Impressive visuals, a robust crafting system, and decent combat collide in this Norse-inspired adventure.
Since the launch of the first-generation Oculus Rift VR headset in 2016, users have patiently awaited the arrival of a truly epic RPG experience, one that would offer them an immersive gaming journey impossible to recreate on conventional gaming systems. Then, in February, Oculus Studios and Sanszaru Games revealed Asgard’s Wrath, an ambitious RPG adventure made specifically for VR headsets. For eight months we waited, wondering if this Norse-inspired epic would be the revolutionary VR experience we’ve long been waiting for. After several hours spent venturing throughout this formidable world, I can say that while it is, without doubt, a pioneering VR experience, it still falls short in several key areas.
Welcome to Godhood
Centered around the legends of ancient Norse mythology, players take on the role of God of Animals, a newly-created deity capable of harnessing the power of various creatures across the realm. Working under the guidance of the trickster God Loki, you’re tasked with assisting a handful of mortals in their personal quests towards greatness. One such adventure, for example, has you avenging a mortal’s fallen family member who was killed by another vengeful God. Beyond that, there isn’t too much in the way of a plot. You’ll spend about an hour or so with each mortal, traveling to new locations and encountering new enemies, puzzles, and items along the way, but in terms of a greater overall story arch, there really isn’t one.
For some, this will be a blessing — allowing them to enjoy a rich, complex RPG experience that isn’t bogged down by any unnecessary character development. Others, such as myself, will find the lack of an overarching plot disappointing. The world Sanzaru Games has created is a fascinating one; so much so that I can’t help but imagine the epic tale they could deliver using the wonderful characters and gorgeous, sometimes haunting setpieces featured throughout the game.
Bigger is Better
The true magic of Asgard’s Wrath is in its use of scale. While in the body of a mortal, you’ll control the experience as you would in most other first-person experiences. Using your motion controls, you can interact with levers, loot for food and potions, and go toe-to-toe with a variety of enemies. Certain obstacles, however, will require you to return to your God-form. This allows you to look down upon the same environment as a giant, providing a new angle on puzzles and roadblocks. You can also make drastic changes to the environment to help your mortal progress, such as reconstructing massive bridges or clearing roadways of enormous rubble. It’s an incredibly unique mechanic that does a wonderful job at making use of VR’s ability to play with scale; easily one of the biggest selling points of the game.
While in God form, you can also request the assistance of nearby animals by picking them up and converting them into half-animal, half-human hybrids. Each animal features a unique ability that can assist the player throughout their journey. The eagle, for instance, can activate windmills and other fan-based devices by generating gusts of wind with its wings; the turtle, on the other hand, features an impenetrable shield that can protect the player from traps such as flame cannons. You can toss food and potions to them as well, allowing them to heal up mid-battle. The AI is decent, although more often than not I found my companion more troublesome than helpful. While the AI does an okay job at tackling puzzles — most of which simple canned animations — they’ll often jump right in front of you during a fight, obstructing your field of view. There are ten animal companions in total, each of which capable of overcoming certain challenges as well as enemies; which is good considering the games lackluster combat system.
Ancient Battles & Ancient Combat Mechanics
Asgard’s Wrath’s combat mechanics are supposed to be about timing and rhythm. You’ll have access to swords, crossbows, battle axes, enchanted nun-chucks, and various other weaponry left by fallen enemies. As you progress through the game, you’ll unlock new weapons and upgrades, such as a magic battle ax that returns to your hand when summoned. You’ll also come across tougher enemies that require different approaches in order to defeat. While early-game enemies will often go down with a few swings of your sword, others will require you to parry their attacks before they can be damaged. Some enemies, for example, will strike you with “lethal” blows that can’t be parried or even blocked. These foes will require you to dodge out of the way and continue bobbing-and-weaving until they present an opening in their defense. While this system sounds fun in writing, it’s slightly more underwhelming in-headset.
Instead of dancing with foes in an elegant display of strategic swordplay, fights often devolve into a cluttered mess. Enemies will often follow-up their attacks at such a rapid pace it leaves little to no time for you to prepare a defense. Sometimes it appeared as though the tracking couldn’t keep up with the action, as I would often move to block an attack only to find my in-game hand hadn’t caught up in time. While this wasn’t the case in every encounter, it was still enough of an issue that it started to make me dread future battles; not because they were too difficult, but rather because they just weren’t fun. Compared to the incredible VR combat featured in games like Blade & Sorcery or the upcoming Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners, Asgard’s Wrath’s mechanics feel slightly dated. It’s likely they went with this particular style of combat in order to keep each battle fast-paced and accessible to new players, but in the end, each encounter just feels predictable and scripted. Then again, Sanzura did op for smooth locomotion over teleportation, something I’m sure experienced VR players very much appreciated.
A World Worth Exploring
When you’re not scouring the four worlds of Midgaard, you’re kicking it in an otherworldly tavern in Aegir’s Hall filled with God-like patrons of all shapes, sizes, and species. Here you can check back in with Loki for updates on your primary objectives, trade-in resources with the blacksmith and craft new weapons and upgrades, participate in a handful of minigames, or just toss half-eaten apple cores at a disgruntled half-man, half-boar hybrid. It’s here that the game presents most of its charm, from the dunk shopkeeper hidden in the rear of the bar, to the diverse band of creatures performing jovially on stage for the other fascinating patrons. You can also read up on additional in-game lore and discover a variety of other secrets.
It’s this kind of depth that sets Asgard’s Wrath apart from other VR RPG experiences. Whereas many other games of this variety tend to focus solely on one aspect of gameplay, such as combat or exploration, Asgard’s Wrath offers players a rich, in-depth experience that tries its best to encapsulate all of the elements that make games such as Skyrim, The Witcher, and God of War so much fun. Unfortunately, that same ambition is what’s keeping Asgard’s Wrath from greatness. What’s fun to perform in a conventional video game may not be as enjoyable in the VR format, whereas actions considered boring in conventional games may actually be more exciting in VR. When this fact is ignored, the result can be a unique, yet relatively bland experience.
While I did enjoy exploring underground dungeons and upgrading my equipment, it often felt as though a majority of my experience was spent wandering through linear environments waiting for my ally to finish the next puzzle. Yes, there are moments throughout the campaign in which we learn more about the stories of each mortal, but these interactions are few and far between. Combat feels like more of a chore than a true battle as you stand there blocking repetitive attacks waiting for a blue light to shine — signifying an opening in their defense and a potential end to the monotonous encounter. Honestly, I would have much rather been performing the tasks bestowed upon my companions. Imagine how much fun it would be to unsheath your shield and sidestep past a wall of fire, as done by your turtle ally; or extending your arms and flapping them like the bird to activate windmills. Still, Sanzura incorporated several unique elements that I hope to see used by developers in the future. One such example is an optional set of side missions that allow you to avenge fellow players who have fallen in battle.
Put simply, Asgard’s Wrath could very well be THE most ambitious VR title of all-time. Unfortunately, that ambition sometimes comes at a cost.
Asgard’s Wrath is available now on Oculus Rift/Rift S for $39.99.
Feature Image Credit: Sanzaru Games, Oculus Studios