When you’re the baddest mofo this side of a Tokugawa Shogunate, it isn’t so much a question of if you’ll get a videogame, only when. For the anime-borne hip-hop sensation Afro Samurai, that day has finally come, materializing as a next-gen action slice-‘em-up for the PS3 and 360. From its bloody bouts to its unwavering sense of cool, Afro Samurai is a game that definitely prides itself on style, but does this ragtag ronin make the cut?
Life is lonely at the top, especially if you’re a stone-cold killer named Afro. As the second deadliest swordsman in the land, Afro is a guy challenged by few and hated by many, but rank is about the last thing on this troubled warrior’s mind. The man that’s number one just also happens to be the man that challenged Afro’s dad years before…and well, let’s just say things got a little personal once he decided to get ahead of the competition.
Afro’s pursuit of vengeance unfurls in a pseudo-episodic manner meant to mimic the progression of the TV mini-series. But with sparse dialogue, a dearth of cutscenes, and lazy use of voiceover, a significant portion of the show’s potency gets lost in translation.
Some of the most pivotal moments in Afro’s tale are diminished to awkward transitions between battles, and with missing characters and scenes newcomers may find more than a few plot holes to jump through. The game earns a few good marks for a unique plot twist and lassoing in the show’s respective talent, but in terms of painting a picture, this legend of headbands and hoes could stand to be a bit more on-point.
With katana in-hand and dozens of fools lined up for the kill, Afro Samurai channels a distinct Ninja Gaiden vibe that’s simple in goal and even simpler in design. You must take out everything in sight. Limbs fly with careless abandon as Afro traverses each of the game’s linearly constructed levels flooded with baddies. But with action that can teeter from dry to annoyingly relentless, the game’s uneven pacing will often leave you begging for variety.
Every so often, the game makes a few modest attempts at exploration with light platforming bits and the occasional switch to hit, but in all, there isn’t much going on that gives the blandly-designed stages depth or range. On more than one occasion, it also seems like a huge case of Groundhog Day as one stage endlessly repeats itself. In reality, the culprit turns out to be vague objectives and poor event scripting that cause you to cheaply retread earlier parts of the level.
Needless to say, bounding around feudal Japan can grate on the nerves, but at least Afro’s not in it all alone. Joining him for the ride is his impish id Ninja Ninja, who acts as Afro’s certified hype man and living compass. The guy certainly plays up his role as comic relief, but it isn’t quite as funny when his navigation skills cause him to appear as a disembodied voice barking in obscure directions.
Stacked up to its contemporaries, though, Afro Samurai could definitely do worse. Neat touches like a body part poker mini-game and a HUD-less health interface lend the game some much-needed personality, though at a slim six hours and a meager list of bonus features, the ends can definitely be challenged to justify the means.
Falling in line with the law of the number one headband, everything in Afro Samurai is governed by the cruel steel of the sword. Battles ensue in a furious flurry of light and heavy strikes that can be brought together in flashy techniques and blood-spilling combos. Though you’ll no doubt get some mileage out of classics like “Where’s My Money!” and “Afronado,” the true emphasis of combat lies in the almighty focus attack: a time-slowing maneuver that lets Afro coil up and release a single, deadly master stroke.
The concept behind it is basic, but it’s incredibly satisfying in action. Lopping of limbs with deadly precision comes at the reward of instant kills and experience points earned towards leveling up Afro’s repertoire. If things get a little too heated, Afro can trade in his calm and collected strikes for a few seconds of bona fide manslaughter with the devastating overfocus ability. Did we mention the guy can also reflect bullets with it?
From slicing off ears to carving suckas like a Christmas ham, the focus attack provides an elegant solution to combat that would otherwise be fairly derivative. But despite that, there aren’t nearly as much applications for it as we would have liked. Enemies vary in size and shape but they all pretty much get cut down in the same way. And for bosses, opportune focus attacks are few and far between, rendering it somewhat of a liability when going for the gusto. It isn’t perfect, but when you get that carnal rush from bathing the screen in red, you know it’s doing something right.
Getting lost isn’t the biggest problem, as it mostly boils down to the game’s dubious choice of camera angles and controls. Trying to negotiate an optimal viewing angle in the thick of battle can definitely be difficult, and often you’ll find yourself blindly slashing in one direction hoping that a hapless victim will be waiting on the other side.
Afro Samurai certainly has its moments, and its short length tries to ensure that it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Yet, after you get a handle on the combat, it only takes a couple hours before even the most violently bloody game you’ve played in some time starts grinding the gears of repitition.
From the scratchy, cross-hatched textures to its liberal use of vivid, saturated colors, Afro Samurai’s uniquely-styled visuals sport an impressive verisimilitude to the celluloid of Gonzo’s anime studios. Character models are rendered with respectable care, though they’re wasted by a lack of cinematic moments featuring them. Still, it’s hard to deny that the ‘fros looks pretty fly.
On the audio end, things are rock solid with the luridly loquacious Sam Jackson taking up his title role as Afro and Ninja Ninja, The Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA keeps things hot with beats inspired by the show. It’s an impressive gathering of talent to say the least.
It has a unique combat system and unrelenting violence that many will love. And for a licensed game, Afro Samurai doesn’t necessarily fail at what it aims to do. Like the many others before it, simple mistakes and a general lack of polish prevent it from passing the threshold to Butcher Bay territory. Still, if you like the show, the game is most definitely worth playing, it’s just not worth the number one headband.
Version Tested: Xbox 360
Source: Namco Bandai Games