Yogis, Generals, Daeva and You
Right off the bat, I started asking who the villain of this game was supposed to be. Was it the heavenly Daeva with their making morally questionable choices? Or was it the Rhaksasha-empowered Asura, controlled by me, laying seige to the heavenly realms as a one man army? Normally in a roguelike game I don’t get wrapped up in plot or backstory. But Asura is a different beast. Touching on a mythology that we hardly ever see represented in video games, Ogre Head Studio’s two man team takes us on a challenging journey through Indian lore.
A hands-on and involved developer is always a great sign for a new roguelike game, and the enthusiasm from these guys stands out. In a region that is awash with cricket and Bollywood themes, the devs were looking to make something different. But how does the product measure up?
A Powerful Roguelike Incarnation
Procedural Skill Tree. I read that in the game description and I was taken a back. I thought the concept sounded very interesting, but I could barely believe it was a thing, much less a thing that could be implemented well. Your character has four skill trees called Shastras. Each Shastra has four tiers. When a new game is started, each tier has one or more appropriately levelled, but randomly chosen, skills placed in it. The skills range from from ones that increase the amount of xp gained to ones that allow you to cast spells for various effects. All in all, it is remarkably simple but very well done.
Of course, being a roguelike, skills are not the only random thing. Almost everything in this game, with the exception of your starting base character, is randomly generated. What monsters you fight, the gear you get, the maps you play on, even the boss battles are at the mercy of the all-powerful RNG. And the more you play, the more set-pieces unlock. Depending on how your things play out for you, some Asura sessions may last several levels – others will last 30 seconds.
The high quality of the artwork draws your attention, and excellent, thematic music keeps you in the world, but doesn’t distract you from it. On the art, I think it is always a good call by smaller companies to not give in to the temptation of CGI, which is so very easy to do very badly. Seeing these beautifully drawn images as cut scenes, I was thrilled. Nothing can turn a gamer off like bad art direction, and in this regard the world of Asura takes good care of its guests.
First thing I noticed when starting the game was the warning that I should play with a controller. I’ll echo this warning here. You could play on keyboard, but you will have a much better time with it using a controller. The game’s speed and controls are clearly optimized for a gamepad of some sort. So I plugged in my haggard and abused X-Box controller and set off.
When you play a game that is timed, ranked, and unpredictable, having a clear and easy to read interface does a great deal to help you get into the right headspace for a game. With few exceptions, Asura is one of the easiest to understand games I’ve had the pleasure of playing in quite a while.
Almost everything on the screen is clearly marked. Health, Stamina and XP in their Red, Green and Yellow bars. How much you have of each. How many keys and Sona you have (Sona being your gold coins). Your minimap, controls, and what consumables you have on hand are all easily visible. With some of the stranger consumables, you need to pop in your inventory and read what they do, but the game mercifully pauses while you do this. Holding down on your left controller stick brings up a larger map, showing explored rooms and places yet to be explored.
The UI isn’t perfect. One thing that could have been made clearer is the existence of an overlay map. I found it quite by accident and it made navigation so much easier. Also, there is the Veda menu, an option is available off the main menu. It contains a lexicon of thematically-named game terms that are rather good to know. Access to the Veda menu should likely have been added as an option when the game is paused. That said, these are two small issues rather than deal breakers.
I need to say, I’m a big fan of Asura’s dynamic gear system. I love being able to get a sweet new piece of loot and see it on my character. Different equipment has a variety of looks, and those looks can translate into an awesome looking character. Even when you equip a magic spell as a weapon, your character now lifts off the ground and flies. Mechanically it is the same as walking, but damn if it isn’t fun to see.
Devil in the Details
The game is not the most unforgiving of its type out there. It gives the player the ability to pause and catch your breath any time. Roguelike games should be chaotic, random, and replayable, but that doesn’t mean they should be unwelcoming. Asura wants to be played and it shows. It explains the simple mechanics of combat quickly; ranged enemies are easier to kill with Melee and vice-versa. Dodging and timing are very important. You will die, often, but you won’t feel cheated when you do.
After defeating a room full of enemies, you walk over their bodies and are given the option to Absorb or Scavenge. There is a decay counter, so you need to make your decision quickly. Absorb gets you dat sweet, sweet xp, while scavenge gives you a chance for gold, consumables and gear.
Gear is very important since it has a huge impact on your stamina, health, and damage output. Sometimes it is clear which piece to swap out and leave on the floor, but other times you struggle to decide if the extra damage the hammer does is worth it compared to the hefty stamina cost for swinging it and the devastating reduction it imposes on movement.
Gear and xp can also be acquired through smashing objects that are scattered through the game. Sometimes, these objects are a little hard to see, but when you walk near a destructible item it illuminates.
But be careful. While it is considered a destructible, and thus lights up, fire pits are horrible, terrible things. If you bump into them, you catch on fire. And being on fire is as terrible as you might expect… But it also destroys a piece of gear. It seems random and can have a devastating impact on your current build. So watch your step, and oh yeah, some enemies can set you on fire too.
Stairway to Heaven
Once you get a hold of the simple and easy-to-understand mechanics of Asura, you are in a constant state of “I can do better.” I am not one for competitive gaming, nor have I ever cared about leaderboards… But, for whatever reason, with Asura I do. When death comes, the option to see the leaderboard is right there, and why the heck not? It’s fun to see how my struggles measure up with the rest of the world.
Ogre Head Studios is setting a really high bar for itself with this product. This is one of the most elegant, clever games of its kind. The devs put a lot of care into balance and playability, while also staying true to the roguelike elements. And this is really just the beginning. The devs are already talking about how launch is just the start, and they will be adding more to the game later.
At a modest price of $10 USD, this game should be a must have for anyone who even remotely enjoys the genre. Elevating itself beyond a simple hack and slash, we can only hope the market takes notice of what has been done with Asura. While wildly different than other Indian games, it also sets itself apart on the world stage. Great things are coming out of this small Indian company, and we should all be keeping an eye for what is next.
One damn good roguelike. 9/10
Review by Old Man Mordaith
Edited by Jesse Roberts
This product was given to the site for free as a review copy.