When Shenmue was released for the Dreamcast in 1999, its design was hailed as revolutionary. Yu Suzuki had put in an obsessive level of detail into what many considered his opus: algorithmically generated weather patterns, a full day and night cycle (which NPCs would follow through their own daily routines) and what was at the time a groundbreaking open world environment.
But for all of Shenmue’s influential ideas and systems, perhaps only one made a huge, industry changing impact: QTEs, or Quick Time Events. When Shenmue was released, these slightly-interactive, film-like sequences – although really not much different than using a real-time engine to produce what Dragon’s Lair had effectively done in the 1980s – felt novel. Suddenly the problem of expressing every action in a game solely through its move set was a thing of the past.
Players could make Ryo contextually succeed or fail in action brawls beyond what he could do in other parts of the game – with the press of a button. Very quickly it became a design that made perfect sense in hindsight; QTEs subsequently became shorthand for nearly any action scene, a trend that continued all the way through the end of the seventh-gen consoles’ lifecycle.
Fast forward to 2016. QTEs are much rarer, almost universally regarded as lazy and generally reviled. I would hesitate to say that nearly any game that heavily featured them benefitted from the decision. Perhaps the sole exception is Capcom’s bizarre experimental game, 2012’s Asura’s Wrath.
I say experimental because Asura’s Wrath isn’t really so much a game as it is an interactive TV show, complete with bumpers between where you would have commercial breaks and a presentation made up of quick-fire episodes. Asura’s Wrath could have been used a “normal” design; though its inspiration from Hindu mythology and Buddhism immediately differentiates it in concept, it could have ended up a standard brawler. That’s not what happened.
Instead, you alternate between playing and watching Asura’s Wrath, which follows a demigod on an insane, centuries long journey to take revenge on his former comrades after he’s framed for murder, his wife is killed and his daughter abducted. Pretty standard stuff, except Asura himself is unable to contain his rage hence the title and after hundreds of years being cast into a realm not unlike Christian limbo (here depicted as a weird vertical column Asura must ascend to get back to a mortal plane, while a golden spider alternately instructs and taunts him), his former peers have become deities themselves.
The result are battles of hilariously apocalyptic scale and presentation which are played out in-engine, quasi-interactive fashion. When Asura meets the first of the newly (to players) transformed deities, his opponent goes into a typically long-winded monologue about how under the new (to Asura) world order these gods have created and how they’ve become more powerful than he, still a lowly demigod left for dead.
I knew I loved Asura’s Wrath when an optional command prompt appeared on-screen to shut the deity up, which the enraged Asura does by punching him. As the battle continues (and your anger rises via a rage gauge” that grows as you complete various QTEs) Asura grows more arms; with demigod and deity continuing to slug it out, the latter balloons in size until he dwarfs the planet, attacking Asura with one gently pressed finger, which Asura then punches with such fury all of his arms are destroyed.
At various points when not in QTEs, the game turns into a 3D brawler, which is also pretty fun. But the lack of true “gameplay” – the fact that so much of Asura’s Wrath is made up of watching the increasingly ridiculous story unfold over a series of comparatively brief encounters – didn’t earn it a lot of fans. To hell with that. If the game was almost entirely passive, it would be worth it just to see what happens next – its one of those rare stories that really feel like nothing would be too absurd to imagine. (The episode after Asura punches his arms off? It starts with a playable boss battle where you’re fighting with the armless demigod).
It doesn’t matter if you’re not really a fan of episodic anime like, say, any series with Dragonball in the title, either. Asura’s Wrath is just as immensely entertaining, strange, stupid and funny if you don’t (though I strongly suggest playing it in Japanese with subtitles). As far as bargain bin fodder, it’s not too hard to find online for PS3 or Xbox 360, nor is it terribly expensive. It’s pretty much guaranteed to be unlike anything you’ve ever played – even if, outside of the wonderful insanity seen here, QTEs are, on the whole, still trash.