Saturday, August 11, 2012

REVIEW - Asura's Wrath.

Asura's Wrath immediately brings to mind a litany of other properties, most notably God of War.  Asura himself is, to put it bluntly, Kratos - if he were a Buddhist deity filtered through the lens of Japanese anime and manga.  This game could just have easily been called Super Angry Man - 'cause that's really all you need to know about him, and his omnipotent ability to punch the holy crap out of things.

CyberConnect 2 were clearly influenced by a ton of other works as they created Asura - from their own super-accessible but visually spectacular combat in Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm to the potentially-infinite anger power of The Incredible Hulk to the easy-to-pick-up aerial combat of Panzer Dragoon to the serialized format of any TV OVA. Asura's Wrath ends up feeling less like a new entry in the action/brawler genre than it does a playable season of an action-heavy anime series.

That's only a bad thing, really, if you purchased this video game in the hopes of obtaining the same flavor of satisfaction action titles are heir to.  Asura's Wrath won't grant you that.  It's never particularly challenging, its systems are paper-thin, but its presentation - the single source of the title's pleasure - offers a pretty entertaining ride.  If you like anime.

The game is split into three acts and eighteen episodes - each of which are formatted as an episode of an animated TV series.  Each episode follows classic storytelling rules - that is, the action builds to a climax before a brief moment of calm, at which point an even greater threat or profound twist is revealed, and left to hang until "next week."

Each ends with a short sneak-peek of what's coming up next (thanks for the spoilers), and every ten minutes or so during an episode, load times are covered with splash screens similar to those you'll find bookending commercial breaks in animes.

It wears its heart on its sleeve, and if the player is able to appreciate what the game is trying to do, there's a lot of entertainment to be had, here.  The story of Asura and the insane-o society he comes from is a reasonably engaging yarn.  It's a bit like folk-tale Buddhism meets Star Wars.  The fact that he can throw a punch so hard it'll bring down a star destroyer is just icing on the cake.  Well, that and the game's very strong art direction.

Asura and his fellow deities are adorned with flowing symbols, and their flesh resembles the deep lacquer of Buddhist statues.  Its set pieces are immense, religion-meets-sci-fi huge backdrops for the action, and the game is awash with semi-authentic and cool-for-cool's-sake details, from the halos of its heroes to the intricacies of its weapons to the way Asura sounds like an ancient oak tree creaking when he flexes his impossible muscles.

The game's animation is lovely.  There's nothing procedural or really new, here, but CyberConnect 2 are the best developers in the world when it comes to recreating the slightly-rubberized high action of Japanese animation, and an insanely grand scope.  While the game's ultra-fast combat and cutscene action may have been better served by the more-dramatic cell shading CC2 employs in the Naruto Shippuden franchise, you can't blame them for wanting to strike out on their own with something less familiar.

Also beyond-par is Asura's voice work - packed wall-to-wall with the most recognizable names in VA - with Liam O'Brien, Steve Blum, Robin Atkin Downes, Tara Strong and Kari Whalgren delivering fun, cheesy, way-over-the-top melodrama with all the echoing gravitas their collective experience allows.

It's fun.  It's a fun time with a controller in your hand, even while it feels like the controller is the least-necessary component of the experience.

Ostensibly an action game, Asura's Wrath never allows one the sense of satisfaction that comes from mastering the byzantine systems of titles like Bayonetta or even God of War.  Even moreso than their work with Naruto, Asura's combat mechanics are less than toe-deep, even if they look gorgeous in motion.

What's odd is that it, weirdly, doesn't hurt the experience.  The story, scope and overall presentation are so entertaining that I didn't care if the gameplay was so-so. I found myself so caught up in the game's narrative - so hungry for the next absolutely crazy set-piece combat sequence, so curious about what insane monster I could be facing next that I tore through seventy-five per cent of the game in a single, eight-hour session.

Usually, the first thing I do when I toss a new game into my PS3 is open the game's menu and turn off subtitles.  Subtitles drive me nuts in games with English voice work, but so engrossed was I by Asura's Wrath that - as soon as the next episode began - I found I couldn't be bothered to open the menu.

That's very unusual.  I can't remember the last game that seized my imagination and refused to let go to the point that I refused to interrupt it with a tap of the start button.

In terms of gameplay, it's very bland.

Defeating nearly every enemy in the title is simply a matter of mashing circle.  If you're fighting a boss, throw in jump and hold circle to float them.  There are counters and dodges and heavy attacks, but the only thing that's really useful in any of your repertoire is how much it fills up Asura's burst gauge - because no enemy in the game has a health bar.

The smaller peons will just die if you wail on them enough, but no boss in the game expires outside of a cutscene.  Their health doesn't appear onscreen because it's unnecessary information - it doesn't matter how much health they have, it only matters how much more damage you have to lay out before you can activate Burst mode - which triggers the next phase of the boss fight or episode or whathaveyou.

Combat, really, is just a means to the end of filling the burst gauge, hitting R2 and seeing just what happens when Asura really throws a punch at whatever gigantic monstrosity he's fighting at the moment. This holds true for the game's shooting sequences, which see Asura punching the air so hard it forms projectiles for taking out enemy warships and flying evils with mechanics pulled straight from Panzer Dragoon.

Asura's Wrath never feels, explicitly, like a brawler or action game, though.  It feels like a decent anime that occasionally asks you to perform quicktime events (though one that doesn't seem to punish you if you fail).

Good thing, too - 'cause if we were to judge Asura on its gameplay alone, it would get a flat F.  Taken as a whole, though, there's something endearing about it.  If you enjoyed the narrative-heavy gaming of Heavy Rain or L.A. Noire, Asura's Wrath is the next game to be more interested in its presentation and storytelling than anything else - and as the line further blurs between the two, it's a fun, entertaining, visually thrilling evening-and-a-half of gaming.

It's just not much of a game.

  • excellent overall presentation, particularly the animation,
  • music,
  • art direction and
  • voice work.  Oh, Liam O'Brien, I love you.   
  • the story is crazy
  • Imagine a game where you fight a Kodiak bear ninja, then a rabid elephant, then a tyrannosaurus rex wielding chainsaw nunchucks.  It's crazy like that. 
  • The narrative pacing is pretty excellent - every episode ends with a bit of satisfaction before turning into a cliffhanger, seizing your attention and driving you forward. 
  • I like the whole game-as-a-season-of-anime thing.  It works well.
  • load times are almost insignificant
  • While the gameplay is very simple, it never gets in the way or feels awkward - it's just an effective, comfortable means of moving the narrative forward.  With your fists. 
  • The gameplay is ultra-simple, and very easy.  I think I had to continue twice in my entire playthrough. 
  • Honestly, the combat isn't as deep as it is in the Naruto games - and that's saying something. 
  • beyond its entertaining spectacle (or the pursuit of trophies) there's no reason to play through it twice
  • relies entirely on its presentation to engage you, and has pretty much nothing else to offer
  • it's relatively short at about 12 hours - but I'd rather such a story-heavy game be short and well-paced than long and boring
If you're cool with inch-deep gameplay, buy Asura's Wrath on the cheap and enjoy it for the weird, entertaining spectacle. 

1 comment:

  1. ...and by "on the cheap" I mean about twenty bucks. Unless price is no object for you - in which case, snag it for its uniqueness alone.