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Saturday, 7 June 2014

Asura's Wrath

Asura's Wrath. 

I thought about doing The Path for this review, and I thought about doing Ultraman Zero: The Revenge of Belial, so why not do the love child of a torrid affair between the two and look at Asura's Wrath, instead?

This is a very picture heavy review, incidentally, because this is a genuinely beautiful - thing - from an aesthetic standpoint.

Asura's Wrath is the story of Asura, a high-ranking member of a technologically advanced society of biomechanical beings committed to protecting their home and the Earth from the Gohma, dark creatures that come from the planet. Specifically, he is one of eight generals in service to an Emperor, led by wise Deus and including both his brother-in-law and his mentor. 

After defeating Vlitra, a kind of super-Gohma, and forcing it back into slumber, Asura returns to his wife and child. Not long after, he is framed for the murder of the Emperor, his wife is killed, his daughter is kidnapped, and Deus personally kills him and throws his body down to Earth. In the underworld, a golden spider entreats him to climb out and return to life, and fuelled by his wrath he begins a journey of vengeance and daughter-rescuing against his fellow generals (now having set themselves up as gods) that will span thousands of years, result in him dying several more times, and culminate in him fighting the creator of the universe. 

"Would you believe it was strawberry milkshake? Melted gumdrops?
Boat nectar? Some of God's tears?"

I profess, I'm not entirely sure what category of media Asura's Wrath falls into. It purports to be a video game, and indeed you do buy it at video game stores and experience it on a video game console, so I would find that definition hard to argue with bar that there's very little actual gameplay involved, and what gameplay there is is very far from its strongest feature.

No other video game in the world, surely, except perhaps those panned universally by critics and for good reason, would couple incredibly simplistic and often quite repetitive gameplay with frequent, long cutscenes, and then compound the problem by dividing its game into discrete episodes, each taking roughly twenty minutes of gameplay, in which you for the most part have very little control over your own movement, and are just moving from stage to stage. 

Ganondorf's fancy brother.

Maybe it's not a video game, then. Maybe it is, in fact, an anime: Certainly it references shounen and seinen anime heavily, having a narrative structure reminiscent of Afro Samurai (which itself had a video game adaptation that I played once – a very surreal, very strangely pitched video game adaptation), a plot that's like someone mashed Saint Seiya and Dragonball Z, and voice actors that bring their best Ham and Cheese to the table with delightfully over-the-top performances. Except no anime in the world would clumsily insert gameplay sections into its narrative and go 'Now, play these until you've filled up the cutscene meter enough to get the rest of the storyline'.

As several game journalists have pointed out long before me, in actuality Asura's Wrath is some manner of strange hybrid creature, not quite video game and not quite anime, but a fusion of both, like a kind of entertainment liger or geep. It's an odd idea, and it's difficult to see precisely where one would get it, or why at any point, anybody thought it was a good idea. 

What charmingly trustworthy-looking fellows.

Which isn't to say I don't like it. Actually, I adore Asura's Wrath: I played it through in its entirety quite cheerfully, I have replayed it multiple times, I have looked up Let's Plays of the DLCs online, and I have playlists that contain no less than four songs on its soundtrack.

(The soundtrack, incidentally, is genuinely superb: It is and shall no doubt remain for a very long time one of the best soundtracks to a video game or anime I have heard, and the competition in that particular field is fairly steep.)

But I can't pretend it's not a strange beast. I said before that gameplay is simplistic, and it is – but exactly what kind of simplistic gameplay you're doing varies from episode to episode. Most of the time you're engaging in pretty basic beat-em-up gameplay, with your abilities and attacks ranging from 'Asura has no arms right now and can only attack with clumsy headbutts' to 'Asura has too many arms, oh god, oh god the arms, arms everywhere, arms, arms' to 'Asura is now a literal deity of destruction and you're fighting God inside a gigantic Buddha' depending on the story at the time, but just as often I found myself doing arcade-style shooting or, at one point, a vehicle section on a flying bike. 

In one DLC, a bizarre crossover with the Street Fighter games, the gameplay briefly becomes a side-scrolling fighting game.

Also, at one point, as Asura's brother-in-law fighting evil
demon Asura.

It's that detail that really tips it over from 'poorly made game' to 'interactive anime' for me, because the gameplay is always dictated by the story. 'Ludonarrative dissonance' is a term that is being thrown around discussions on video gaming a lot right now – it refers to when there is a distinct dissonance between the narrative and gameplay, such as in Prototype where Alex Mercer will continuously ramble about how it's so unfair that people are hunting down such a nice, innocent person like him in cutscenes, while in gameplay you can (and will, let's face it) devour an old lady's husband in front of her, then transform into him, grab her, haul her up a building and throw her into the distance, before gliding after her on jets of blood to see if you can catch her and eat her before she hits the ground. Asura's Wrath never suffers from ludonarrative dissonance, because the story is always dictating the gameplay.

It's not a bad story, either. There's a lot to work with here: Themes of betrayal, necessity, sacrifice, the horrors of war, the corrupting nature of power, anger, depression, revenge, nihilistic musings on the nature of god. It's Shakespearian in scope, save that due to budget constraints, no Shakespeare play has ever ended up with a man the size of a planet deflecting an energy beam from a vast, golden effigy of Buddha. 

I am never joking.

It's over the top and silly, containing such gems as Asura blocking the finger of a man so huge he dwarves the Earth by punching said finger repeatedly with six arms; Asura and his brother-in-law fighting a giant evil skull; and a man wielding a sword longer than the Moon is wide while classical music plays in the background. But it's also – tragic. Tragic and very human, because it's ultimately about a father fighting to rescue his daughter and struggling against his own nature to do so. 

I am never joking.

It helps that the game is very pretty, with excellent graphics that a lot of care was clearly put into (note well the distinct imperfections on the Eight Generals' skin, which is meant to give the impression of lacquer statues).

I have to ask, though, does the interactivity add anything? It's not really a difficult question, and my answer has to be no. It's an interesting experiment, I'll grant, but taking a step back and looking at the product in its entirety, the gameplay sections are very often some of the worst parts of the entire thing. They're the parts where the pacing quite frequently slows to a crawl, where I could feel my interest waning, where often I find my quite vivid memories of it fading to a dull-ish grey.

I have to applaud the pioneering spirit that went into Asura's Wrath's creation, and it's a quality product that should definitely be checked out, especially as it is now gracing the Used Bargain Shelves of every game store I've seen, but I do feel like it would have been better served by just being a straight up anime series. 

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