Name: Afro Samurai
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 (Reviewed on Xbox 360)
Check out the Video Review.
With its stylized art and hip-hop beats, Afro Samurai has shocked audiences with a very American take on anime. So much so, that many refuse to even acknowledge it as anime, instead claiming it is just a Western attempt at making fun of Japanese animation. It doesn’t make it any better that Samuel “I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!” L. Jackson took both the lead role, as the revered Afro, and the supporting role, as the outlandish Ninja Ninja. Even without support from elitists, Afro Samurai has enjoyed a successful run through television and a recent film.
Now, in a reimagining of sorts, the game has been released, bringing the show’s warped, futuristic, feudal Japanese style to gaming, with the hope of exposing a new audience to the phenomenon. In an attempt to closely replicate the television series’ stylized art, Afro Samurai has a cartoony, cel-shaded look. It might not look as good as Prince of Persia, which attempted a similar style, but the game hits its visual mark, and has faithfully replicated the series’ art admirably. Howard Drossin and the RZA’s hip-hop beats sound oddly fitting amidst the otherwise far-eastern environments, while the voice acting of Samuel L. Jackson and Ron Perlman help create an impressive presentation all around.
Afro’s story is a revenge tale, following Afro Samurai on his journey to hunt down Justice, the man responsible for his father’s death. This proves to be a task more complicated than it sounds, as Justice dons the “Number One” headband, which is said to give the wearer the powers of a god. Accompanied by Ninja Ninja, Afro fights through different situations from the television series, and it’s apparent that the developers decided to treat the game almost like an adaptation of the show, as opposed to a separate adventure. There are segments in the game not shown in the series, and the story, which is broken into ten chapters, can be hard to follow. Afro Samurai falls victim to many of the plot follies that generally occur in licensed properties, and while the story might make sense for fans of the series, the uninitiated will see it as disjointed and muddled. Taken as a whole, the narrative works, but piece by piece it’s hard to understand what’s going on at any given time.
Afro Samurai’s levels are cut into two distinct parts: combat and platforming. Combat is easily its greatest accomplishment, and the presentation and animations are incredibly smooth. As expressed gleefully on the back of the game’s box, Afro Samurai has wonderful dismemberment. Not just typical “attack and a body part falls off” dismemberment, but real dismemberment – the kind everyone always wanted in a video game. Instead of giving a few different points where enemies can be sliced, it appears that almost anything can be cut, and enemies are hacked apart dynamically.
Afro Samurai doesn’t try in any way to hide its mature nature, and is filled with foul language, over-the-top gore, and unnecessary, but tasteful nudity. Using vertical and horizontal attacks, Afro charges up his focus meter, which can be activated to slow down the mayhem and land more precise blows, slicing enemies apart. It’s used in an original way and becomes rather rhythmic, swinging back and forth between fast combos and slow, focused strikes.
Platforming, however, is not as successful, and fails at just about every attempt to create fun, acrobatic sections in-between long sessions of combat. The typical array of wall-running, jumping, and climbing are at Afro’s disposal, but the flaky camera and poor controls make these sections more difficult than they are entertaining. Attempting to break up the monotony of combat makes sense, but the sections are poorly designed, and made only slightly better by Ninja Ninja’s compass-like ability. The fact that the moves cannot be tied into combat in any way simply adds insult to injury, and the areas allowed are limited to specific spots, coded by the developers, no matter how restricting it might be.
The different chapters are each unique, and bring Afro through a gauntlet of unique environments. Each level ends with either an embarrassingly easy or frustratingly hard boss battle, attempting to finish the chapter with a bang. Sadly, boss encounters might be some of the game’s low points; and whereas some are genuinely fun and exciting, others are the antithesis of entertainment. One encounter, with Afro free-falling while battling a robotic doppelganger, is wonderful in its simplicity, while another sets Afro against a flame-thrower wielding enemy and feels nearly impossible. Relying on cheap and annoying tactics, some of the battles feel completely removed from the game, and are as uninteresting as they are unfulfilling.
In the end, Afro Samurai is a flawed, but entertaining experience. Reminiscent of last year’s Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, the potential for greatness was there, the combat was tight, but horrible bosses and mediocre platforming ground the game to a shrieking halt. It’s close to being amazing, and there are times when it is, but there are too many times where it just simply isn’t up to par with the current generation’s standards. The camera is too jumpy, the bosses are too frustrating, and the platforming just isn’t any fun. Hopefully a sequel could fix the issues and create something truly wonderful, but sadly, Afro Samurai doesn’t live up to its potential.