Forget tech demos that only last a few hours, Asgard’s Wrath is a 25-hour role-playing epic that may be the most impressive VR game ever.
A few years ago Bethesda made a VR version of Skyrim for the PlayStation VR. It was a bit of bodge, as was the subsequent PC version, but the potential was obvious. While Skyrim had clearly never been made with VR in mind it was clear that when someone stepped up and made a first person role-player specifically for VR it had the potential to be a milestone moment for gaming. Asgard’s Wrath is that game.
The surprising thing is that the developer of Asgard’s Wrath is not Bethesda or any other big name game company but the little known American studio Sanzaru, whose most famous title up to this point is probably the fourth Sly Racoon game. They recently started experimenting in VR, and made last year’s Marvel Powers United VR, but this is easily their best work so far.
Since Asgard’s Wrath is a first person fantasy role-player the comparisons with Skyrim are not only obvious but openly encouraged, although this is not a clone or an attempt at a spiritual sequel. It has plenty of unique ideas of its own and while not all are as fleshed out as we would’ve hoped nothing about the game feels half-assed or rushed. Since it works only on a PC with Oculus Rift (there’s no version for Oculus Quest) many won’t get a chance to experience the game but if you do it’s unlikely to be one you’ll forget.
Despite the generic sounding name and overfamiliar Norse setting, Asgard’s Wrath does have a surprisingly original premise. You start the game as the God of Animals, a new post in the pantheon or Nordic deities, with Loki, rather ominously, acting as your on the job mentor. What transpires is two dozen hours of divine soap opera, in which you must escape from the role of pawn by mastering your powers and manipulating the lives of various mortals.
This involves you playing as one of several characters, each of which has their own story campaign and side quests. When possessing the form of a mortal you play the game much like Skyrim, with a first person combat system that while not exactly complex places a strong reliance on parrying and positioning, inspired by the fact that VR makes the ability to judge distance a lot easier than in normal first person games.
The problem that there’s nothing to stop you swinging a sword all the way, even though in the game world it’s being blocked by an enemy, is solved by forcing you to repeat specific gestures with the motion controllers in order to make a successful attack. This feels a bit artificial at first – and can be worked around to get in some cheap hits – but it feels like the best solution using current technology.
As well as Skyrim there’s also an obvious debt to God Of War (one of the mortals even has a magic axe that flies back to your hand, just like Kratos) but between the different characters there’s a clear attempt to add a variety that Sony’s soft reboot was often lacking. Each mortal character not only has their own personality and story but also weapons and abilities, all of which are upgradeable in traditional role-playing manner. There’s all the swords and axes you’d expect but also ranged weapons like longbows, crossbows, and various throwing weapons and explosives.
Surprisingly, the game doesn’t have any kind of teleportation system for movement but there are plenty of options to make the VR experience as comfortable as possible, and while some may be frustrated at the slow movement speed that also helps reduce the likelihood of any nausea.
As well as playing as a mere mortal you can also flip back to being a god, where you view the world from a giant’s eye view and can pick up and move objects as if playing around with a toy set. Otherwise impassable objects can simply be plucked out of the ground, allowing you to return to mortal form and take advantage of the help at ground level.
The whole God of Animals shtick also comes in handy in terms of animal companions, with 10 in total that can be swapped out at will and have their own separate upgrade paths and abilities. This adds a Metroidvania element to the game where many of the animals are needed to pass through obstacles or do things such as retrieve keys and operate levers. Although clearly the best part is when they offer up a thumbs up or a high five when you help them out.
The game world is split up into four main regions and each is filled with dungeons and hidden areas that offer meaningful rewards in terms of items, weapons, and buffs. There’s also a crafting system fuelled by a steady supply of loot from downed enemies. So there’s plenty to see and do even if the game doesn’t have a true open world environment.
Asgard’s Wrath has a few technical issues, most obviously the easily confused artificial intelligence of the animals, unpredictable collision detection on interactive objects, and some occasionally dubious voice-acting. The biggest problem though is the sense that the game is constantly trying to distract you from the fact that none of its gameplay elements have all that much to them. They’re more involved than most VR-only games but don’t survive the comparison with non-VR role-players quite so easily.
There’s a huge breadth of options in Asgrad’s Wrath but frequently not much depth, with the god mode being notably underdeveloped in terms of the simplistic puzzles, which at first seem like they’re going to allow you to manipulate the game world in an almost Populous like manner but in the end rarely amount to much more than just picking up and moving the only interactive objects available.
But Asgard’s Wrath is not only an important step forward in terms of creating a bespoke VR experience it’s also a consistently enjoyable game in its own right. With many VR games you wonder how much your enjoyment is being carried along by the novelty of the technology and while there is still a lot of that in Asgard’s Wrath, this is one of the few times where the spectacle and the gameplay are on almost equal footing.
In Short: An impressively ambitious attempt to make a VR-only action game that is both a visual spectacle and a highly enjoyable role-player, full of imaginative ideas.
Pros: Incredible virtual world, with great attention to detail and lots of secrets. Multiple characters add variety and the god mode concept and animal followers are great. Impressive running time.
Cons: There’s not a lot of depth to any of the individual elements, especially god mode, and the combat can feel a little weightless. Minor issues with AI and collision detection.
Formats: Oculus Rift
Release Date: 10th October 2019
Age Rating: 16