Asura is an angry, angry man.
It's right there in the title, really: Asura's Wrath. The game tells the story of one man's rage-fueled superpowers, as he seeks revenge on those who betrayed him, kidnapped his daughter, and left him for dead.
One can't really blame the guy for feeling wrathful. Asura certainly lives in a world of injustice. Some demigods cast into hell after being framed for regicide by their one-time allies might suffer an existential crisis, or perhaps just stay dead, but Asura instead channels his fury into a force that keeps bringing him back to life.
Even before the powers of plot destroyed his life, Asura was, indeed, very single-minded about his destiny, never wavering from his dedication or his goals. He understood his place and his universe. I, meanwhile, have doubts.
WHY: The unusual combination of storytelling styles, along with the vibrant and detailed art design, make this short experience worth the while.
Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Released: Feb 21 (North America), Feb 23 (Japan), Feb 24 (Europe)
Type of game: Quick-time event-based fighter
What I played: The full 18-episode story (approx. 6 hours)
My Two Favorite Things
- Fighting events that are generally forgiving of slower reflexes
- Colorful, detailed art with a strong style
My Two Least-Favorite Things
- Asura. I know he's angry but could he perhaps stop shouting for just a tiny moment?
- Any event that requires me to mash O so quickly, for so long, that I think my arm will fall off.
Made-to-Order Back-of-Box Quotes
- "I truly enjoyed punching a literal planet in the face. From space." - Kate Cox, Kotaku.com
- "I'll shout your legs off!" - Kate Cox, Kotaku.com
The real point of the game is not in its story, its character, or its controls, but rather in its unusual presentation, which is at once its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Asura's Wrath is episodic in the truest, most fundamental sense of the word: broken up into 18 chapters, with credits, unfilled "commercial breaks," and opening recap sequences for each. Aside from the first and last episodes, every one begins with a firm female voice narrating "Previously, on Asura's Wrath..." , and ends with a "to be continued" screen. In between the playable segments — which themselves are a combination of cut scenes, quick time events, and arena-style fights — gorgeously illustrated, manga-style bookends fill in the parts of the story that don't take place on-screen.
The cardinal sin a player can commit, the one irrevocable mistake that brings the whole project tumbling down, is to ask "why." The game badly needs you never to investigate this question. The player must accept that that which is, simply is. Don't ask why the demigods are hanging out in space. Don't ask why the planet is angry, why souls power weapons, or why the entire civilization living precariously on this evil rock hasn't been fossilized in volcanic ash a thousand times over. There are no answers forthcoming and you don't need any: just keep playing.
Unfortunately, this thoughtless incuriosity also applies to the game's underpinning philosophy. Asura's Wrath only holds up as long as the player can avoid wondering not only, "Why is this giant, scary, soul-eating weapon in the shape of the Buddha?" but also, "Why have these developers made any of these choices?"
Narrative events are presented as good or bad, but the characters and game never take the time to investigate why a perceived injustice is actually wrong. Nor does the game ever examine the implications of Asura's wrath-based destructive powers as being a better solution to its "ends justify the means" crises. Fear and anger walk hand in hand, as Asura's Wrath repeatedly tells us, and yet the game seems to condemn the former while praising the latter, without giving much thought to consequence.
Similarly, although the art is lovely — particularly in the last chapter, which uses color remarkably effectively — and the television-like style is entertaining, the game never seems to justify or explain those artistic choices in any way. The "anime series" mode of storytelling could be used to tell a wide number of stories, and the tale of an angry demigod and his quests to wreak revenge and save the world could have been told in any number of modes. Neither the story nor the mechanics through which it is told particularly seem to enhance each other here, and the two elements seem unrelated to each other at least as often as they cooperate.
All of that said, even while the game is in many ways sound and fury signifying nothing, the way in which that nothing is said ultimately makes it worth the time. In some ways, despite being a big-budget game published by a well-known studio, Asura's Wrath is as experimental an art game as many an indie title. The story, the art, and all the rest get completely lost in their own spectacle, but that spectacle happens on a scale that redefines "epic" and looks really gorgeous doing so.
Everything about Asura's Wrath is ridiculous, and it suffers from taking itself so very seriously while refusing to address or acknowledge its serious questions at all. But as long as the player doesn't take it equally as seriously? Well, then... what's not to love about having a chance to fight a boss the size of Mars with nothing but your own six hands?