Can planet-sized explosions ever get boring? Asura's Wrath suggests that the answer involves finding the right dosage.
I'm not the biggest fan of the Dragonball Z series, mainly because I get bored waiting for people to charge up their power levels, hearing people discuss their power levels, and being surprised others' power levels do not match their expectations. I like an "over 9000" joke as much as the next Internet denizen, but I prefer a little more interactivity in my melodrama. Enter: Asura's Wrath.
Asura's Wrath draws from a tradition of exaggerated, episodic anime shows. Melodrama abounds: the story revolves around a group of demigods tasked with protecting humanity from a malicious, soul-stealing force that has infected the planet. The elite demigod generals ultimately part ways on the best way to rid the earth of their enemy, which leads them to betray General Asura and sacrifice the innocent in hopes of trying to stop the war. As the title of the game suggests, Asura is pretty angry about this and sets about trying to get revenge and end the war the only way he knows how: by yelling a lot and punching everything as hard as he possibly can.
Mechanically, the game is a fairly standard brawler with light combo and dodge moves. As you fight, your attacks add to a rage meter that triggers a "burst" move. Here is where Asura's wrath differs from other action games. Once activated, the burst moves consist of spectacular action scenes overlaid with quick time events. "Simon Says" games have never been so ostentatious: mashing the correct buttons coincide with Asura's battle against planet-sized enemies. Battle sequences can only be ended by bursting, and bursts can't be stopped. Missing a button prompt just deducts from your ultimate score.
The game follows this bellowing, brawling, and bursting pattern from beginning to end. Played in long stretches, Asura's Wrath can get tedious, but the game's structure offers way to temper its repetition. Even though it's a disk-based game, the game is broken down into episodes, complete with intro credits, mock commercial breaks at the midpoints, and endings that both tie up the current chapter's story and tease the next one. In this context, the persistent cycle of building up your power and then vanquishing your foe makes sense. Just as Goku always charges up the Kamehameha wave, He-man always invokes the power of Grayskull, and the Power Rangers always assemble Megazord, Asura is always going to finish off his enemies (and an episode) with a burst attack.
Once I realized this, I changed the way I play, completing no more than one or two episodes a sitting and waiting at least a day between sessions. After matching my play sessions to the game's episodic structure, I noticed a change. Things were fresher: reused sound effects (such as the excellent metal-on-metal noise Asura's robotic arms make when he flexes) were a welcome touchstone rather than a repetitive distraction. Twenty minute story arcs, cliffhanger endings, and short episode recaps felt more natural when I wasn't marathoning the "season." Using the burst move felt like a natural capstone for each episode.
On a broader scale, the experience reminded me of the way I've become accustomed to watching television shows. Besides sports, I don't really watch anything on an episodic basis. I'll wait until a show appears on Netflix or comes out on DVD and then charge through the entire run in a very short amount of time. Asura's Wrath reminded me that most television that I watch was probably originally conceived as a long term experience. It could very well be that the my opinion of both my least and most favorite shows would have been different had I paced myself. Perhaps the tedium of certain story arcs would have been less noticeable had I not been rabidly consuming episodes. Maybe I would have missed out on the subtle connections and motifs if I wasn't directly comparing a run of four consecutive episodes? My response to any given story could be as much a function of the method of my viewing as it is the actual plot.
I'm used to playing games in long stretches, but there have been a few recent reminders that there are upsides to more contained experiences. For example, one of last year's best games, The Walking Dead, benefited from its monthly format. It gave people time to catch up, compare notes, reflect on the episode, and think critically about what the future had in store. I'm not saying that there is as much heavy thinking to be had with Asura's Wrath (unless you're really into the metaphorical significance of a sword as long as the Earth's diameter...), but embracing the game's episodic nature helps showcase its strengths. Fittingly, my time with Asura's wrath reminded me that some games are best played in short, action-packed bursts.