Afro Samurai Review
Games like Devil May Cry, Heavenly Sword, and God of War fall into a specific sub-genre within the action world, and it's a genre that certainly needs more games. Afro Samurai is the most recent fast-paced action beat 'em' up to grace our consoles, and it comes loaded with a slick presentation. Based on the anime of the same name, and starring Samuel L. Jackson, Afro Samurai's crude language and absurd violence has struck a chord with audiences and helped it amass popularity. It also made the perfect candidate for a videogame.
The game unfolds much like an episode of the show, which was one of Namco's goals. The story of the game ties in to that of the series, as Afro seeks to avenge the death of his father, Rokutaro, who once held the #1 Headband. Afro, who is the possessor of the #2 Headband, witnessed the death of his father as a child, and knows that the man who killed his father is the one who holds the #1 Headband and his father's sword now. For fans of the show, there are no surprises to be found in the story, but for those who've never watched the show in SpikeTV, there's a good chance you'll find yourself enjoying the story...
...assuming you have enough patience with the game to make it all the way through. Yep, here comes that 1-80, the reason why Afro Samurai isn't what it could've been. For starters, let's describe the game in a nut-shell: Afro Samurai is an action game much like Ninja Gaiden, in that it relies less on over-the-top maneuvers where you're flying high dozens of feet above the ground. It employs mechanics that are similar to Tecmo's sword-slasher, as opposed to other similarly natured games.
So what does it do wrong? Well, only the small stuff...that unfortunately add up. For starters, the camera is borked and a total pain to work with. You'll often find yourself blindsided by an enemy you couldn't see off the screen, this becomes frustrating. Additionally, having to constantly pan and fix the camera gets tiresome and nauseating; the game would've been better off with a number of selectable preset camera settings, instead. Then comes the unusual and frustrating difficulty. It seemed kind of odd that the game doesn't offer the choice of a difficulty setting, because the boss fights range from easy to tough to borderline absurd. Fighting through the standard wave of enemies isn't that hard as long as Afro is leveling up, but an easier difficulty setting would've been nice to cure frustration of the later boss fights.
As I just mentioned, an automatic leveling system exists that increases Afro's stats the more and more you fight in the game. You do have the choice of running away from certain fights, but you'll want to partake in as many as possible, just because they're fun. At your disposal are a number of special abilities such as Focus and Overfocus. With his pendant illuminated, Afro can enter either one of these states, one which allows him to charge and deliver one powerful attack (that usually results in death), and the other that goes beyond that, putting Afro into a berserk state where every hit is a death. And how brutal these deaths are, you can sever your enemies heads, legs, or bodies by splitting them in half.
There are some seriously strong aspects to Afro Samurai, such as its pick-up-and-play mechanics, its engaging story, and its generally fun gameplay. But things like sloppy camera work, inverted-only camera control, no in-game options menu, punishing difficulty, bland platforming elements, and short length ultimately hurt the gameplay and value considerably - which is a damn shame, this could've been a fantastic game.
Visually, Afro Samurai remains very true to its anime counterpart, as the game refrains from looking overly next-gen, and instead opts to boast a unique art style with unique shading and texturing to appease fans of the show. The game really is an aesthetic treat, as the style of the show translates very well in the game, at times feeling more like an interactive episode rather than a videogame. There are some visual hiccups here and there, such as a framerate that crawls when a second image appears on-screen. Though perhaps that's intentional slow-mo and not slowdown? I did like the art direction, and I did enjoy running through the environments, additionally the cut-scenes are a nice treat too. All in all, the visuals aren't cutting edge, but they are pretty nice to look at.
Because the cartoon's style is heavily based on mixing Japanese culture with American hip-hop, music plays an integral part in the game. Put together by RZA, of the Wu-Tang Clan, and Chuy Gomez, the soundtrack in the background will definitely have your speakers pounding full of bass, it's just unfortunate that there aren't more tracks to listen to. Though seeing as how the game isn't terribly long, the lack of variety is understandable. In addition to RZA and Chuy Gomez performing soundtrack duties, other audio duties such as the anime's original voice actors will be in full-force here. Samuel L. Jackson will reprise his role as both Afro and Ninja Ninja, and Ron Pearlman and Kelly Hu reprise their respectful characters of Justice and Okiku. The voice acting is extremely well done, and of course, extremely obscene (it wouldn't be a Sam Jackson product, otherwise). What I must mention is the sound effects, which I noticed have a tendency to fade out and cut back in occasionally, I found that odd.
In the end, Afro Samurai ultimately fails to achieve what it set out to do, and it's a shame. The game is riddled with immense potential that is overshadowed by a myriad of amateur flaws that should've never been there in the first place. With poor a camera that is also permanently inverted, lack of depth, little replay value, poor platforming elements, and brutal difficulty in some boss battles, Afro Samurai is better off left alone. It may have a super slick presentation, but you can save yourself the frustration by just buying yourself a copy of Ninja Gaiden to fill your need for a great sword-swinging action title, and a copy of Afro Samurai Season 1 on Blu-ray. Win-win.
1/31/2009 Arnold Katayev