, this isn’t for you. If you’re looking for something that is one-part anime show, one-part videogame and one-part God-only-knows then this certainly is for you.
Asura’s Wrath is, without doubt, one of those games that some people will love for one reason and others will hate for the very same reason. I say embrace the madness and run with it. Let your inhibitions regarding quick-time events and cut-scene heavy games go and, if you like the kind of anime this is based on, you might just find a gem. I did.