I’ve always been fascinated with video game cutscenes, and how they basically act as animated sequences that add something to the games. They can contextualise gameplay, create or complement a particular mood being emphasized by the overall production, or simply provide a nice break to do some fun stuff for a few minutes, among many things. It’s often been the case that the cutscenes will make up the most memorable or interesting parts of a specific game, so much so that some folks will revisit a game or experience it solely through its cutscenes.
Around April-May 2022, I decided to watch the 2012 video game Asura’s Wrath like it was an anime. I’d played through the game a couple times back when it came out but it never clicked with me, and I remembered it had existed out of the blue one day. Asura’s Wrath is quite simple from a mechanical perspective, starting as a beat-em-up that then weaves together interactive cutscenes, quick time events (or QTEs), and the odd shooting segment to make for a game that could be easily described as an “interactive anime”.
In addition, the structure and presentation of the game invites this comparison from the get-go. Every level is referred to as an “episode” that lasts roughly 15-20 minutes, each episode’s two halves are punctuated with eyecatches, and every episode is capped off with a “To Be Continued” card rendered in a “postcard memories”-style and followed up by a next episode preview. There’s smaller details which accentuate this, such as the slight differences in dialogue and direction between scenes featured at the end of one episode and the beginning of the next, or opening sequences containing credits for their respective directors, writers, storyboard artists and animation studios.
Although the description of an “interactive anime” was often used at the time of the game’s release to criticise its emphasis on style and spectacle, I consider it to be a neutral – and in this case, positive – term to convey how the overall production comes together to make Asura’s Wrath something quite unique. And out of a desire at the time to keep myself occupied through any means, I decided to watch the game over the next few weeks. I’d check out one episode every day, maybe two if I got quite into it which did happen regularly enough.
Asura’s Wrath works surprisingly well as an anime, considering the lines are blurred so noticeably between what would traditionally be considered “gameplay” and “cutscenes”. Gameplay often consists of QTEs and contextual commands, so you’re going back and forth between watching events play out onscreen and then doing some inputs. The combat’s very simple with only a few moves and combos to work with, but that means it blends seamlessly with the QTEs/commands and ensures that more people can experience the game without being tripped up by complex inputs or convoluted sections.
Purely watching it, I really appreciate how much stuff there is to be seen, and how many locations, animations, enemies, or characters are made to only appear in one five-minute section and are never seen again afterwards. The level of artistry is consistently ambitious and over-the-top, with plenty of excellent, boisterous animation that is complemented by great effects work, solid cinematography, fittingly dramatic music, and an overall on-point sense of direction that ties everything together. Asura’s Wrath knows what it is and presents it so confidently that it’s deeply charming and compelling if you’re into it. I admittedly wasn’t, but I totally understand why this game does have such passionate fans.
However, I also realized that I cannot stand the levels where you’re just fighting hordes of Gohma and the Shinkoku army. I get how it’s meant to feel like you’re fending off endless masses to no end until you’re pushed to breaking point, with the rage meter building up the more hits you deal. But it makes those sections go on forever until the game arbitrarily decides “alright, NOW you can move on to something more interesting”.
I never liked playing these, despite them being necessary pacing-wise to make the episodes with boss fights and big story developments really stand out, but watching them is even more tedious. It made the middle portion of the game – namely episodes 7-10 – almost unbearable. Those were the lowest points of both my original playthrough and this viewing, and it was striking to understand that with such clarity.
At the same time, experiencing the game this way also helped me come to an understanding about the somewhat notorious “Part IV: Nirvana”. Now, I’ve never found anything that discusses why things turned out in this specific way, so I’ll only recount the basics of what occurred.
Asura’s Wrath had various pieces of downloadable content released in the months following the game’s release. These added extra levels to the main game, and most of them were bonuses which played around with interesting ideas. There was a goofy two-part crossover fight with Ryu from Street Fighter IV where you swapped between the gameplay styles of both, and a pair of interlude episodes that further added to the “interactive anime” feeling by being entirely animated sequences with light QTEs directed by Shinya Ohira and Kazuto Nakazawa. However, among these was something significantly more important.
In its original release in late February 2012, the game ended on a cliffhanger. Roughly two months later in late April, an episode pack was released titled “Part IV: Nirvana”, containing four new episodes which followed up on the cliffhanger ending and resolved all major plot threads. This episode pack was decried as forcing players to pay cash to get the game’s “true ending”, and the lack of any re-releases or ports means this ending is only accessible so long as the digital marketplaces for the game’s systems (the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360) stay available – for however long that may be considering we’re already over a decade out.
Those are fair criticisms, though I admit I’m somewhat more reserved about it due to not knowing how it came about. I don’t know if it was cynically extracted from the main game to be sold off for more money (something that had happened in other releases by the game’s publisher Capcom around this time), or if there was a plan that had to be quickly changed due to shifting circumstances. I want to give those involved the benefit of the doubt until something definitively comes out to explain what went down.
But I bring this up because experiencing Asura’s Wrath as an anime caused me to reframe Part IV as a bonus OVA or a movie produced after the series, something made specifically to tie everything up for those who were still invested. This is fairly common in the world of anime (off the top of my head, there’s the 4 OVA episodes for Wolf’s Rain, and the films Ideon: Be Invoked and End of Evangelion), so viewing Part IV like this made it seem less egregious to me. I could appreciate it more as an attempt to resolve things after the fact, using the extra room it had to command a larger scale and try things it might not have done if it was part of the main game.
In general, this experiment helped me to view the game more positively. Part of that’s just my own stance on creative works changing over the years, but there’s also the clarity that came with experiencing the game without having to actually play it. Because Asura’s Wrath, to play it, isn’t for me. Enemy encounters are too repetitive to make use of the limited abilities you’ve got, and playing on higher difficulties only turns every fight into a struggle against damage sponges.
It’s not a game for me, but I’m happy to say that watching it like an anime let me finally see its qualities when detached from the guff of actually playing it. I also better understood why other people weren’t so keen on it at the time. If you’re someone who considers “gameplay” and “cutscenes” to be mutually exclusive concepts that never interact, then Asura’s Wrath is an overly simplistic game that constantly and arbitrarily restricts your ability to mechanically express yourself with stupid QTEs (which I remember people being very sick of by the early 2010s) and overly long cutscenes.
But if you can move beyond the idea that games have to be exclusively X or Y, that they can make it so gameplay and cutscenes are practically one and the same, then Asura’s Wrath is a unique game that shows what you can do with the medium. That it also makes for a very fun anime is a most excellent bonus.
Screenshots taken from Mobygames, main game screenshots by Klaster_1 and the rest from the DLC’s respective pages on the PlayStation Store:
Special thanks to retr0gamer from the Hardcore Gaming 101 forum, who reminded me of this game’s existence and indirectly kicked off this whole experiment, and to Evan from the HG101 discord for reading the article and assuring me it was fine when it seemed like gibberish.
FrDougal9000 writes for hardcoregaming101.net as Apollo Chungus. When he isn’t writing about video games, he is cultivating his love of animation that’s only increased over the last few years as he’s explored the wide, weird and wonderful world of the medium.