Whether you called it a pretentious failure by a self-anointed auteur, or whether you called it revolutionary design from a creative prodigy; whether you deemed it the first interactive movie or whether you discarded it as mere hyper-fiction in cinematics, you discussed David Cage’s controversial game, Heavy Rain.
For CyberConnect 2 at least, Cage’s efforts appear to present a roadmap for game development. Asura’s Wrath is meant to be interactive anime. The player will spend less than half the time inputting commands, more than half watching a series in three acts over 18 episodes.
The game closely emulates the techniques, tropes and melodrama of Japanese cartoons. Asura will spend ample time gazing stoically at expansive landscapes and turgid skylines. His foes will betray themselves with a grunt and flicker of a grin in the corner of their mouths; there’s ample respite from otherwise incessant combat for some pop-philosophical exposition. Every episode will close on a cliffhanger and begin with a recap.
Asura is one of eight guardian demigods sworn to protect the people from the Gohma, a quasimorphic breed of creatures that sustain themselves on human souls. Betrayed by his pantheon and imprisoned for over 10,000 years, he returns to discover that in his absence, his peers have also begun consuming souls in order to increase their power. For the humans, the demigods represent the lesser evil: being consumed by the Gohma pollutes their soul, being consumed by a demigod does not.
Visually, the game borrows heavily from pan-Asian culture. There are elements of Japanese, Chinese, Indian and Tibetan aesthetics clearly visible, also strong references to Taoism and Shinto, Buddhism. The goal, says Capcom’s Kazuhiro Tsuchiya, is to blend these motifs with overtures of sci-fi to create a pop culture product with global appeal. Asura and his fellow demigods have a rough, carved appearance that reflects their stature.
The gameplay, while secondary to the larger part of elaborate action sequences, is effective if simple. It hinges on the essential conceit of rage, or wrath. Asura doesn’t level up or gain new skills: he has light and heavy attacks, a ranged attack and a dodge. Enemies do not have traditional life bars. Instead, as Asura lands blows he builds a rage meter. As such, the game invites and rewards the kind of furious button-mashing that perfectly, intentionally, compliments both the theme and the visual display of Asura’s Wrath.
Once the bar is full, Asura is able to unleash a devastating attack that advances the fight, the episode, to the next sequence. It’s here that players will perform quick-time events by another name: player-driven events. Many of these are of the traditional timed-press nature, mapped to buttons and sticks (such as moving the analog sticks inwards to catch the blade of a sword in his hands). That said, there’s no discernible punishment for failure to complete these quick-time events, only different avenues for advancement.
So far, fan feedback to Ausra’s Wrath has been divisive. Certainly quick-time sequences, no matter what euphemism is employed, are only at best tolerated by gamers: it’s unlikely that anyone outside of a studio or publishing office has ever thought aloud, “you know what this cinematic could use..?”
On the other hand, It’s a new intellectual property in a year that is shaping up to be overwhelmingly composed of iterative sequels to games we’ve already played. Asura’s Wrath appears to be a robust and accessible anime series, replete with a unique lore and cast. Even those with no predisposition to the stuff will easily be swept up in its outrageous pop drama.
Asura’s Wrath is coming to Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 this Friday, February 24.