We all have our definitions on what a perfect game is. But what happens when a game that doesn't meet those definitions comes along and challenges your thinking on how you evaluate and enjoy games? I found myself in this quandry as I played Asura's Wrath, a collaboration between Capcom and CyberConnect2.
Our story begins with Asura, a demigod general in the service of Emperor Strada and tasked with defeating the evil Gohma (not to be confused with the similarly-named monsters from the Zelda series) alongside seven other fellow demigods. The battle won against the Gohma earns the demigods a temporary peace, but this peace is soon shattered after Asura is blamed for the murder of Strada and is betrayed by his fellow demigods. His wife killed and his daughter kidnapped, Asura is then banished for 12,000 years, where he awakens to a world where the Gohma have returned to terrorize the innocent and the seven demigods, now self proclaimed deities, are free to subject their tyrannical rule on the entire world. Spurred on by the growing anger and wrath within him, it falls to Asura to resuce his daughter and save the world from the terror of the Gohma and the tyranny of the Seven Deities.
The storyline is, in this humble reviewer's opinion, one of the most engaging storylines in recent memory. Utilizing the divisive quick-time events, Asura's Wrath makes sure that the character gets in on the action during cinematics and cutscenes that would rival episodes from anime of yesteryear, e.g., Dragon Ball Z. Speaking of episodes and anime, the game is hugely influenced by anime like I mentioned, from over-the-top space battles, to mano-a-mano brawls where the fighters find themselves careening through mountains and even from the moon to the earth, then get up nearly unscathed. Asura's Wrath even has intro and outro credits, commercial bumpers, and a preview to the next 'episode' of the game. While this seems like this would get in the way of the storytelling and gameplay, it actually brings a sense of anticipation and eagerness to see Asura's story to its eventual conclusion.
The characterization is also top-notch. Asura is a character that, while full of anger and wrath, still seems rather selfless even as the odds remain stacked against him. He's a character willing to help the helpless, even when he could simply ignore them and focus on breaking bad upon his allies-turned-foes without concern for the collateral damage, but doesn't relish in being proclaimed a god by the people he helps. Even the villainous Seven Deities have their different pathos; some you may sympathize with, while others you may find downright vile. Regardless, the characterization among the cast is varied and in top form in Asura's Wrath.
The graphics play as close to the "Asian mythology meets sci-fi" hand the storyline gives, with characters being presented in a pseudo-cel-shaded look to accentuate the different landscapes across the game. You'll find yourself in small mountain villages complete with Asian architecture, in sprawling machines not unlike what you'd find in sci-fi artwork, and again, find yourself on the moon with the earth as a backdrop. As varied as the levels are, sadly they really don't hold a candle to the character design, as their aesthetic is front-and-center in this category.
The sound design is also another rousing success. A cast of voice actors across the anime industry, such as Liam O'Brien, Robin Atkin Downes, and Kari Wahlgren, all bring their talents to bring emotion to each character perfectly. Battle sound effects keep each altercation fresh and invigorating, and the choral-orchestral soundtrack sets a mood that, again, plays hand-in-hand with the superb storytelling.
All this eventually leads into one crucial thing: the gameplay itself, which, sadly, only seems to serve as a means to an end. It does have variety, to be sure: at times, the gameplay switches between an on-rails shooter not unlike the Panzer Dragoon or StarFox series, and a beat-em-up where you'll be knocking down waves of foes one at a time. Gameplay is centered around two bars: the life gauge and the burst gauge. The life gauge, obviously, keeps track of remaining life points, and if you lose them all, it's game over. The burst gauge, however, starts off empty, and as you pummel your foes, it begins to fill up. Once completely full, you can continue on through the rest of the story, usually by way of a quicktime event. As I said, as varied as the gameplay is, it really does serve as a means to the end to the otherwise spectacular storytelling.
And really, Asura's Wrath is simply an interactive anime, if you really want to get down to the heart of it. But it's that interactive part that really makes it so engaging; if you cut away the interactivity, or if you take away the characterization and the over-the-top cinematics and storytelling, then you're left with a poor man's God of War for gameplay and a substandard shonen anime for storytelling.
Something inside me tells me I shouldn't enjoy Asura's Wrath as much as I do. To be completely honest, though, this game has completely enthralled me, something that a video game hasn't done to me for a very long time. It has pushed me to reconsider how I critically review games not only as a work of art, but as an enjoyable gaming experience. I can honestly say that Asura's Wrath has changed me for the better. As a reviewer, I find it a crucial step forward for a future where gameplay and storytelling are seamless. As a gamer, it has introduced me to a style of gameplay I feel most comfortable with and has reawakened an excitement to play that has been dormant inside me for some time.