Version tested Xbox 360
If you only watch one game playing itself this year, make it Asura's Wrath, eh? CyberConnect2's heavenly dust-up is energetic, exhilarating and often completely overwhelming. In between the lavish cut-scenes, the lustrous 2D artwork and the steady, insistent heart-beat of QTEs, it's possible for players - particularly those who arrived expecting a Bayonetta or even a Street Fighter - to feel a little marginalised.
Go with it, I reckon. Asura's Wrath never lies to you about how much control you have, and its tale of warring deities and galaxy-spanning chaos would be hard to tell with a more conventional set-up anyway. Just this once, put aside your prejudices, watch the demented story unfold, fumble through the button prompts - for plenty of them, it doesn't seem to matter too much if you mess up anyway - and enjoy the sheer enthusiastic insanity that's filling the screen. Would you want every game to take this approach to interaction? God, no. For this particular game, however, it works surprisingly well.
This is a comic-book narrative, at heart, built from an intense, almost embarrassing emotional vividness, simple actions and regular sprays of onomatopoeia. I don't mean that as any kind of criticism, either. Let the details wash through you with the prickly sense of anticipation you get from a good dose of general anaesthetic: deep down, this is about one man who's very, very upset and very, very good at expressing just how upset he is. Asura's a hardnut who's been deeply wronged by his seven demigod colleagues; now, over the course of about eight or nine hours of absolute carnage, he's going to have his revenge. And it's going to be colourful stuff.
The tale of a single man's ceaseless rage has worked before, of course, in stories like, oh, I don't know, the Iliad. CyberConnect2's style is a pretty good match for Homer, as it happens. It shares the central preoccupation with sweaty men getting emotional as they punch each other, and it's aiming for the same kind of pacing, too. Every other line of dialogue in Asura's Wrath is about honour or destiny or betrayal. Every two minutes or so, a different city-sized monster turns up with a spear he'd quite like you to sit on.
It's a framework that requires flamboyant storytelling to make it work, and this is where Asura's Wrath delivers on a grand scale. Blending sci-fi and Eastern myth while finding the space to rope in galactic armadas, demonic rhinos and at least one clockwork spider, CyberConnect2 holds your attention through a mixture of obvious enthusiasm and the sheer, unbalanced energy of its imagination.
Character animations manage to feel both vivid and wonderfully restrained, while the art style is the best 3D implementation of a manga aesthetic I've ever seen. It's all about furious eyes, quivering lips and complex hair; about bunched fists, planet-shredding explosions and endless coronal ejections of jagged lines, laid on to suggest all manner of dramatic intensity and intrigue.
Beneath all that, there's actually plenty for players to do, as well. At the very centre of Asura's Wrath lurks a straightforward but wonderfully tactile brawler. It seems primitive at first, but once you start to revel in the sense of connection and impact, you'll realise it's focused rather than willingly simplistic. You've got a weak attack and a strong attack that comes with a recharge; you've got a recovery move, a distanced strike, and a kind of teleporting dash for closing in on enemies from afar.
Each fight, meanwhile, has the same structure. As you pummel away at foes, you're steadily getting angrier and angrier and angrier. Eventually, you unlock your Burst move and, with a squeeze of the trigger, the game progresses to the next dazzlingly scripted set-piece as you engage in QTEs to finish off enemies en masse, or at least pile on the pain big time.
It's repetitive, then, but the detailing is always different. The detailing is always endearingly ludicrous, too. One Burst might have you busting up a handful of gorillas with an epic knee drop. The next might see you punching a planet so hard that it grows a beak and starts burping lava at you. A planet with a beak! Other games can seem a little - you know - tame after this. Other planets can, too, come to think of it.
Boss fights take things to extremes, of course, and that's really saying something when there are all those planets wandering around with beaks. The very first of them, for example, sees you kicking an evil fatty with sufficient force to send him out of the earth's atmosphere and up into intergalactic space. "That was a bit extreme," you might think, but it's not over yet. When he returns, bloated to the size of the solar system, you can give his giant, continent-squashing finger such a pummelling that his entire body catches fire and he explodes like a supernova. First boss. First boss! That's not even the A material!
I won't spoil the rest, but I will say that the ending is so intense, I'm surprised my own head didn't burst into flames and my living room didn't crumble to dust. (I think some of the water pipes burst, actually, but it is a new build so these things happen.)
Occasionally, there's an on-rails shooting section that works a little like Rez, and there's the odd moment of downtime, too, in which you might relax in a warm spring and get drunk with some weird maidens, for example, while you prepare yourself for the next universe-splintering punch-up. Now and then, you even get to play as a different character - and yet all this variety, such as it is, never feels truly necessary.
For one thing, CyberConnect2 splits the game into short, punchy little episodes, each with its own credit sequence and cliffhanger, meaning the action never really has time to settle into a grind anyway. For another, Asura's Wrath is that rare game that actually benefits from repetition. This is, amongst other things, the most thematically pure video game I think I've ever played: it's about being angry and getting angrier, and this provides a loop that coils outwards in every cut-scene, every interaction, every fight and every set-piece. It's a game that fairly shakes with righteous fury. Even the font on the start menu looks quietly pissed off.
What's weird, then, is that Asura's Wrath, as in love with pure rage as it is, will never make you feel anything other than warm satisfaction. It's medicinal gaming: a nicely-paced series of baddies to lamp and buildings to topple that provides an ideal placebo the next time you miss a bus, accidentally flood the bathroom, smack your head on something sharp or get an annoying letter from the tax people about your proposed Chromium 5 deduction.
Alongside a rhythmic and uncommonly accessible beat-'em-up, Asura's Wrath is part rollercoaster, part anime blockbuster and part stress-ball. The end result may stretch the definition of a video game, perhaps, but it's also extremely hard to get angry about.
8 / 10