Oh, Asura. What happened to us? There was so much that could have been, and so much I hoped to be. As the first game from Ogre Head Studios, I was very excited to jump in and give this rougelite hack-n-slash a try. Had I decided to write my review for Asura within the first 48 hours, this would have been my most lauded game to date. Sadly, after some intensive and frustrating gameplay sessions, I have to face the grim reality: being stomped into the ground is only as fun as you’re willing to let it happen.
Asura is a game whose story and aesthetics are directly influenced by Indian mythology, and done so quite wonderfully. A Maharaja has finally united the smaller kingdoms into a great empire, but hears a prophecy that he needs to make a sacrifice in order to maintain prosperity and harmony. Rather than give himself or harm someone from the upper caste, he sends soldiers to raid villages till they find a young boy to set on fire. You know, like any good ruler would do. Demons, who are always just waiting around for such opportunities, resurrect the boy as an Asura, a supernatural being who, in this case, is a vessel for vengeance. You are then tasked with systematically attacking each of the guardians who protect the Maharaja in a quest to finally destroy the man who murdered an innocent.
This story is dark but also incredibly compelling. A good revenge tale never goes out of style, and Ogre Head Studios did a good job of researching and injecting plenty of Indian lore into most angles of the game. The anthropomorphic beings are certainly based on ideas that exist in classic Indian ideas, but, thankfully, have been modified slightly, as I doubt anyone wants their deities and icons firing massive ice cannons and working together to stop a dead child’s ghost. The elephant god, whose people rule the third world, is referred to as Nagesh, which is a quick and lazy renaming of an already existing and well known Hindu entity. Still, even taking a short moment to step away from using original and official names shows a bit of foresight on Ogre Head’s behalf, and it’s commendable.
Asura brings a bit of several genres to the table with this game. On the one hand, it’s a top down hack-n-slash that focuses on short dungeon crawling. It’s also a bit of a skilltree RPG, as your XP slowly unlocks up to ten levels and, as a result, ten abilities that you can add to your demon as you move forward. Additionally, and most importantly, it is a roguelite: the number of enemies, items and rooms that you’ll discover each level is random, and a look at the log file confirms a different seed is created every time I start a new game.
The controls are tight and handle very well in this difficult environment. You have only one attack button, and it’s your prerogative to swap between melee and ranged weapons at a moment’s notice, although each has their own caveat. A melee attack is much more effective to a ranged enemy, and vice versa. Your ranged attacks usually rely on arrows, which can run out and can sometimes become scarce. Melee attacks tend to mean getting very, very close for comfort and may end with you getting the snot beat out of you.
You also have the chance to sprint and to dodge roll, and players want to get familiar with the dodge roll immediately. Besides being one of the only ways to get out of a tight situation, the dodge roll also gives a brief blip of invulnerability against ranged weapons. One of the early boss variants fires a barrage of arrows in a sweeping arc that can cover the whole room, and only rolling will prevent you from suffering some serious damage. Sprinting is nice to get between rooms and larger spaces, but really serves almost nothing for combat, although you may find success in sprinting to evade large, slower but heavier-hitting monstrosities.
Everything relies on two major bars, your health and your stamina. You can, theoretically, play through the entire game without extending either, but everything is reliant on stamina, at first (except your bow, but that needs the arrows). Hopefully you’ll be able to keep lucky and pace yourself so that you don’t run out of stamina at a pivotal moment, like when you need to land a blow before you get struck yourself. If you’re like me, you’ll need a few moments of panic-inducing exhaustion that pins you down somewhere unpleasant before you learn to keep balance in your life.
If you’re strong and lucky enough to defeat enemies, you then get a chance to decide what to do with their bodies: scavenge or harvest their souls. Harvesting yields XP, and, I’m not exaggerating, this is the only way to get XP from grunts. You can sometimes get XP from a lucky chest or from smashing the right vase, and bosses yield a fair amount of XP upon defeat (as well as dropping loot). However, if you choose to scavenge, nearly anything can drop, from cash and arrows to meat (needed to replenish HP) and even weapons and armor. The armor is especially important, as you start with zero armor and, no matter how cool the new stuff you find is, you can easily lose it when an enemy smacks you hard enough.
There are basically two ways to approach every run of Asura, and that’s to decide if you’re putting stock into buying your way to the top or fighting your way to the top. And both still rely on chance to be on your side. The weapons/armor you can buy from the forge are randomized at the time of purchase, so you never know what your hard-scrounged money may get. The skill tree, a circular progression that divides into four categories (magic, stamina, damage and health, essentially) is also subject to the rogue-lite elements, and the skills you can unlock through leveling will be different, even in ranking, every time you play. In fact, the heavy lean on RNG is what both entices and frustrates about Asura. Spending all your gold to get a mediocre weapon, and then finding a better one in a chest moments later. Skills that were level one last run are now level eight, meaning you won’t unlock them till you’re more than halfway done with the game. Monsters refusing to drop any meat or arrows no matter how badly you just need one more. It can be so satisfying when the odds are in your favor but, ultimately, they may not be.
What ultimately prevented me from finishing Asura, however, was not the randomness. It was the difficulty. I think that people look and see the difficulty of Dark Souls as a wonderful challenge, and I fully support and agree. But Dark Souls also has a method to the madness, whereas the rogue-lite faction of Asura cranks the difficulty up way past comfortable at times. When you get hit, you frequently also get dazed, and there is ZERO buffer between when hits from the enemies land. So, while you rarely encounter any enemies who attack more than once at a time, they will all gang up on you and pound down very quickly. In the earlier stages, this isn’t such a problem: there are rarely more than three enemies at a time and they tend to bide their time. But the realm of Nagesh is a terrible one, full of fast-moving behemoths, insane range damage and some small, fast champions who cover the ground faster than their elephantine allies. If can literally just be a matter of a small mistake that results in all your hard work going to nothing.
That isn’t to say the game isn’t fun: when you get into the groove or get a GREAT weapon drop, you feel powerful and awesome. You get into a rhythm of dodging and striking that really make you feel like Wrath incarnate. Spells recharge, not from time, but from kills, so firing off multiple spells in a level means you are doing awesome, and that feels awesome.
Asura looks like a beautifully updated top-down dungeon crawler. I feel like it’s a great mash of Torchlight and Diablo with a heavy dose of the aforementioned Indian influence. Each NPC feels organic, from the more humanoid archers to the lightning-fast Naga race, and even crazy ideas like the elephants with freeze rays fit in well. Despite being dark at times (second and fourth world, most notably) nothing is too shadowy. There’s a great amount of mood lighting from torches and you won’t accidentally step on spikes because they didn’t show up on your visual radar.
The entire opening sequence is a beautiful storybook displaying a truly horrifying tale, and Ogre Head did a great job conveying it. There is so much love and thought that went into designing this game, and it’s moments of polish like the flicker of a brazer or the pattern on a pot that really bring out the details you might not otherwise notice.
Surprisingly a bit base. I wasn’t expecting the music to be over-the-top with sitars and such, but I honestly thought there would be more of an Indian vibe given Asura’s overall concept and execution. There’s nothing bad about it: the background tracks fit very well with each level and it’s clear there’s atmospheric shaping with everything. The voice of the Asura itself is perfect and terrifying, even when it’s just yelling “MY STAMINA IS TOO LOW!” There’s a good balance of visceral gurgles when slicing into enemies to an otherworldly ambiance when you’re being assaulted by magic users. There’s honestly nothing to complain about, and, if you really enjoy it, the Ogre Head guys have the whole thing as DLC on Steam for under a buck.
I wanted to give Asura the score I felt it deserved when I first started playing. If you enjoy hack and slash and like a good, unfair difficulty, you could get hours upon hours of play. The leader boards show that people have managed to beat the whole thing in under ten minutes, which I can’t even fathom. There are unlockable characters that I could never get to, more difficulty modes that I wouldn’t even chance, and brand new skills I still haven’t found. There is potential in Asura that cannot be overlooked for a first time game. But the challenge mixed with RNG elements can be frustrating to the point of giving up. A splash screen between levels jokingly reminds players to throw something soft, not their controller, and I don’t think it’s a joke anymore. I will definitely come back to Asura, but only after my doctor gets me on blood pressure meds, because, my God, I hate elephants now.