Afro Samurai is a confusing game.
Based on the anime of the same name, it fuses traditional Eastern combat, hip-hop culture and button mashing action gaming. If that’s not enough to cross a few lines, add in the non-canon cultural references and a just plain weird story-line.
Yes, you are a black samurai in Feudal Japan, mutilating bad guys to a soundtrack composed by RZA of Wu-Tang Clan fame. Oh yeah, you have a spiritual guide who refuses to be your GPS, he’s too busy getting his ‘swerve on’. Sound fun? For a while, it certainly is.
You play the role of Afro, a talented yet foul-mouthed samurai out to reclaim his father’s mystic headband (granting him godlike powers). Luckily, Afro is quite content with slaughtering legions of enemies to get to his goal. The storyline bumps along on rails, leaving the player to fill in the gaps. As you will find out, these gaps are best filled with gratuitous violence and hilariously over-the-top swearing. The game is voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, after all. Anyone who has played Ninja Gaiden will feel instantly at home within the confines of Afro Samurai, it’s hack’n’slash button-mashing action with little room for anything else.
Controlling the action is done in third person, with the camera free floating around Afro’s bobbing namesake. The left analogue stick controls movement while the right-hand buttons dish out the various attacks Afro is capable of. Similar to beat ‘em up fighting games, Afro Samurai comes complete with a long list of combos to pull off, ranging from simple 2-hit attacks to full-blown cinematic sword throwing head splitters. Much of the wow factor this game gives off comes from the stylised execution of the combos, a sure-fire way to impress passers by.
The ‘normal’ fighting that goes on in Afro Samurai is slick and fast, showing no sign of slowing down even when dealing with dozens of foes. The first time you take on a room of straw hat wearing opponents, a grin will spread right across your face.
In addition to the bloody madness that is ‘normal’ melee fighting, Afro comes equipped with a 2-stage ‘focus’ mode. By slicing and dicing a suitable number of faceless enemies, you build up focus. The left triggers allow you to dole this resource out, slowing down the action and enabling a set of impressive (and devastating) extra moves. The first stage of focus is suitable for doing battle with one or two adversaries while the second stage enables a flurry of one-hit attacks to deal with a larger crowd.
The visual style of Afro Samurai is a joy to behold. Sharp-edged cell shading gives the characters a suitably ‘anime’ feel without feeling too clumsy or childish. The backgrounds and storyline set-pieces are beautifully designed; a result of the game’s rather expensive television heritage. The special effects which flow from Afro’s sword lead exquisitely into the flesh of your enemies, causing messy arcs of crimson to spew across your screen.
From a distance you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching a cut-scene as the battles flow smoothly in front of your eyes. Smoke and fire effects are also put to good use, creating an engrossing environment for you to soak in blood.
Adding to the visual style, the developers have done away with any in-game GUI. No health bar, no indication of your focus level or experience points. Instead, subtle clues are presented to the player such as Afro’s shirt becoming more bloody as he loses health and shimmering lights suggesting a more powerful move or point of interest. Players used to keeping an eye on their status may find this off-putting at first, but as soon as things get hectic on screen you begin to thank the lack of onscreen clutter. Only towards the end of a tough boss battle do you curse the guesswork involved in staying alive, but that’s a minor gripe with the system.
Sadly, Afro Samurai is not without some major drawbacks. The floating camera has some fairly serious issues, namely zooming out from a fight leaving you to become mincemeat. Navigating your way through tricky wall-jumping sections can become infuriating as you repeatedly miss your target and fall, only to be forced to start afresh. The distance between checkpoints can be unfairly long; leaving you to repeat large sections should you get cut to ribbons along the way. As you may have guessed, repetition is a large part of the game, which leads to its main problem. It gets boring.
While the fighting is stunning and instantly satisfying, it’s not enough to hold the rest of the game together. The story will hold on the biggest fan of the anime and the dialogue (while tremendously good in parts) starts to grate as the game progresses. Watching a familiar feeling cut-scene then clearing room after room of grunt enemies before dealing to a boss gets old rather quickly, draining your will to continue and earn new skills. Even low level baddies take a large amount of damage, making you wish they would die quicker to speed up the action.
You get the feeling the developers were so proud of the fighting gameplay they wanted to leave it in front of the player for as long as possible. After a solid six hours, I felt like turning the console off.
Overall, you’ve got to hand it to Namco-Bandai Games for creating a solid anime-crossover title. The first few hours you spend with Afro Samurai will be filled with exclamations of joy, honest surprises and laughs. The soundtrack fits snugly with the action and fans of the anime will be happy to hear the voices of the original cast. Ultimately though, Afro Samurai becomes tedious, repetitive and frustrating. A worthy rental title, but sorely lacking in innovation to carry it into the realm of a classic.