Twenty years have passed since LucasArts announced themselves as the publisher of a game called Wrath (later known as Wrath Unleashed.) An early build was so promising that LucasArts called it “one of interactive entertainment’s most highly sought after games.” They even hinted at “immense competition” between the companies looking to secure publishing rights. It’s fascinating reading these comments in 2022: to hear how optimistic people were for this back in the day.
Wrath Unleashed and Gladius (also brought to us by LucasArts) are unique entries in my Xbox Files series so far because neither of them were console exclusives. These are original games though and the fact that I’m talking about them this many years later does feel significant.
However, as promising as the early previews were, Wrath Unleashed got a tepid reception at release. I recall its mediocre review score hiding in the corner of Official Xbox Magazine and by the time I saw the game sitting on an equally neglected store shelf in 2004, I’d almost forgotten the thing existed.
Wrath Unleashed survives in my mind now solely because of its original premise. It’s a hybridisation of turn-based strategy and 3D brawling. Players fight to control a fantasy realm by moving various pieces around a hex-based map rendered in miniature. Combat begins whenever pieces are moved into contact, with the view shifting to a 3D arena for 1v1 battles. It’s an attractive concept where some huge potential is tragically wasted.
The 3D combat is the sorest point to contend with even if it does compliment the strategy layer reasonably well. Damage bonuses are factored in for favourable terrain, there’s an assortment of matching environmental hazards, and some cool creature designs for each faction.
Frustratingly though, the fighting system is built on stun-locking and interrupting an opponent’s animations. There are huge dragons and rampaging giants waging war in truly colourful locations here, and yet the spectacle is hamstrung by controls that encourage mindless button-bashing. There are mechanics for dodging and special moves and little nuances you’d expect from a fighting game, yet none of it ever rises above that aforementioned problem.
Many attacks are slow to execute for one. A Mage Ogre can barely pull off their shockwave attack before having it broken by the light jab of a Unicorn’s horn. The asymmetric balancing is intentional, but it’s certainly not uncommon for your God piece to get battered by a lowly Genie just because things are so fussy in close quarters. It doesn’t help that the CPU opponents are preternaturally strong; reading your inputs and countering your assaults with frustrating tendency.
The CPU typically puts in a much weaker performance during the strategy layer. You’ll see them cast spells at the wrong moments, overvalue weakened enemies and durdle by pointlessly moving the same pieces backwards and forwards.
The final episode of one campaign usually ends when a CPU inexplicably exposes their Demigod on unfavourable terrain (losing your God usually results in an instant game over.) Even on Hard difficulty, they’ll frequently leave their temples undefended, allowing other players to claim them for the alternate win condition. I’ve won games with a combat success rate as low as 25% because manipulating these situations can be so easy.
The Campaign mode isn’t very good either. For one, the lacklustre story involves demigods in a silly love quadrangle. Aenna loves Apothos, who loves Aenna back but does not love Helamis (who loves him), who herself does not love Durlock, who loves Aenna (who doesn’t love him), and so on. They’re searching for an ancient throne which will ascend them to true godhood. From there they’ll rule the universe and their respective crush, whilst presumably ignoring the implications of consent in the process. Icky!
Additionally, the two female characters are garbed in some absolutely farcical bikini outfits, so attention if you had that on your mid two-thousands video game bingo card. Forget Wrath Unleashed, they should have just called this “Horny Gods” instead.
I get the idea of wanting to make a divine story somewhat relatable to us mere humans, but this dumb sex fantasy just isn’t entertaining and it’s not helped by the Campaign mode being so short and prefaced by the same boring cutscene for all four characters.
It’s a shame because its scenario-driven design had potential. Players are given a limited number of turns and pieces to complete straightforward objectives on preset maps. These are certainly challenging enough, though the hardest part is sitting through battles between the CPU characters. The stand-alone Battle mode gives the option to skip fights where a human player isn’t involved, only the Campaign mode forgot to include that option, annoyingly.
Some of those Campaign missions are hard, so needing to restart one and repeatedly watch the CPU players fight (whilst the player sits there doing absolutely nothing) is a tremendous oversight only made worse by irritating loading times. That right there might actually be the biggest problem: the long loading times that separate the strategy and fighting do seriously hurt the game’s momentum. If everything just ran faster and smoother in this sense, there’s a chance the experience could have rebounded a little. Ultimately it just feels sluggish on top of it already being frustrating.
The multiplayer Battle mode fairs a bit better because there you can tailor the maps and armies to your liking. The 2v2 option supports cooperative warfare alongside the standard competitive setup, with up to four human players or CPU bots taking part. Nice.
Battle mode also has an option to disable the 1v1 fighting to create a purely strategic experience. Whilst this does dramatically improve the pacing — no more combat means no more loading times for those 3D arenas — it does expose how simplistic the strategy layer is to begin with. Battles are automatically resolved and influenced by various factors, yet the outcomes seem overly conservative, with rare swings happening seemingly at random. As frustrating as it can be at times, the 3D combat is a vital ingredient that breaks up the basic strategy with some action. Disabling it is certainly a welcome option to have, but it’s not enough to save the game from mediocrity.
Although the experience is a deeply flawed one, Wrath Unleashed has flashes of that same unique experience that got LucasArts excited all those years ago. It splices together genres in a manner too simplistic for diehard strategy fans or fighting game fans to come away satisfied, and yet there aren’t many games on the original Xbox quite like it either.
Wrath Unleashed isn’t some misunderstood classic by any means, but it’s still worth a look from patient curio hunters hoping to play something different from the generation.