I honestly don't know what gamers want out of action games any more. When they're given a full suite of moves capable of replicating "all the cool stuff from cutscenes" like in Bayonetta, Ninja Gaiden, or Devil May Cry, it's too much for them. When control is taken away from them and they're allowed to do "all the cool stuff from cutscenes" themselves through Quick Time Events (otherwise known as QTEs or "Press X to Not Die"), it's too little for them and they're disappointed. While Asura's Wrath tries to find a happy medium, I doubt that everybody will walk away satisfied.
It's kind of sad, because I absolutely loved the game. In fact, the closest thing I can compare it to is the exceptional Streets of Rage 2, a classic 16-bit brawler that only lasted a few hours, is largely the same every time through, but is still so fun to play that it's worth revisiting regularly for how intense it is. Asura's Wrath clocks in at about the 10-12 hour mark, and is a nonstop barrage of action gaming that feels so much like an old video game, it's almost magical.
The story is not unlike God of War, a title which I barely even consider an action game and will explain why later on: demigod Asura is framed for high treason, his wife is slain, his daughter is kidnapped by his betrayers, and to top it off, they imprison him for 12,000 years. Freed from his prison, Asura sets out on a spectacular quest for revenge as he takes down his corrupt former comrades, who have now named themselves "The Seven Deities." It's a completely stock story that really only serves to move you from one balls-out action setpiece to the next, and it works just fine for this kind of game.
"But wait!" you readers may say as I allegedly sit on a throne made of Capcom and CyberConnect2's bribe money. "They released a demo for Asura's Wrath, and it was all QTEs and cutscenes! Can't I just watch it on YouTube for the full experience?"
Thankfully, the demo was kind of a poor representation of what the actual game is like. I've actually always liked QTEs, from back when they were in Dragon's Lair as "the actual game's controls" to their refinement in Shenmue and how they were able to bring fast-action segments to an otherwise slow-paced adventure game. Asura's Wrath does have QTEs, and plenty of them, but it sets itself apart in that I've never played QTEs with this kind of intensity before, and the game grades you for how quickly and accurately you're able to perform them with a "Synchronicity Rating."
The game quickly jumps from simple-yet-effective arena-based brawling to aerial shoot-'em-up segments (reminiscent of Polyphony Digital's PS1 mecha shooter Omega Boost) where you'll continue to fight enemies or shoot down targets until you fill up the "Burst" bar at the top of the screen. Triggering Burst starts the next scene and a set of QTEs, which will either lead to another brawler/shooter segment or another, much more insane set of QTEs as the battle heats up. Asura's Wrath hits top gear at several points in the game, deftly mixing all three types of gameplay with the breakneck forward momentum of the Dreamcast-era Sonic games, forcing you fight off enemies up close, in the air and stronger boss-level enemies while a doomsday clock ticks down.
CyberConnect2 are in top form with the game's action choreography. It's almost like a love letter to action anime and manga in its hilariously over-the-top scope and gravely serious characters, because this is a game where you're given the chance to relive this scene:
and this scene:
and this scene:
You'll even get a few scenes where you get to do your own looping mid-air evasion of an Itano Circus--y'know, the swarm of missiles or beams you see in every anime ever when two mecha or planes are dueling?
It's with that frenetic fervor that Asura's Wrath sucks you into its world of dueling demigods. While the demo only showcased two of the biggest one-on-one fights in the game, rest assured they are far from the best and the baddest that the game has to offer. Whether you're fighting a skilled martial artist armed only with your head and feet, racing to the core of what's effectively a Buddhist Death Star, or controlling two heroes while fighting a guy whose nunchaku are connected by a bolt of lightning, you don't care much about characters' motivations or development: you're driven by an almost primal desire to win, often against ludicrous odds.
That is all the game is: action. Which brings me to my beef with God of War--defend the story all you want, but the real problem with God of War is how the game has to break up the "monotony" of truly epic, titanic battle with a box-pushing puzzle, or a sex minigame, or finding a key and bringing it to unlock a door. While Asura's Wrath occasionally gets cheeky and has some fun with its QTEs (one of the more amusing chapters is a hot springs episode where you have to try not to stare at a curvy attendant), it only gives you a few minutes to catch your breath before it's back to throwing the entire world against you. There are few moments in Asura's Wrath where you are not kicking somebody's ass, or getting your own handed to you.
But enough about how much I love the game--will you like it? That's actually a very tough question, because like I said at the very beginning, I don't know what gamers want out of action games any more. It's intense and fun and honest, yeah, but sometimes people want actual substance out of a game--and Asura's Wrath offers little. On a single roughly 11-hour playthrough, I died twice--once on a particularly tough boss, and a second time at the final boss. On that playthrough, I unlocked 83% of the game's extra content--storyboards, art, promotional movies, and special gauges that change up how you play the game. While I'm a longtime gamer with a lot of experience throughout many genres and platforms, I find it pretty easy--but there are a lot of less-experienced gamers who may find the challenge to be just right.
It's worth noting how jaw-droppingly gorgeous this game is. This is the game you whip out to show everybody how amazing it is to play games in HD, with detailed characters, stylish designs, and an exotic aesthetic that's like the best of Hindu and Buddhist mythology mixed with a rock'em-sock'em action mentality.
If anything, it seems the best way to play Asura's Wrath is the way its story is structured. It's not meant for a single marathon run-through, no matter how exciting it can get. The story is broken up into episodes roughly 45 minutes each, letting you tear through the Seven Deities' armies and probably face off against one of the wayward demigods themselves before stopping for the day and doing something else. It's a clever way to make a game last longer (like 2010's outstanding Alan Wake) but it's still very short for its $60 price tag.
Asura's Wrath is unlike anything else on the market. It's a manic, mind-blowing spectacle of an action game with unforgettable, high-intensity fights. It's nostalgic and fun, but it's important to remember that this is no 40-hour story-driven RPG. If you're able to, try this game before you buy it. Maybe you'll fall in love with it like I did. On the other hand, maybe it's just not your thing. You can go back to brushing your My Little Pony's hair or something.