Journey to the West is a classic Chinese tale that has been retold millions of times. It's been referenced by a variety of media, from the movie the Forbidden Kingdom to even Dragon Ball. But despite all the awesome adaptations of the main subject, Tencent's Asura Online might just be the coolest one yet.
Released in early September, Asura Online takes the player into a Chinese-themed fantasy world of humans and demon beasts. At the forefront the humans and demon beasts are at war with each other. This is also where the game's name comes to play. "Asura" in East Asian cultures normally refers to demigods, and in this world, where the Monkey King is a key character (who himself is a technically a demigod) there actually may be demigods.
Initially the game starts off with a long opening sequence, created by the ever masterful Wolf Smoke Animation Studios, in which humans and some weird kind of blue beast monster fight against the demon beasts. About halfway through, the player creates a character and goes through a small tutorial of sorts. Then the game finishes the intro with the demons losing the war.
Asura uses both videos and still images to tell the story of what has transpired before the player starts the actual game. The demons lost the war, the great dragon was defeated, the great demon generals are dead and the Monkey King has left on the Journey to the West. The player's character, it turns out, is one of the game's great demon generals and instead of perishing like everyone thought, is alive and imprisoned in some kind of hell. Needless to say, the player breaks out.
Now, 500 years later, demon beasts and humans are working together, though there are still pockets of demon beasts that wage war against all factions. There's also some kind of demon prophecy that the player will fulfil, because well, the player is the last "demon general".
Aesthetically, Asura Online is very cool. If it wasn't for the fact that the game is made in China and is expected to cater to all users running varying hardware, the game would look great. The environments move, blades of grass the player runs through move and sway.
The art style of the game is also very cool. Demon beasts are vicious and menacing, albeit humanoid. The armour of the human characters are all based on a romanticised version of Tang Dynasty armour; think Curse of the Golden Flower. On top of the game art, the various loading screens and exposition points are all gorgeously put together.
In terms of gameplay, Asura Online gets weird. The game plays like a multiplayer online battle arena, Diablo, and an MMORPG rolled into one. The angle of the camera is very much like a MOBA and the way the player fights and uses skills is more like Diablo than, say, an average MMO. The game also feels like it was designed for only a keyboard in mind. WASD moves the player and the number keys perform skills and use items. It's a very interesting experience.
Like every other Chinese MMO, Asura Online allows the player to take it easy. The dungeons are instanced, there is a quick auto travel function and lots of in-game purchases.
On the whole, Asura Online's an interesting game, one that I think I'd like to play to the end of the story. The graphics are polished or at least as polished as a game meant for decades old computers can be. The gameplay is interesting and because it's not exactly just point and click, it feels refreshing.
If the current trend of Chinese games going to west is an indicator of things to come, Asura Online certainly could make it to the West. There aren't any legal intellectual properties keeping it from doing so. I'll keep playing, at least until I find out how the general will become an "Asura."
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Eric is a Beijing based writer and all around FAT man. You can contact him @FatAsianTechie@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @FatAsianTechie.