At a special GDC Oculus media event this week we got a chance to go hands-on with Sanzaru Games’ upcoming Norse-themed action adventure game Asgard’s Wrath, presented on Oculus’ newly unveiled ‘Rift S’ headset. It’s beautiful, difficult, and will definitely require time to master, as enemies are both difficult and also require a specific style of interaction to slay—something that may not be entirely intuitive at first.
Unlike Marvel Powers United VR (2018), the studio’s latest title isn’t the result of another Marvel/Sanzaru partnership, although it’s clear they’ve borrowed more than a few design cues from Marvel source material. The starting point—a gilded, mechanical observatory at the base of the rainbow bridge, Bifröst—felt like it was ripped directly from the film Thor (2011), looking eerily similar to Heimdall’s preferred chillout spot from the movie. Once you’re in the game proper though it departs a bit from the Marvel cinematics and settles into something more Skyrim-ish in nature, focusing on the earthy and decidedly more dangerous world of Midgard.
Before I get into the meat of the demo, I just have to say this first: so far Asgard’s Wrath is a strikingly beautiful game, and features some fine polish that is clearly approaching the ‘AAA’ department in terms of visuals.
Before I started, I was told by Sanzaru that Asgard’s Wrath would feature 30+ hours of gameplay spread out over combat, puzzles, an overarching narrative, a cast of human avatars to embody & collect throughout the game, and wild animals to beguile and turn into allies. For the purposes of the demo though I was given an opportunity to play a quick taste of the beginning story, a few combat tutorials, and a wave-based combat sequence in a small arena—a total demo time of about 20 minutes.
Starting at the golden Bifröst observatory for a quick locomotion tutorial (the demo featured snap-turn and free motion), I was beckoned to walk down the rainbow road, which clanked into existence beneath my feet as I made my way to the portal to Midgard—the realm of humans and all sorts of nasty creatures. Transported to the world of mortals, I found none other than a horn-helmet-clad Loki entangled in an epic battle with a massive Kraken. As a giant, I was waist deep in a sea littered with tiny wrecked Viking ships, the scene of the battle where I would face off against the doubly massive octopus creature while consequently learning the ropes of the game’s melee combat system.
As the sea undulated around me, miniature wreckage bobbing up and down in the swell, the Kraken began to fight back by flinging ships at me to deter my mission of freeing Loki. Cutting the ships down mid-air with my single-handed sword, I was then assaulted by short serpent creatures which would latch on to my body if I didn’t slice them to bits first (or alternatively grab them with my bare hands pop them like blood-filled balloons). That last bit was a little unexpected, and I was pleased to see the world work in a way I intuitively understood. Positional audio alerted me to the worm’s location, as they locked onto me while making a high-pitched scream.
Worms properly slain, the Kraken then went through a few loops of picking me up by its tentacles and stabbing me in the chest with a barbed proboscis, then putting me back down so I could slash at face-to-face. Eventually defeating the Kraken after a few successive loops, my ‘lesser-god’ status ostensibly became Loki’s new pet project. That’s where the story bit ended for my demo, and where I would start my true combat tutorial so I could learn how to face off against some decidedly more human-shaped foes.
From there I was transferred to a combat arena, stepping into shoes of a human hero called the ‘Shield Maiden’.
To be clear, melee combat here isn’t purely physics-based; simply holding up your sword to block an incoming attack invariably results in the enemy landing a hard hit on you, knocking down a fair bit of your health points in the process. Enemy swords appear to clip through any weapon that doesn’t have enough force behind it; banging your sword and shield together elicits a weightless (and equally disappointing) clip-through. This, I find, is emblematic of the problem VR melee games face currently. Either they are entirely physics-based and risk resultant weirdness of incorrectly colliding with game geometry, or they require very specific movements from you to activate ‘parry’ or ‘slice’ and conversely don’t provide the immersion that physics-based weapons and enemies typically boast. Sanzaru is trying to find the right balance of each for Asgard’s Wrath.
Weapons essentially feel immaterial in Asgard’s Wrath. The game seems to be more centered around executing specific melee actions or gestures during key moments in the enemy’s animation, like parrying a sword attack, knocking a throwing dagger out of the air, or knocking back a baddie with your shield at key moments as they open up and telegraph specific attacks. That means you can’t swing willy-nilly, and that’s something I can appreciate without a doubt. Again, I only got 20 minutes with the game, so my impressions are more of a hot take than the end-all, be-all.
That said, all of this took a bit more practice to get right than I would have thought, especially because a failed parry or strike would leave the enemy entirely unphased. When I was confident I had parried correctly though, which lowered the baddie’s defenses, I was allowed the graceful, head-slicing execution I had been searching for.
At first, it wasn’t entirely apparent to me why I wasn’t able to hit/parry/disarm the baddie with confidence. It turns out each enemy has a specific animation that signals it’s ready to be attacked, but without a clear understanding of this (as someone playing a demo of the game) you’re basically hoping to catch him mid-strike and hope for the best. I imagine the game proper would give me more than ample time to figure this out, but it’s safe to say it’s not a title you can simply know how to play intuitively. That said, if Sanzaru plays their cards right and ultimately lands on a compelling combat system, it could form the basis of a norm going forward which will benefit players and games of the future.
After two combat tutorials, I then headed into the wave-based arena where I could apply everything I learned. As the Shield Maiden, I had a few holstered weapons at my disposal. My character, which I was told was one of many heroes to embody and collect throughout the game, had a one-handed sword, a magical throwing axe, and (of course) a shield.
While the battle axe does much less damage than a solid strike of the sword, it was probably the most satisfying to wield thanks to some aggressive aim assist to make me feel like I was throwing it correctly most of the time. Flicking my wrist would retract the axe back to my hand, letting me tactically toss it and get double the damage by recalling it straight through the backs of the ghoulish, hulking enemies. Destructible shields, health potions and a few other weapons were also scattered about.
Consumables like health potions are kept in a separate quick inventory that you can call up by depressing the left analogue stick. I have stupid hands, but it bears mentioning that I would often bring up the menu by mistake as I mashed down on the left stick for translational movement, instantly putting a stop to my awkward slashing as the game would pause thinking I wanted to fiddle with my inventory.
Even with my new found weapon skills and a handful of potions, enemies were surprisingly difficult. The pallid man-monsters eventually started showing up with more and more strike-resistant armor which I would have to break first before getting a clean blow on the fleshy bits of the six foot-tall beasts. I only got through five baddies before eventually running out of health potions and falling to my inevitable death—proof enough that I wasn’t entirely useless at the game’s combat system, but had a long path to mastery.
Upon death I was awarded a treasure chest, which—depending on how well I fought—contained more valuable loot such as animal pelts and larger amounts of gold, the latter of which could be used to buy stuff like potions and better gear.
In the end, I still really don’t know what to think about Asgard’s Wrath. I’m allured by the promise of “30+ hours of gameplay” and the well-realized graphics, but I still want to know how well the game’s non-combat moments will weave together combat sections and story. It’s still way too early to tell at this point however, as Sanzaru has only stated that Asgard’s Wrath will be due out sometime in 2019. As we understand it, there’s still plenty left to see before we get a clearer picture of exactly what Asgard’s Wrath is all about.
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