Asura’s Wrath is a game that makes an odd first impression. It looks like a God of War clone in a DragonBall Z wrapper. The developer is CyberConnect2 after all; best known for the .hack// and Naruto: Ultimate Ninja series, so clearly they have a passion for anime. If you look deeper, however, you will find a title that takes elements from Asian mythology and blends them with science fiction to give you a unique gaming experience. Even if it is best summed up as Bayonetta meets Heavy Rain.
The game’s plot has you following the tale of the six-armed Asura, one of the Eight Guardian Generals, who fight to protect Heaven and Earth from “extra super bad guy” Gohma. No, not that giant spider thing from Legend of Zelda; this is more of a powerful dark planet-destroying entity that corrupts things. Asura is one day summoned to the Emperor’s throne, only to find the Emperor has come down with a sudden case of deadness and Asura is the one they accuse. Now considered a traitor, they kill his wife and kidnap his daughter. I know right? Dick move. Eventually he is de-armed (literally) by the actual guilty party and finally tossed down to Earth. A good twelve thousand years later he re-awakens to learn his daughter is being used by the other seven Guardian Generals to amplify their own power. He must now seek his vengeance, mostly by punching faces.
Asura’s Wrath wears its love for action anime on its sleeve. Characters' jaws seem to unhinge when they yell. They often get punched so hard they crash through multiple mountains. You will see a demi-god stab the main character with a sword so long it ends up poking out the other side of the freakin’ Earth. Even though I found myself laughing at some of the more outlandish moments, my interest was still held by the well-crafted story. Anime fan or not, everything is so insane and over the top that it feels like a loving satire of the genre.
The gameplay style switches along with each new episode. One episode you're in a beat ‘em up against an army of the demi-gods, the next you're having an epic one-on-one brawl on the moon, and the next you're shooting a giant space squid with your lazer arms. Then it just starts getting weird, like, Suda 51 weird. One of the objectives in an episode is to prevent Asura from excessively staring down the “uncanny valley” of a hot-springs attendant. Yes, double yew tea elf indeed.
The biggest “love it or leave it” as far as gameplay goes, is how you feel about quick time events. Roughly 70% of the player’s time is spent watching a cinematic and hitting the proper button prompts at the proper times. Now, the prompts are varied and do actually feel like punctuations to the onscreen action. However, there's little punishment for failing a QTE, as it really only effects your performance rating at the end of an episode or extends a boss battle.
Hey, Listen! Use your slingshot when his eye glows red!
Fun can be had, if you just give into the insanity of the onscreen action and give those QTEs your all. Much like playing RockBand could make you feel like a rock star, participating in the QTEs helps feel like you're delivering powerful attacks. The way they're executed (their button choice and the motions required) makes perfect sense. The camera angles and animations during these sequences are also excellent. They may be quick time events, but they are the crème de la crème of quick time events.
The sections of each chapter that are true action gameplay are some great fun. You have light and heavy attacks which lead to satisfyingly brutal finishing moves. One-on-one fights will also test your defensive reflexes with dodging and slick-looking counters. The goal during these action scenes (besides not dying) is to build up Asura’s rage (meter) enough so that he can initiate his “Burst” mode. This, at times, feels like playing an anime Hulk game, where you channel your anger into a fiery destructive power.
Pew pew pew
Numerous as they are, at least the cinematics are a glory to behold. The animation fan in me enjoys the striking pen-and-ink style paired with photorealistic elements. This is some of the greatest Japanese animation I have witnessed in a long time, videogame or not. The characters' animations are exaggerated but fluid. The dialog is over the top. The plot is that special brand of insane anime excels at. There are gorgeously illustrated bumpers in every episode, which even have credits on them to further the anime show feel.
The sculptor part of me enjoys the strong inspiration of Buddhist statues. The way Asura shines at full capacity is much like the statues which were often gilded in gold leaf. When he gets damaged he cracks, making him seem to be more a living lacquered statue. The cross hatching on his skin resembles the tool marks left on a statue’s surface. Even though it's now popularly known as “spikey Super Saiyan hair” it is the hair Buddhist deities known as asuras were historically depicted as having. The character designers did their homework.
It's too bad more wasn’t done to extend the experience. You will play through 18 episodes, each of which will take around 20 minutes. That adds up to six hours of content. Six hours for $60 is standard for an anime box set, but not a video game. Even worse, I’ll remind you that 70% of those six hours are cinematic… so you're looking at maybe two total hours of actual non-QTE gameplay. Ha, and now how much would you pay? Sure, you can always replay the episodes on a higher difficulty or try to get a perfect rating (which unlocks a special episode), but the cinematics will still be the same. There's no multiplayer or online, and no extra content. This game is trying to win the “style over substance” crown oh so very hard.
Nope it really is $10 per hour of gameplay
Asura’s Wrath deserves attention for boldly trying something new. It truly does play like an interactive anime show. It's a giant fireworks spectacular; gorgeous to look at, full of energy and color, and over before you know it. This makes it a very hard sell - spend $60 on a game that you can completely finish in a single Saturday with nearly no replay value, when we have recent games for the same price that boast hundreds of hours of playtime. By all means, rent this game or grab it on sale. It may be short, but what a ride.
This review is based on a retail copy of Asura's Wrath for the PlayStation 3.