"It's like playing an anime."
That's an expression reviewers typically use as shorthand for indicating a game's tone or style. From big-eyed character designs to cutscenes featuring 2D cutouts instead of the cinematic flair that dominated the age of JRPG dominance (i.e. the mid-2000s on the PS2). Plots that feature high school students or other "anime" whatnot. Folks "play an anime" when they take on Devil Survivor or Persona, but you don't hear it often for Final Fantasy or even Tales. Strangely, though, I find that most of the games labeled at such are very much unlike "playing an anime".
Except Asura's Wrath. That game...that game is as close as anyone has gotten to replicating the experience of an anime, and in some ways, goes even further than that. Cyberconnect2 has created something beyond anime, while keeping all of anime's best traits.
When I say that most "anime games" aren't very much like anime, it's partly because of the differences between games and, well, anime. Anime, as any other cinematic medium, benefits from editing, cinematic direction, and other the natural dramatic storytelling shortcuts evolved over the generations. Rocky never explicitly followed the eponymous boxer's every training round with a punching bag, instead opting for a montage, capped off with that iconic scene on the steps of the Lincoln Monument.
Not so with Asura’s Wrath. Unlike any other game out there, it manages to preserve the most key traits of a bombastic, blockbuster anime series, and meld them almost seamlessly together with the interactivity of videogames.
Mind, that's not to say that Asrua's Wrath is the only game to attempt this sort of merge. Nearly every modern videogame with a narrative employs some form of cinematic storytelling. What makes Asura's Wrath exceptional in this case is how comprehensively it manages to emulate the cinematic form, in particular, the television series.
Beyond the immediate stylistic cues and Hindu/Buddhist-offending imagery, Cyberconnect2 built their "anime game" like it were a series first, bending the "game" parts around enhancing the experience of watching the season's wildest, most over-the-top blockbuster show. To that end, the entire game's structure emulates a standard-sized two-cour anime. Every level is an "episode", complete with opening title, breaks for commercials, credits, and next-episode previews. Heck, I even timed myself playing each stage, and tacking on a few minutes to cover animated OP/ED sequences, any given "episode" of Asura's Wrath clocked out almost exactly the amount allotted to a typical week of anime. If I didn't know any better, I'd even posit that the preferred pace to play Asura's Wrath at would be to load up a new episode once each week.
The game would be notable enough if its unique structure were the only thing to its "anime-ness", but Asura's Wrath goes one further, by dedicating all of its mechanics to get you as pumped as possible. All those lavish Quick Time Events aren't just thrown in to make you push a button every so often, as is usually the case, but is instead used to have you invest in the action on screen, but still remain unhindered by a typical game's demand that players learn rules. Collecting power orbs to upgrade abilities or attempting to memorize special moves and combos, or solving block puzzles, these things aren't shown in a typical anime, and so Asura's Wrath strips these out. The game understands that in the right context, limits can actually liberate.
You could ask, then, what the point of even adding what gameplay is? Why not just overlay random button prompts onto a video file and be done with it? That's definitely a valid point. Strangely enough, Asura's Wrath makes the case both for and against doing that in some of its DLC, which are very much the layering of button prompts on top of a specially-commissioned, Madhouse-animated video.
In a classic case of not knowing what you have until it's gone, playing those episodes helps one realize the true value and objective of what little agency the main game affords you. It's not about the button prompts, but about getting invested in the on-screen craziness. The simple fact that Asura will start closing his fist only when you swirl the analog stick, or will only pull out his other four arms when you pull the sticks apart just so. Everything else may have been planned in advance, but the fact that none of it will happen without your go-ahead makes you part of the action.
As for the rest of the game, the Panzer Dragoon-esque shooting sequences and rudimentary combat mechanics are designed more as emphases to the upcoming insanity. They're tension-builders carefully designed to get your blood boiling as hot as Asura's and make the moment when you pull that "BURST!!!" trigger feel as much of a relief to you as to him.
Things get even more pumped-up once the game starts getting meta with its prompts, using them to underscore the power of the scene or add a few extra exclamation points to the end of each punch, kick, or bodyslam.
Of course, this doesn't change the fact that it's one of the most tightly-controlled games I've ever played. To many people Asura's Wrath won't even qualify as a game. To many others the "anime"-ness of it all doesn't count as a payoff for trading in all that control.
Still others might even feel threatened that Asura's Wrath might represent the future direction for the medium (it doesn't). They want to play games, not watch anime.
Lucky thing, then, since Asura's Wrath is the perfect game for someone who wants to "play an anime".
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