Asura’s Wrath works thanks entirely to a completely out-of-whack sense of scale.
Title: Asura’s Wrath
Platform: PS3 (Reviewed), Xbox 360
ESRB Rating: Teen
Release Date: 2012-02-21
Asura's Wrath makes a point of playing by its own set of rules. Case in point: the very first time that you pick up the controller to actually do anything, you may find yourself wondering if you put in Child of Eden by mistake. Rather than dump you into its God of War-style combat punctuated by myriad quick-time events right off the bat, Asura's Wrath sends you, as Asura, hurtling toward the planet Gaea, picking off hundreds of planet-soul-sucking Gohma using the lock-on and rapid fire mechanism that Child of Eden set up as its primary gameplay mechanic. This is the sort of thing that a game like this typically uses to spice things up a bit when the whole heavy attack, light attack, jump, dive thing gets stale. To Asura's Wrath, it is not "the other" or "the alternate" mechanic, so much as it is simply "a" game mechanic.
This might seem like a bad sign, as if Asura's Wrath is doing its best to avoid the inevitable hand-to-hand combat, treating it as a necessary evil rather than a reason for being. Play Asura's Wrath for a couple of hours, however, and the reason that it begins with shooting rather than hand-to-hand combat becomes clear: it's what the story called for.
Cinematic sequences in action games are traditionally transitional pieces, a bite of eye candy for the purpose of gathering one's faculties before the next stretch of intense combat. There may be dialogue to break up the action in one of any given game's levels or even some small interstitial cinematic sequences, but the major points of exposition tend to happen between the stages. The approach of Asura's Wrath is to let these cinematic sequences happen constantly.
There are 18 "episodes" contained within Asura's Wrath, each one between 20 and 30 minutes long if the player is so patient as to let the cinematics play out. Each episode has within it anywhere from three to 15 minutes of actual gameplay, while the rest of the time is devoted to exposition and canned battle sequences punctuated by the occasional quick-time event. The game elements are entirely in service to the story elements, to the point where it becomes very clear that Asura's Wrath is far more interested in telling its story than in allowing the player to play its game. Any bit of gameplay that does arrive is simply a means of letting the player take some agency in one of the epic battles that the story presents.
What makes the game's allegiance to its story even more strange is that its story is -- at heart -- not a very well-written one. Full of one-dimensional (and, in the case of Asura himself, one-and-a-half-dimensional) characters and only the most basic of save-the-world plots, the story that Asura's Wrath gives us is little more than slightly more violent Saturday morning anime: lots of talking, lots of pseudo-philosophical debate, and a complete ignorance of the laws of physics, all of which eventually leads up to a Big Exciting Battle. Think about it for too long, and none of it makes a lick of sense.
In theory, none of this should work. Asura's Wrath utterly ignores the prevailing wisdom that narrative in a video game is most effective when it is being told through its gameplay, putting the gameplay alongside the narrative instead. The player spends more time waiting for quick-time events than actually participating in combat. What's the motivation?
Asura's Wrath does work, though, a feat it pulls off thanks entirely to its completely out-of-whack sense of scale. It starts with the aforementioned sequence of hurtling through space, a battle that eventually culminates in the conquering of a beast that quite literally grows out the side of Gaea, a beast that reveals itself to be about half the size of the entire planet. And it only gets bigger from there. After throwing in a healthy dose of betrayal, gallons of anger, and a nod of the head toward pastoral family values, the entire point of the story is to top itself, and then top that, and then just blow everything you've seen before out of the water. Almost every boss starts small but eventually becomes an intergalactic mega-boss; almost every battle starts with Asura running, dodging, and punching things but eventually becomes a frenetic series of quick-time button-pushes -- most of which can't be failed, mind, they just add up to a score at the end -- that features Asura somehow giving an utterly improbable what-for to something about the size of the Milky Way galaxy. All the while, it never cracks a smile, it never winks at the player. Asura's Wrath takes itself so seriously that we are forced to laugh not with it, but at it -- not derisively, but at the sheer chutzpah of it.
Aside from an odd, leering, misplaced sequence at a hot spring -- apparently, a game oozing as much testosterone as this one just can't help itself -- Asura's Wrath never ever slows down, and that's the beauty of it. Even as such long stretches go by without any input from the player, the controller never gets put down. Its intensity and its complete lack of regard for anything that might be defined as a limit is infectious.
Few games can claim success when attempting such a thing as this. The merits of the so-called "interactive novel" are certainly debatable, and the slow-paced Heavy Rain, which may actually be closer to the experience of Asura's Wrath than God of War, largely split its audience into detractors and admirers. Asura's Wrath will certainly divide its own audience, as players not ready to cede control to the machine will come away disappointed. Those who let themselves be taken for what turns out to be one hell of an amusement park ride, however, will find an anger-fueled adrenaline rush with few peers in the modern video game market.