I think this is what anime is like. I mean, not all anime. But some. Science fiction blended with history and religion and lots of shouting and giants and robots and explosions. My anthropology of religion classes are almost a decade behind me, but I’m going to guess that the fleet of spaceships led by eight demigods (of which Asura is one) fighting space squids is, if not an invention of the game, at best a loose adaptation. The Brahmastra of the Mahabharata is definitely not a giant half-man floating in space.
Like last year’s El Shaddai, Asura’s Wrath is religion (references to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Shintoism at least) filtered through a series of videogame idioms: it is in turns an arena fighter (like Devil May Cry), a rail shooter (like Sin and Punishment), quick-time-events (like Heavy Rain), and cutscenes (during which you maintain a bit of camera control, zooming and panning, and the ability to skip). But those cutscenes aren’t used as downtime to recuperate from action, or as a reward for combat success. They’re an integral part of the experience, a kind of TV show with playable action sequences.
The game is organized into short episodes, each with credits (always animation and storyboarding and directing) and title cards and commercial bumpers (but no commercials) and rankings. You’re graded on how well you timed your QTE presses (synchronic rate), your battle score, and your time score, which rates how quickly you completed the arena fights.
Interludes between the episodes tell you more of the story. These 2D illustrations by different artists are overlaid with text that sometimes gives more exposition and sometimes retells the events of the previous episode from a point of view directly contradicting what you’ve just experienced . These illustrations primarily draw on a manga aesthetic, with the illustrator’s name prominently displayed.
These illustrated interludes are followed by a video montage of the next episode’s events and a voiceover hinting at what’s to come and then you’re off again, never quite sure if you’re going to be in a cutscene or a QTE or a rail sequence or a fight.
Characters and combat are obsessed with power and purification – the former enables the latter, a codeword for “destruction”. Combat is a matter of building up two power gauges. Your Unlimited Gauge fills with each hit you land and lets you left-trigger Unlimited Mode which lets you use Unlimited heavy attacks. During combat and some QTEs, successful attacks and button presses fill your Burst Gauge. Every now and then, Asura gets so pissed off during a cutscene that the Burst Gauge fills without any input from you at all. When it’s full, you can right-trigger a Burst. It inverts the usual videogame combat feedback mechanic: since activating Asura’s Burst activates the next phase of the encounter (usually a cutscene or QTE), success is not about emptying a bar (opponents don’t have health bars), but about filling one.
QTEs appear to be a a cynical approach to how we interact with games. “All you are doing is pushing the button we want you to push at a certain time,” they say. “Screw you.” They toss out the usual cues (animation, sound – diegetic objects internal to the gameworld) that tell you when to hit buttons and put them explicitly onscreen using not the language of the gameworld but the language of the controller. They refuse to let you forget about the controller, forget that you are separate from what is going on within the screen. They’re nondiegetic.
Asura’s Wrath embraces its nondiegetic elements, its videogame parts. Its QTE prompts are, at times, expressive. And your on-screen Gauges are not just feedback, changing their appearance not just a cosmetic option – each one has its own combat bonuses. For example, using the Defender Gauge reduces the damage Asura takes in combat. Your choice of HUD has a diegetic effect. This seems weird, but it fits neatly within the videogame tradition.
There is no necessary tie between the aesthetic appearance of something and how it works in the gameworld — see any woman character designed with armor that looks like a bikini but has the same function as a full set of platemail. Asura’s Wrath takes that arbitrary connection between appearance and function and uses it to pull the nondiegetic elements closer to the gameworld, and not just create eye-candy for a narrow audience.
Which is not to say that Asura’s Wrath is unilaterally progressive in its representation: There’s an achievement for staring at a woman’s chest called “View of the Valley” (description: “Give in to your male instincts.”) It happens during a first-person-viewpoint visit to a hot spring with your former master who extols the virtues of drinking fine wine, bedding women and stabbing things with a giant sword. It might be camp. And as the manual and the box and most of the promotional materials indicate, Asura’s wife and daughter are fridged pretty quickly to give him extra motivation in his fight, because being framed for murder and sent to another dimension for 12000 years isn’t enough to be pissed about.
Asura’s Wrath operates on a continuum from free-form fighting to barely controllable (but still skippable!) cutscene. Instead of setting these formats in opposition, it tries to make them work together. There are so many instances of each format that it never feels like one is invading the other. Instead it tries to grab each of these formats and bear-hug them into one giant… something.
The transmedia we were promised was a corporate invention, a shareholder’s dream: driving the customer of one format to purchase something in another, all the arms of the company working in harmony on a series of products incomplete in themselves, but in conversation with one another. But maybe Asura’s Wrath is our actual transmedia future – a midform story (the game lasts about as long as a season of a British TV show) contained in one physical artifact, shifting between different digital formats depending on what best suits the situation.
Brian Taylor’s tweets are like nearly 20000 arms just waiting to hug you. Don’t you want to be hugged?.