It’s easy to feel powerless in 2021.
There’s not much you can do, outside of staying inside and wearing a mask when you go out, to try to stay safe and halt the spread of COVID-19, and no one knows what to expect from the timing of the vaccine rollout. If you need to take a break from that uncertainty, spend some time with Asura’s Wrath, currently on PlayStation Now. The cult classic from 2012 stars a character who never feels powerless for long, as long as there is something around to punch.
Here is the setup: You are a god, and you are betrayed, so you have to punch everything until you get what you want. Asura is over-the-top as a character, and the world around him is even sillier and grander than anything he can possibly do. Thousands of years fly by in an instant. The planet is ripped in two, because there is an evil being living inside it, and this happens in the introduction.
Don’t worry, though—you really only have to worry about the punching, the shooting, or hitting the buttons when directly told to, and you’ll only have to focus on one of those interactions at a time. Asura’s Wrath is approximately 70 percent cutscenes, 10 percent quick-time events, 10 percent rail-shooter, and 10 percent third-person brawler. Is it fun to play? To interact with? Not really; quick-time events aren’t exactly challenging, and the brawling is incredibly basic compared to more recent games like Streets of Rage 4. The rail shooting sections aren’t horrible, but there’s only so much you can do with a rail-shooting section. The joy of the game can be found in its presentation and sense of self. Very little of what is going on is explained or justified, but it is always absolutely wicked.
And I don’t mean Devil May Cry-style wicked, with actual modern style and a sense of what’s “cool” and what’s not, but a completely self-indulgent, barely coherent style of wicked where the rule of cool controls all of existence. Asura, the demigod who is trying to destroy the other gods for killing his wife and abducting his daughter — no one knew any other reason for video game heroes to do anything before 2015 or so — sometimes grows a few extra arms so he can punch things harder.
Sometimes he punches things so hard he loses arms, which is fine. They grow back, I guess? There will come a time when he grows quite a large number of arms indeed, and you better believe you will be asked to hit a button over and over and over until your own arm wants to fall off, just to make sure Asura is punching things with the correct intensity. That is the nature of the player’s relationship with this game: You must prepare to push all the buttons when you are told to, because your enemies have swords the size of a planet.
Asura’s Wrath is a barely interactive anime at its heart, and the creative team was locked to that vision. There are credits sequences littered throughout the game, since the beginning and end of each “episode” would have credits and bumpers and previews and all the rest. There are moments that explain what happened “previously, on Asura’s Wrath,” and there are even periods of momentary rest, almost like placeholders for commercial breaks that don’t actually exist. The implication is, if you had watched this game live on TV (?!?!?), you would have seen ads during these moments.
It’s a silly gimmick that further distances you from the actions of the game and makes sure none of this feels “real” or immediate, or even very relatable outside of a few basic emotional touchstones. I would also not like other gods to use my daughter to fuel their hyena-like takeover of the planet—that’s a very basic emotion—but I do not know that I would be able deal with weapons large enough to cut through entire planets in order to do anything about it.
One early battle takes place against another god, who is vanquished quickly only to come back as a huge being that, again, dwarfs the planet. This is a reality in which the Earth itself is usually torn asunder, or at least subjected to ridiculously destructive gravitational forces every hour or so as you play.
I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a regular person in this universe and suddenly you’re hit by a tidal wave because two gods are fighting on the other side of the world. But don’t worry, if it looks like the next challenge is going to be too great for Asura, remember that he is like Hulk Hogan, before the sex tapes and horrific racism. As long as he has enough anger, and is fighting for the right reasons, and can sprout enough arms, he can simply grab the finger pushed onto the planet from space and punch it until the god it’s attached to is destroyed.
Why? Go to hell, that’s why. This is Asura, and if you don’t think he can do it, you better rethink that assessment and find the strength within yourself to hit a button relentlessly until you give him the help he needs. You’re also rated on your completion of each “episode,” and you have to get above a certain rating on enough levels to see the “real ending.” There are so many trophies, and I can’t even remember how to get them all, despite there only being a few ways for me to impact anything in the game’s world.
If you don’t think there’s an extended scene where you have to avoid acting weird about a barely-dressed goddess, giving players an excuse to ogle a scantily clad woman, you don’t remember gaming in 2012. Asura is all that is stereotypically “manly,” only pushed to such a ridiculous degree that it’s hard to take seriously, especially after nine years or so of distance. Games are much better about this sort of thing now, at least in general, and in retrospect that turns this section into more of an unfortunate, awkward time capsule of what used to be considered “edgy” in games.
I can’t imagine another studio being given this kind of budget and time to create something this cinematic, while offering such limited ways to interact with the world. I punch when Asura’s Wrath tells me to punch, and I shoot at things when I’m told to shoot at things. The reward is glorious absurdity, and a story with stakes that never stop increasing, filled with enemies that just keep getting more powerful and ridiculous.
Very few other games are willing to even entertain this kind of scope, much less start at maximum intensity in the opening minutes and be forced to constantly raise the stakes and size of your opponents. Everything is so ornately designed and beautifully realized on the screen that it’s clear the Asura’s Wrath art team took some very silly ideas and treated them very seriously, and in the process created the beauty and sense of weight and history that gives the game so much arguably unearned heft.
It says something that one of the few times Asura isn’t able to do the right thing is due to the fact that, in that moment, he had no arms. The trauma of not being able to save an innocent causes him to instantly regenerate more, better arms.
Asura’s Wrath is an example of a ridiculously bad idea — a video game made up of just OK brawling, Panzer Dragoon-style shooting, and quick-time events that steals the format of an episode anime — executed with seemingly unlimited style and creativity. I never cared that I wasn’t doing much as I was playing; I was just looking forward to seeing what jaw-dropping set piece or ridiculous joke was waiting around the corner. This is a game that isn’t afraid to let its baddies monologue, but you also unlock an achievement for interrupting their speeches with a straight-up punch to their pie gutter.
Asura’s Wrath hasn’t aged like wine, or milk, but rather like Asura’s Wrath. It is a singular release in gaming, for better or worse, and again, it’s currently available to play through PlayStation Now. And if Asura has taught me anything, it’s that no matter how much is taken from me, no matter how hard I get hit, no matter how many times my planet is ripped in two — and I just can’t stress enough that this happens all the time in Asura’s Wrath, the planet is just always on the verge of blowing up, and then it does, but then it’s fine — the only solution is to keep going, keep trying, and do your best to grow more arms.
Metaphorically speaking. I think?