Here's an idea: take the atheistic rage of God of War, the interactive-cutscene mechanics of Dragon's Lair, and the aesthetic sensibilities of East Asian religions and Anime to create something completely new. Such is Asura's Wrath, the most recent IP from Capcom and Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm developer Cyber Connect2. It's a work of originality by conscription, binding it's notable influences into an experience that somehow feels reasonably unheard of. The end result is a title that breaks every rule in the “Don't Make the Game Hinder the Momentum of the Plot” handbook, but Asura's tale is such an overwhelming juggernaut of batsh*t insanity that it will compel all but the most impatient players to see it through.
Events begin in a universe where Earth is completely unlike our own, in which the “Eight Guardian Deities” provide safety for the world by protecting it from a nondescript army of evil, dubbed, “the Gohma.” These Deities are humanoid beings of immense magical power, fueled by “mantra,” physical energy created by the prayers of their servants. One of these Deities is Asura, a hotheaded crank who has little affection for anything outside of fighting, despite the fact that he is the only deity to have married and produced a child. His seven comrades soon take note of the fact that his daughter, Mithra, is capable of generating abnormal amounts of mantra through her own simple prayers. They surmise that if Mithra's power was harnessed and efficiently directed, it could serve as a near-infinite wellspring of energy needed to crush the Gohma once and for all. However, they also know that Asura would never allow it...
Thus begins a tale of betrayal and revenge that doesn't suspend disbelief so much as dropkick it into the Milky Way. Asura's Wrath plays as an episodic series of confrontations and fight sequences between laughably super-powered beings. There's an admirable attempt at giving each of the characters realized identities and motivations, but the only thing that counts in the game is Asura's titular wrath, and his insane commitment to beating every last molecule of his enemies into pulp.
Cyber Connect2's focus is on making these fights as grandiose and surprising as possible, an initiative that undoubtedly succeeds (more on that later). However, the way the game leads the player into these moments is much less satisfying. Each of the 15 episodes is broken into a couple of traditional gameplay sequences that lead to a special cutscene, whereupon Quick-Time Events take over and deliver the goods.
The basic gameplay is divided between very simple third-person combat against enemy flunkies and bosses, or lock-and-shoot flying sequences in the vein of Panzer Dragoon. While in these modes, Asura has a health bar and a “Burst Gauge,” which fills up after a set amount of successful hits. When the Burst Gauge is full, the right-trigger snaps to action and activates the QTE-scene. It's a difficult gameplay loop to enjoy, because the moments when the player takes direct control of Asura feel embarrassingly unambitious compared to the rest of the action. It's also just bureaucratic, as the Burst Gauge-to-cutscene pattern feels like an arbitrary game-lengthening device. In order to see the full experience, Asura's Wrath forces players to pay with their time, rather than skill. It's not a well-made system.
Asura runs on Unreal Engine 3, rendering its bombastic orbital donnybrooks with terrifically cel-shaded aplomb. The Deities have a unique, wood-cut flavor to their appearance that makes them look otherworldly in a very naturalistic way, making their powers and transformations stand out even more. Other design elements aren't quite as interesting, give or take an interest in Hindu and Buddhist aesthetics, cross-pollinated with some anachronistic (for lack of a better word) sci-fi elements. The game's real strength is in lighting and animation, with a battle that takes place on the moon being a particular standout. It's one of the best looking cel-shaded games ever made.
Voice acting and sound don't fare so well. Performances are uniformly exaggerated, and lip-syncing often leaves the story wanting for a Japanese language track. The music is decent, but it's repeated too heavily by the game's end, and isn't varied enough to make an impact on the game's most visually astounding moments. The licensed use of Dvorak's “New World Symphony” in one fight scene is a genius exception to this.
It's hard to convey Asura's redeemable qualities without spoiling their greatness, but make no mistake, there's a lot in this game that demands attention. Battles and fight choreography operate on a scale that's larger and more ambitious than any other game outside God of War III, and even then, Asura has the benefit of pulling out stops that Kratos and co. didn't have available to them. In the midst of the QTE-driven cutscenes, the game shines. Inputs are handled in a way that makes sense for the action onscreen, and are generally forgivable with their timing. Cyber Connect2 understands how to make the QTEs flow naturally without feeling cheap or overused.
That, primarily, is what makes the rest of the game so damnable. In a design that's either brilliantly meta or clumsily coincidental, Asura's rage proves to be so all-consuming and selfish that it robs the audience of accomplishment. By not letting players take direct advantage of any of Asura's insanely powerful abilities in his anger-tripping fight scenes, the run-of-the-mill combat sequences that precede those moments take away the player's sense of satisfaction and place it squarely in Asura's hands. All six of them.
This is mainly due to the game's reliance on the Burst Gauge, but it could have been mitigated by either scrapping these gameplay sequences altogether, or making the combat deeper and more rewarding. In battle, Asura has one standard attack and one heavy attack, which suffers from a long cooldown. It's overly simple, and becomes outright problematic by not giving the player enough tools to fight well. There's no block, and combos can't be interrupted or countered, meaning that Asura has to stay out of enemy range to avoid getting locked into a beatdown, which often happens anyway because bosses can attack faster than it takes him to recover from dodging. This fight logic calcifies the player's patience into a brittle mix of boredom and frustration. Had the combat been deeper and thus reduced the gulf between Asura's abilities in-and-out-of cutscene, he could have enjoyed the same esteem as Kratos, but instead he's part of a game that's at its worst when it's trying to be a game.
Asura's Wrath is a title that's light on the undeniables, but foremost among those is that there's nothing else quite like it right now. That's not an entirely good thing, as Asura's exploits are likely best suited for other gameplay styles, or even other media. Nevertheless, Cyber Connect2 has crafted a story so endearingly bugnuts that it deserves to be played by everyone, if not truly celebrated. At best, it's a game ahead of its time, and at worst, it's the product of a developer that didn't know how to properly execute on its ideas. Taken in stride, many flaws weigh down Asura's thunder-clapping displays of violence, but those displays are still worth seeing.