Hands-on: 'Asgard's Wrath' Shows Titanic Ambition & Visual Finesse

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Backed by Oculus Studios, Sanzaru Games’ next big title for Rift, Asgard’s Wrath, doesn’t have a release date yet, although at E3 this week I got a chance to try out the latest demo, which reveals more of the game’s story, dungeon crawling, light puzzles, and magical beast companions.

Firstly, I have to say that Asgard’s Wrath is an extremely attractive game visually, at least from what I saw today at E3 and at the game’s debut at GDC earlier this year. From engrossing environments to well-realized characters, replete with excellent motion capture, Asgard’s Wrath looks like the sort of game that’s poised to set a high visual bar for the medium.

Don’t get me wrong: I have my niggles (more on that in a bit), but it appears that Sanzaru is building a game that’s truly aiming high to deliver on the grandiosity of the epic Norse Pantheon-inspired source material. All with a reported 30+ hours of gameplay, no less.

If you haven’t heard about Asgard’s Wrath, here’s the skinny: you’re a fledgling god taken under Loki’s wing on the path to true godhood. Loki—the Norse trickster god—needs you to physically possess a handful of mortal heroes and go on quests using each of their own abilities and weapons to ‘fulfill their destinies’—just what that means, I’m not sure for now. Beyond possessing the human-sized mortals, you can also grow back to your original titanic size to solve environmental puzzles, and enchant the world’s beasts to help you fight deadly monsters and solve some of the puzzles that vex your mortal heroes.

In a new demo of Asgard’s Wrath at E3 this week, I basically picked up where I left off last at GDC. In the last demo, I saved Loki from a giant Kraken, so he invited me out to a raucous Asgardian tavern for a refreshing pint of mead in thanks. This is where he saddles me with my first real mission as his new pupil. Drinking with Loki and clinking my tankard in cheers was a fun little piece of character interaction that I wish more games made use of.

Loki tells me a Shield Maiden needs my help. Whisked away to Midgard, the land of mortals, I learn that the Shield Maiden is on a quest to avenge the death of her brother who was killed by the Norse god Týr.

Spitting vitriol at the heavens and rowing furiously in the night, her warship is smashed by an absolutely titanic god who marches through the tossing sea at waist height. After she was washed ashore and sputtering awake the next morning, I got my chance to possess the Shield Maiden and go through some of the basics like finding and placing items in my inventory, eating to replenish health, magically creating an animal companion from a beached shark, and venturing forth into a cliff-side dungeon.

These beastly companions play a big role in the game, and essentially act as ambling Swiss Army knives suited to various tasks. Shark buddy has his own weaponry and health points too, so he’s useful as backup in a fight, but he more specifically has his own abilities that match the many puzzles that lay ahead.

Sharkie likes to chew on dead people; ordering him to climb up and chow down on a dangling corpse typically opens a door, moves an obstacle, or reveals an access point to a hidden item. Thankfully, he also follows you automatically so you don’t have to worry too much about where he is at any given time. I have a feeling though that Shark Bro (and the game’s other animal pals) will be busy doing more than just slashing at baddies while you sit back and relax. At one point, I had to order him to open a door that unexpectedly revealed a room full of enemies; ordering him to help me out with the fight lowered the door again, shutting off access to the impromptu battle pit.

Sanzaru Games developer Jenny Huang described the game’s puzzles to me as ‘light’—as in puzzles that a casual user wouldn’t have trouble solving. In fact, a highlighted aura envelopes key puzzle pieces if you take too long to find them, which isn’t something I’m particularly fond of. The studio wasn’t ready to comment on whether puzzle hints could be toggled off in settings, but as an avid puzzle-playing-person, I’m hoping they do.

I do have a few more gripes with some of the things I saw today, all of which seem like fairly well established components of the game.

The UI. I dislike it. If you need something that isn’t already bound to one of your quick-draw slots, you have to hold the menu button, futz with a few different classes of items to find what you want and laser-pointer it into the desired slot. This sounds like I’m being a pedantic turd, and you may have a point there, but I was really hoping to leave behind the legacy adventure game UI conventions for something decidedly more ‘VR native’, like an armory or ready room with all of the available items on display that you pick up naturally and place in your various holsters.

Image captured by Road to VR

From what I’ve seen thus far, I’m not a fan of how object interaction is handled in Asgard’s Wrath either. Items have a sticky ‘snap-to’ quality that just doesn’t quite feel immersive. For example, reaching out for an item snaps it jarringly to your hand, which feels more like having something superglued to a paralyzed model of a hand than actually holding an object naturally. One of the best implementations of virtual object interaction to date is Lone Echo (and by proxy its more sporty sibling Echo VR), which uses dynamic hand poses for a more fluid and realistic way of dealing with its many virtual objects. I really wish Sanzaru took some of those lessons to heart here, as I think many object-focused VR games would benefit from it in lieu of proper five-finger tracking.

Though it’s sure to be a major part of the game, combat was a really minor part of the E3 demo in particular—there were only a few low-level zombie types—easily dispatched with my lone sword. I would suggest you take a look at my first hands-on to get a good sense of what melee combat has to offer in Asgard’s Wrath.

If you’re short on time though, here’s the abridged edition: melee isn’t as intuitive as I’d initially hoped, and suffers from some of the weightlessness that comes part and parcel with non-physics-based combat systems. It can still be fun once you learn how the game wants you to play it, although I imagine it’ll take some getting used to before you’re able to really sink your teeth in.

In my 20-minute demo, I wasn’t given the opportunity to check out the game’s crafting mechanic, although there seems to be plenty of ingredients laying about, like a bag of coins collected from a smashed urn, or a few rolls of leather and rotten flesh from a slain zombie. I got the sense that crafting will be an important component of the game as you gather recipes to make rage-inducing meads and health potions of various abilities.

I also wanted to get some more time in the megalithic god-size mode to see the interplay between god-scale and human scale, but never got the chance outside of a brief tutorial. Maybe next time.

Despite my grumblings above, my time with Asgard’s Wrath has me fully prepared to dive back in for more. As a 30+ hour game though, its success is contingent on a few factors we haven’t really had the opportunity to consider in the realm of VR. If the game can make good on its grandiose story, keep puzzles interesting, and ease players into fully understanding its combat system, it may very well celebrate a fair measure of success when it releases this Fall. As with all long-format VR games though, clunk has the ability to magnify over time and level design can grow stale if not carefully scaled to the player’s continuously expanding expectations.

Although I’m still unsure of whether or not the studio has bitten off more than it can chew with Asgard’s Wrath, what I’ve seen so far gives me hope that it’s going to be worth the time and effort.



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