Press B To Innovate – Asura’s Wrath

Asura’s Wrath very well may be the oddest game I’ve ever played. Calling it a game almost seems to be stretching the definition a bit too far for my liking, but it also uses its status as a game in some of the most intelligent and amazing ways that I’ve ever seen.

Asura’s Wrath is the story of the demigod Asura and his prodigious wrath. His story is told across three seasons of six episodes each, with most every episode ending on a rather dramatic cliffhanger. The game is structured like an anime, and this goes beyond just the episodic style — there are commercial bumpers in every episode, and when you return from commercial sometimes you see the same scene you saw before you went to commercial, to better set the moment. Credits play over the top of every opening, with longer credits rolling after the end of each season. The action is framed beautifully with incredible camerawork that really understands what the game is trying to do. There are multiple moments where I was reminded of Darksiders and its comic-book-panel-ready cutscenes, where a game was used to tell a story that would have fit just as well in another medium. Each episode took about twenty minutes to play out.

Asura’s Wrath is the video game version of Simon Says, where the player is asked to do little more than match the button appearing onscreen and occasionally engage in some rudimentary arena combat. It can, and has, been called Quick-Time-Event: The Game.

Both of those are accurate descriptions of the game, and both of those leave far too much out.

The rest of this post will be full of interface spoilers as well as a few story spoilers. Consider yourself warned.

Asura’s Wrath uses some damn fine QTEs to tell an utterly ridiculous story. The first boss battle of the game is against a man named Wyzen, chewing scenery like a starving man, who starts out an equal foe to Asura. After being punched off a cliff, Wyzen grows to roughly five hundred feet high, and the battle continues. During this fight missiles are launched from a ship orbiting the planet, but many of these missiles are caught by Asura and punched back into the ship until it explodes and crashes. The game then turns into Space Harrier for a little bit as Asura and Wyzen race each other before leaping into the air and trying to punch each other. Asura wins and Wyzen is shot into space.

Once in space, Wyzen grows until he can hold the planet like a basketball, and decides to squash Asura by poking the planet with his finger. Asura catches his finger with all six arms (Asura gets so angry he grows more arms — I should have mentioned that), and then punches that finger so much so that Wyzen explodes.

It bears repeating that this is the first boss in the game, and it only goes up from there.

Asura’s Wrath is barely a videogame, yet it uses the fact that it IS a videogame to do some incredible things.

The achievements are perfectly timed and placed — pressing B when prompted to “shut Wyzen up” has Asura punch Wyzen into a wall, and the second Wyzen impacts the stone the achivement pops. “15G – Shut Up, Wyzen!”

The arena battles exist primarily to get you to the next ridiculous display; enemies do not have health bars. Asura has a Rage meter, and once you fill that rage meter you press RT to Burst, and whenever you hit Burst something insane is going to take place. The game knows how that bar works, and it uses it incredibly well. During one villain’s monologue, the bar steadily fills, and when Asura’s dead wife or kidnapped daughter is mentioned, the bar jerks forward, filling up faster at the sound of their names. When Asura sees a concerned girl following after him, this bar empties when he stops and shows compassion and worry for her. When Asura activates a later form in battle, the type of gauge he’s using changes to match that form.

The QTEs themselves follow the rules QTEs must follow to not be awful. If you’re going to punch someone really freaking yard, the prompt is Y, the heavy attack. Analog stick movements match the direction the character is going, all the bare minimum needed for me to keep my hair in my head. I didn’t come across a QTE with a fail-state, and at no point are you chaining together four buttons to jump up a hill, you’re pressing one button to punch a guy into the moon and another button to punch the moon into the guy. As soon as you are familiar with how the QTEs work, though, Asura’s Wrath starts doing some really interesting and satisfying things with them.

Early in the game, you have to press the B button a whole lot to fill up Asura’s Wrath and Burst into the enemies. Later in the game, the screen is FULL of the B button, with every press knocking out one of those buttons. Asura’s usual battle stance, activated by press the left stick left and the right stick right, changes to have at least ten icons on each side, and Asura unleashes a dozen arms from his back as he prepares for battle. One battle features the QTE “timing circle,” for lack of a better word, going in slow motion, and then in reverse.

The last battle does the most interesting thing I saw, though. The villain has its own QTEs, with white button prompts, and you see every press it makes. As Asura gains the upper hand, the enemy starts failing, just like the player has undoubtedly done over the course of the game, and at the end of the battle the Burst trigger takes up the entire screen. I very nearly jumped out of my chair like the Redskins scored a game-winning touchdown. I did shout “Burst!” and throw up the horns.

Asura’s Wrath uses its knowledge of its status as a game so well that it stumped me. One villain electrocuted another one and threw her into a wall, and the instant she hit the wall I got the “disconnected from Xbox Live” message on my 360. Does my 360 often knock itself offline? Yes. Was that a thematically appropriate moment for that kind of fourth-wall breakage? Absolutely. Do I know if it was on purpose or a happy accident? Not in the slightest.

Asura’s Wrath will probably never happen again, and that might be a good thing; these kinds of tricks could get really old, really fast, and as a full $60 product plus DLC for the “true” ending is really too much to ask. All that said, though, it’s one of the best gaming experiences I’ve had in 2012 by far.

BURST

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Tuesday Morning Roundup

Virtual Monday is the best kind of Monday; I’ve got a head start on the weekend. What did I do with a three-day weekend free of obligations?

I played Asura’s Wrath to completion. I had no desire to play Asura’s Wrath from reading previews; it was only when I watched the Giant Bomb Quick Look that I realized this was a game I desperately wanted. I plan on talking more about this later on today if time allows.

I finished Hajime Saito’s route in Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom. That remains a fantastic game, and of the four routes I have heard about or played myself, I think the ending of Saito’s path is the most satisfying.

I also finished Theft of Swords, the first book out by Michael J. Sullivan. I also plan on talking more about this, but I liked this a great deal and think it’s worth continuing. Keeping a handle on my spending is the only reason why I didn’t pick up the rest of the series.

I spent a lot of time indoors this weekend on account of it being 94 degrees out. This upcoming weekend is supposed to be much nicer, so I’ll need to think of a good excuse to keep playing a ton of games.

The Perils of Celebrity Game Writing

As most everyone following the games industry knows by now, 38 Studios, the developer behind this February’s Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, laid off all of its employees after failing to make a single loan payment to the state of Rhode Island, after borrowing $75 million and asking to borrow more to pay back the first loan.

The first post I didn’t finish on Loading Screen was a non-review of Amalur, because I lost interest in writing it after I lost interest in playing it. I still don’t have much interest in writing an Amalur review, because frankly the game’s not very good. It’s not very bad, either. It’s flat, uninspired, and after the first few hours you’ve seen everything you’re going to see. It’s a set of very pretty hallways with fun and energetic combat that never grows or changes. I lost interest in it before I even got to the second area tileset.

I still adore Big Huge Games, though; Rise of Nations and Rise of Legends are among the best real-time strategy games I’ve ever played, and their work on Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties gave that game life it had long since lost in my library. There’s a lot of talent and promise in that team, and I hope the spirit of BHG lives on in whatever studio snaps up their people. I hope everyone hurt by this mismanagement lands on their feet quickly, and this is just a nightmarish situation that depresses me greatly. My ire is aimed solely at the celebrities involved with this game.

I don’t have any insight or valuable input into what happened with 38 Studios. I’m no insider, just a pretender. But I do think this article has something that I can comment on, as a gamer and a writer.

The passage of note is this:  “R.A. Salvatore, a fantasy writer who helped develop the games, is slated to receive $1.46 million from 38 Studios in October under the terms of a consulting agreement he signed with the company in 2007. He is also eligible to earn up to $5 million in royalties from sales of “Reckoning” and other 38 Studios products.”

That strikes me as a terrible waste of money, and for once in my life I’m not disparaging R.A. Salvatore’s writing. (Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s awful. Not Richard Knaak awful, but awful.) Salvatore added absolutely nothing positive to Amalur, and instead did a lot to bring the quality of the game down through his work.

Most NPCs in Amalur have anywhere from 5-10 bits of interest in their dialogue options, all with names like “Well of Souls,” “Tuatha,” “Darrenville,” “Elves,” what-have-you. Clicking on any one of those gives you fully-voiced unique dialogue about that specific item, specific to that one character. None of it’s any interesting or any good, except once. The one sidequest I did that felt worth my time was helping a man who accosted me in the forest. He turned out to be a wolf turned into a man by a prankster fairy, and he needed me to help him get back to his lupine state. His dialogue had some actual energy and humor behind it, and while I wasn’t blown away like this was the best thing in the history of videogames, I was sufficiently charmed enough to tackle this rather annoying fetch quest.

Every person in Amalur is an encyclopedia of useless knowledge, reciting facts about a history that’s completely irrelevant to your current adventure. You are run down in the street by names with no fewer than nine consonants every time you ask somebody if they know where the blacksmith is. With each person having their own dialogue, set up in two different UIs (some characters have a Mass Effect-style radial menu, some characters have an Elder Scrolls-style vertical menu, and even worse, some characters switch back and forth between them depending on their last line), the player is left wondering what lines are important and what lines are just background flavor. Salvatore said in an interview that he wrote over ten thousand years of backstory for Amalur to get the game world just right. It shows. And it’s all terrible.

I do want a rich and storied world in my video games. I play games primarily for the story — even the Warriors franchise has a great story appeal to me, thanks to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the Sengoku era. But this is a game. Writing a game is almost nothing like writing a book.

I am not a great writer. I think I’m pretty good, but I’m not great. I hate to use an example from my own book — a book that’s not even out because I’m taking forever on the rewrite — but I want to use a passage from it to illustrate what NOT to do in gaming.

The Ember Forest, just south of Delenn, earned its name in the aftermath of the worst fire in the city’s recorded history. For four weeks the forest burned, with flames consuming miles and miles of the thick forest, from the western shore all the way to the eastern mountains that made up part of the pass in which Delenn sat. The fire survived the best of the city guard’s efforts, a group of magi from the capital, Kasilos, and a week’s worth of prayer during the height of its damage. It took a steady week of torrential rains to finally extinguish the fire, an act that the druids of Arcell were quick to claim credit for. It was through Arcell the Lifegiver, the God of Nature, that the city itself was spared, they said. Regardless of what saved the city, the forest was ravaged by the weeks of destruction. Even after the rain had fallen, the forest smoldered, with so many patches of red mixed with the ash that, from the mountain pass, it looked like the plains ran thick with lava.

The druids worked to restore the forest, and their rituals met with early success. The first plant life to grow after the fire had flowers that bloomed the same color as the flames. Either the emberbloom flowers took their name from the forest or the Ember Forest took its name from the flowers, and scholars argued both sides for years.

“Huh.”

Scholars also disputed the cause of the blaze. Some pointed to other instances in Khazair’s history, claiming that forest fires are a common occurrence, and to have one of this magnitude was just an unfortunate coincidence. Others pointed to the reports that metal was found near the southern end of the forest, melted almost beyond recognition. They argued that the metal matched the stock used for the holy symbols for Scinterra, the Goddess of Fire, and that this must have been the work of a violent sub-sect devoted to one of the lesser gods. They backed up their assertions with cultist propoganda found in Delenn that spoke of “Cleansing by Fire” and other loaded statements. The sect never claimed credit for the fire, and the investigations never led to a suspect. Delenn authorities closed the case with the cause listed as natural.

“Well, well.”

The Ember Forest’s recovery from a decimated wasteland into its current, thriving state is a testament to the power inherent in both the magic and the people of Quintana. Before the disaster, worshippers of Arcella and Narkend regularly clashed over theological issues. The druids argued that worship of the Goddess of Death placed too much importance on just one aspect of the natural cycle of life. The mages of Narkend felt that the druids focused too heavily on the big picture, foregoing individual concerns for the “circle of life” they so often referenced in their research papers. Yet, after the fire, both groups worked hand in hand to return the Ember Forest to its previous splendor. The works the druids accomplished could not have been done without the rituals Narkend’s mages cast over the land, using the forest’s own death to bring about new life. Descendants of that group, both in lineage and in philosophy, still travel Khazair and the rest of Quintana helping with disaster recovery, calling themselves Eternal Life. They serve as a testament to what is possible when the people of Quintana embrace their differences, instead of stand rigidly by their doctrine.

“Hmm.”

Chamber sighed, and lowered his book. “That’s the third time, Dante.”

The redhead riding beside him shifted in her saddle and looked at Chamber, eyebrows raised in a good impression of surprise. “Third time for what, Chamber?” she asked him.

“Third time you’ve made some little noise like that.”

“I can’t say I have any idea what you’re talking about,” came her innocent reply.

“Oh yes you do,” he retorted, riding closer to her. “You do this all the time.”

“You’re probably just hearing some noise in the woods,” Dante said, indicating the forest around them. “It really could be anything. Maybe you should be more alert when we’re traveling through an area this dense.”

“I don’t know what you have against me reading when we’re riding somewhere. What is it?”

That’s not bad. That style works very well in writing, because it lets me present something interesting — the area in which the next few chapters will be taking place — in a way that tells you more about the characters in those chapters, namely that Chamber is a reader and Dante likes to annoy him to pass the time. That’s a scene I can build from, and introduces character traits that will be important later on, and failing that just add more to the characters themselves. It also means that if the trees start throwing fireballs at people later on it’s not completely insane. (They don’t.)

If I were to try and establish this kind of history in a videogame, I wouldn’t. I straight up would not even try. I may have all that written down in a world-design document, it may be important for the history of the world and how everything evolved, and it may mean a lot to me. But I would show a forest, perhaps have a character mention its name and fire off one line, maybe two, and then I would keep going. It’s writing for a game, not a novel. In a novel, I, the writer, am important. In a game, you, the player, are important. I need to stay the hell out of your way while working to heighten your playing experience.

Games writing is not novel writing. I cannot emphasize that enough. Every time I hear that a novelist is working on a game story, I cringe and prepare myself for the worst, because games writing and novel writing have made for some terrible bedfellows. Amalur is one of those. Salvatore’s philosophy for using that 10,000-year history was to make sure he crammed it in everywhere in the world, because he’s R.A. Salvatore, he wrote the Drizzt novels, let’s make sure everyone knows just how great a writer he is.

Obelisks cover the game world, each one telling you some story about the world as you play, like the audio logs in Bioshock. But there is no lead-in or explanation of why this is important, and the first area’s obelisks are a rather twee song by a would-be folk singer about a lost love of the gods. There are either eight or ten obelisks per area, and each area takes hours to explore if you are chasing down all 150 sidequests per area (and I do not recommend doing this). You may come across Obelisk Six days after you found Five, and have completely forgotten why an old man is singing to you in his Children’s TV Show voice. But since each obelisk gives you XP, you’ll be loathe to pass it up. Since R.A. Salvatore wrote it, he was loathe to cut it, so it’s in.

The Elder Scrolls hides its historian goals inside books, books that are entirely optional to read and do not offer any serious game advantage to those who elect to read The Lusty Argonian Maid versus those who decide that slaying dragons sounds like a better use of their time. The worldbuilding is done in such a way that you learn about the world by finding things in it. When you walk into a dungeon and find bandits painting the walls in body parts with one dead troll between them, but streaks of blood leading further into the dungeon, you know exactly what happened there. You also know what you’re going to do about it — you’re going to go kill that surviving troll and hope that he’s sitting on treasure, and not something else far worse hidden far below.

In Amalur, there is one surviving guy who is willing to tell you his life story and every detail in his day that led to him coming down the path to this cave with his friends, where they were suddenly set upon by a troll — trolls, incidentally, have a terrible fear of fire stemming from how they were cursed ten thousand years ago by Agartha, when she came down from Old Murkenville — that’s the village where two of the gods were born, Agartha and Morwen — sisters, they — fair as a summer’s day, pretty as a lark, ’til one day they went a-dancing right outside the Hillside Park…

Monday Morning Roundup

What did I do this past weekend? I got into the Torchlight 2 beta and downloaded the demo for Civilization V, but didn’t play either of them. Instead, I troubleshot my computer after a BSOD and then watched about eight videos of the Giant Bomb Endurance Run of Deadly Premonition.

While price-checking computers, though, I did find this beauty. I think if you spend $4000 on a PC you’re put on some kind of list, “dramatic lighting effect” notwithstanding.

I have actual thoughts on the 38 Studios hootenanny, but it needs to not be so busy for me to share them.

(Incredibly) Early Impressions Of The Bonehunters

I picked up The Bonehunters, by Steven Erikson, at the library over the weekend. I try not to judge a book by its cover very often, so instead I’m going to judge this one by the first 50 pages. That’s better, right?

Within three minutes of picking up the book, a 15-letter word with an apostrophe in the middle assaulted me. Surrounding this word were multiple other apostrophe-laden words, most of them places, some of them people, all of them confusing. These words dominated the first few pages, and then left, presumably never to return.

I have a thing about apostrophes. I hate them. I hate them and everything they represent in my history of reading fantasy writing. Superfluous apostrophes are lazy Elven gibberish meant to make names sound exotic, foreign, and Elven again. Is that what they are doing here? I have no idea, honestly, I’m only 50 pages in, but I cringe every time I see a fantasy word with an apostrophe somewhere in the middle.

Why did I presume I’d never see those words again? Because, fifty pages into this book, I have changed viewpoint characters and scenes about seven times, and I have yet to return to the same character. These characters are introduced rapid fire, little to nothing said about their backstories or even their appearances, and then they are gone, leaving me flailing in a desperate attempt to figure out who that was and if it was important.

I do know their names. In fact, I know the names of everything, though I would be lying to say I remember a single one of them. The first four pages of the book are maps, covered in place names. The four pages after that are all names, names of people with a few-word descriptor after them. I do not believe I am exaggerating when I say that there are at least a hundred names on those pages. I haven’t counted, because I’m honestly still kind of stunned. Most of the scene breaks start with City, taken by Army in Year, from Army who had held it since Age through Age and Age, with a little bit of This and a whole lot of That and Whatnot and now here’s Dude, son of Dude, friend of Dude and Dude, and it goes on like this. And then they are gone and I have no idea if it’s important or not.

I’m going to read this for at least twenty more pages, as I have adopted the 100-age page count system for when to give up on a book. But I don’t expect to keep reading this after that.

It has come to my attention, thanks to reading Wikipedia, that this is book six of a series. My copy says nothing about that, anywhere on the cover or in the first few pages. I couldn’t even get a list of his other books to figure it out on my own, so I thought it might be like Discworld, where there’s an order but you can really read them by themselves as they’re all stand-alone. That still might be the case, but this is as bad an opening as I’ve seen in a long, long time.

Monday Morning Roundup

Another week bears down on me, a week of preparation here at work for next Monday’s insanity. How did I spend my weekend?

Vienna Teng is doing a series of concerts on StageIt, and I caught the Dreaming Through The Noise concert on Saturday evening. Once a month, she plays half an hour’s worth of songs from one of her albums, in new solo piano arrangements. I cringe when I look at that sentence, though, because that sounds like I’m selling them short. It would be more accurate to say she’s performing new solo piano and bizarre technological device arrangements of her classic songs. I read a Sting interview where he talked about the challenge of playing the same songs night in and night out without starting to hate them, and that that’s the reason why we have so many different versions of Roxanne. Vienna’s performance showed a lot of that same creativity; “1 br/1 ba” found new life as a multi-tracked piano-percussion piece, with Vienna recording and mixing herself making no end of hilarious noises live, and “Whatever You Want” became an energetic beatbox revenge fantasy with some real fire behind the chorus. She also played “Recessional,” the first song that really broke my heart, so that was worth the price of admission by itself. She’s got three more performances over the next three months, with the incredible Inland Territory up next, then Covers and Rarities to close it out. She will play her solo piano version of Fields of Gold in one of those and I will sit, entranced, and it will be wonderful.

Magna Carta 2 did not hold up for very long. There’s a set of voice actors that show up in most every game that I play; Nolan North, Troy Baker, Johnny Yong Bosch, Yuri Lowenthal, Steve Blum, Nolan North, Jamieson Price, Michelle Ruff, Nolan North, Steve Blum, Nolan North, Steve Blum, and Nolan North. Bosch, Ruff, Lowenthal, and Price feature heavily in Magna Carta 2, and to be honest — and it pains me to say this — they’re all pretty flat. But I don’t blame that at all on the actors, I blame that on the direction. I play and adore the Dynasty Warriors games, and one of my favorite characters is Sun Shang Xiang, the tomboy princess with the wind and fire wheels. This is despite her voice; she was shrill and unpleasant from Dynasty Warriors 3-5. I just liked the character design. Then I played Warriors Orochi, which had a different voice director for the localization, and he or she let the actors loose, and SSX suddenly became a fiery tomboy with real energy behind her voice as she yelled at Sun Ce about their forced servitude. “Do you think I LIKE fighting in this army? I don’t! But I know better than you that I can’t just turn my back on my family and my responsibilities!” Since then, the DW games have been of a much higher quality for the acting, and I’ve heard Michelle Ruff give incredible performances in Persona 3, Tales of Vesperia, and others. Magna Carta 2, on the other hand, is much closer to the other Michelle Ruff, the flat and uninspired one. Much of that is the material, too; this did not even approach Vesperia’s quality.

They also shouldn’t have named a character after male enhancement drugs. Schuenzeit? Shoe-Enzyte? Really? Really?

Last week in this spot I said that Titan Quest let me “hit a centaur with a club so hard he went sailing at least fifty feet in the air, landing after I killed two other guys.” I found a mod that drastically increases this. I can now spin in a circle, maces swinging, bones from the undead rocketing through the tombs and bouncing off of everything in sight. It is, to be technical, pretty great. Thirteen hours in and I’ve just landed in Egypt — time to go shoot the sphinx in the face over and over again.

I played an entire season of Madden NFL 12 in a weekend. I don’t want to talk about it.

Monday Morning Roundup

What happened this weekend? Not as much as last weekend. I’ll still try to make it interesting, though.

I started Iron Lore’s Titan Quest this weekend — well, started it again. I’ve own TQ and its expansion for years, but only played a few days before losing interest. Diablo III comes out in eight days, but I’m not picking that one up. I’ve never really gotten into action RPGs as a genre, but I know enough people who have that I wanted to give one a good try. The story’s forgettable, the environments are beautiful, the classes are entertaining, and I hit a centaur with a club so hard he went sailing at least fifty feet in the air, landing after I killed two other guys. That’s enough to warrant a second day.

I also started Magna Carta 2 this weekend, and it is also pretty engaging. While I’m not one to denigrate the storytelling in Japanese RPGs, I do understand that they tend to follow a lot of the same steps. My immediate counter to people who say that is to point out that 90% of Bioware games follow those same tropes, but I’m usually worked up into an unreasonable frustration at small-minded fanbases at that point and I don’t really handle it well. Regardless of my own personal damage, Magna Carta 2 is a serviceable JRPG with a pretty neat battle system and main characters voiced by Johnny Yong Bosch, Michelle Ruff, Jamieson Price, and Yuri Lowenthal, so that’s wonderful.

I also played about five more hours of Hakuoki, which means there’s an update due sometime this week once I finish up a route tonight and then sort through what will likely be 900+ screenshots.

Jaz Rignall at Eurogamer wrote a story about how important 1991 was in video gaming. I read about the Super Nintendo in Nintendo Power, and I remember how excited I got about this incredible machine that was just over the horizon. I did not come from a rich family by any stretch of the imagination; we had an 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System, but we only had four games for it. Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt, Super Mario Brothers 2, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Exodus, a Bible-themed knockoff of another game. My neighbor had tons of games, so it was at his house that I beat Super Mario Brothers 3 and a bunch of others, and I also rented a lot of games from a little local place called Doug’s Video. When I read about the SNES, I knew I wanted one, but I knew I’d never get one as a gift. It cost $200. $200! That might as well have been Monopoly money to my ten-year-old self.

I saved my money for a full year. I asked for money for my birthday, and I got about $80 in checks and the like. My grandmother asked me what I was going to get with my money, and I said a Super Nintendo, when it came out in a year. When Christmas came, I took the money I got as gifts there and put it into the same jar in my room. Any change I found around the house, any dollar bills that fell out of pockets in the dryer, that all went in the jar. I believe it took me over a full year to save enough money to get it, but I took my $200 in cash to KB Toys in the Staunton Mall and bought myself a Super Nintendo with Super Mario World packed in. It was worth every penny.

SNES Concepts

Let’s all be grateful they changed the final design from that thing on the right, though.