Games of 2012: Asura's Wrath

Rage of wonder.

Take a bow, Asura's Wrath. Take a bow for the lost and forgotten, the unloved hundreds of games that end each year as digital landfill with no-one to stick up for them.

You were released in the first quarter, which from the vantage point of all the best-of-the-year lists might as well have been a decade ago. You're not a triple-A blockbuster or a cool indie. You were made by a developer known (if at all) for churning out licensed games. Your fading second-string publisher only had the marketing budget to push a couple of games this year - and you weren't one of them. You're a genre piece, but not a conventional one, and that meant that most people misunderstood you.

Take a bow for your brothers in arms: Binary Domain, Kingdoms of Amalur, Catherine, The Last Story, Unit 13, Yakuza: Dead Souls, Armored Core 5, Warriors Orochi 3, Kid Icarus: Uprising and dozens more of the great games that end each year as cultural flotsam on the beach of indifference. Solid, characterful, double-A genre games like these used to be the staple of an entire industry, but as the market for boxed console games shrinks and publishers get more gun-shy, there are fewer of them every year. You'll miss them when they're gone.

That's one reason why I've picked Asura's Wrath for our games of the year series over several frankly more deserving titles which you don't need my help remembering. The other reasons are that this deranged tribute to '90s fighting anime from Capcom and CyberConnect2 is one of the most breathless, hilarious, cathartic and downright astonishing games I've ever played. It's also a true rebel, with all the interest in restraint and cultural approbation of an Iron Maiden album.

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Asura's Wrath is the tale of Asura and his wrath. Usual deal: he's a demigod in the pantheon of a weird sort of sci-fi Hindu universe, he defeats the giant evil worm living in the core of the planet, then his seven cohorts frame him, kill his wife, steal his daughter and cast him into purgatory for 12,000 years. When he comes back, he's very angry indeed. He commences punching starships, wrestling demonic elephants, getting pinned to the earth's crust with a sword so long it comes out the other side of the planet, growing six arms and shouting. Sometimes he has no arms at all, but that doesn't seem to calm him down much.

The presentation is a remarkable facsimile of a TV anime series. CyberConnect2 somehow coaxes a stark, hand-drawn look out of Unreal Engine 3 (of all things), brilliantly evoking the Japanimation style: its ludicrous spectacle, its extreme dynamism, its headlong rush of frozen moments. The game is even divided into tight half-hour episodes with preview reels, credits and cliffhangers, and it's not afraid to throw up a title card with "Press START" emblazoned on it when you're two thirds of the way through. It's weird, but it's all about pacing; if it weren't broken up in this arresting way, Asura's Wrath would risk drowning in its own insane excess. As it is, its sudden hit-pauses leave you wanting more.

The gameplay, such as it is, blends a half-decent brawler in the Devil May Cry mould with a half-rubbish rail shooter. It averages out at fine. The rest of the game is composed of barely interactive cut-scenes with QTE prompts which, in almost every case, you can't actually fail. Press the left and right sticks down as Asura braces his feet against the moon-sized fingertip of a god who's trying to squash him! Hammer Y to pummel the finger so hard the god explodes in a planetary supernova! Best of all, when some treacherous demigod is submitting you to a pre-fight lecture, press B to shut him up!

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QTEs are often regarded as a kind of gaming heresy, so QTEs with no fail state must surely be worse than Dragon's Lair. Only perhaps - whisper it - they're actually better this way. The superb editing and pacing of CyberConnect2's scenes - this developer, responsible for the Naruto series, really knows its manga and anime - combines with the barmy intensity of the storytelling to create a momentum that it would be a sin to stop.

Why have the button pushes there at all, then? Because they're fun - sue me, they are! - and so you can really feel every titanic swell in Asura's never-ending tsunami of rage. This is where Asura's Wrath's brilliance lies, if you ask me. As preposterous and bizarre as it is, it carries you with it, beat for beat, every last step of the way.

Somehow, you end up empathising with Asura - a howling demigod with skin of etched brass, dialogue of solid wood and an emotional range of AAAAAAARGHHH - as closely as you might do with The Walking Dead's homely survivors. You swing every punch with him, you bellow at the callous vanity of the gods with him, you channel his bottomless, tragic anger at everything hateful in the world, including himself. As every fight shudders to its planet-crushing climax, you feel a deep catharsis. If you're in a bad mood, it's healing; if you're in a good mood, it's elating.

'It's barely interactive enough to be called a game,' said critics of Asura's Wrath. Hogwash. For one, it's as much of a game as many of this year's critical darlings - Journey, Dear Esther, The Walking Dead, to name a few - if not more so. It's not fair to slam it for not being another technical beat-'em-up like Bayonetta when that was never the point. It may be angry and kinetic rather than thoughtful and spiritual, but it's still closer to those strains of experimental interactive fiction.

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And anyway, player agency is overrated. It's not the be-all and end-all and not the only string in video games' bow. Games excel at empathy. This medium's ability to put you in the boots of a character and make you feel like you're living their story is one of the things that makes it so powerful, and yet so often those lead characters have no emotional lives. Asura's Wrath isn't sophisticated drama - to be honest, it's complete nonsense - but it's got raw feeling to spare.

Most importantly, that feeling is a universal one that any one of us can remember and identify with. Asura may be fighting for his daughter and for the poor and downtrodden; he may be fighting against the capriciousness, pride and greed of those above. But he's no idealist or hero. His is the nihilistic rage of the teenager who wants to bring the whole rotten, unfair world down on top of himself. At one point, he's so out of control that you have to play as someone else and fight him back. He's the rampaging id in all of us; Asura's Wrath lets us indulge that, but also teaches the importance of controlling it.

Other games this year have been better at being games than Asura's Wrath, and almost all have been saner. But only a tiny handful have contained as much truth about the human condition. That's why it's a hero of the unfashionable ranks of double-A gaming to me. That's why I'll cherish it over many games I should really like better. That's why it's one of my games of the year.

Press B to shut me up - I dare you.

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