Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Namco Bandai
Release Date: September 2008
What do you get when you cross a revenge-minded samurai, a bunch of wannabes and Samuel L. Jackson? One hell of a promising first look at the anime-inspired Afro Samurai, which debuted on Spike TV last year and is set to hit video game consoles this fall.
Developed entirely in the U.S. by an internal team at Namco Bandai, Afro Samurai mixes classic action with an extremely stylized point of view — so stylized, in fact, that if you didn't see the Namco Bandai rep sitting there with the controller in hand, you just might think the TV screen was simply playing the latest episode of the anime rather than a video game.
Unlike most titles, Afro Samurai has no head's-up display, or HUD. There is nothing cluttering the screen, which helps you to get lost in the world as well as appreciate the smooth visuals. Just because there's no HUD doesn't mean a lack of information, however. It simply means the developers had to get a bit creative in how they relayed key points to the player.
For example, when Afro takes too much damage, the screen blurs a bit, and the color washes out. If you manage to avoid getting hit for a bit while causing damage, Afro recovers, the color returns, and things slide back into focus. Gaining health is done by fighting opponents rather than picking up medkits, so aggressive gameplay is most certainly encouraged.
Kill a number of enemies in quick succession, and the game switches into overfocus mode. While in overfocus, the contrast is ramped up, which makes the already-stylized visuals excessively sharp, and every hit is an instant kill.
New objectives are shown via a split-screen view rather than popping up on a minimap. As you progress through a level, a corner of the screen may get slashed off to reveal an enemy you need to face or an objective to complete.
Music is also integrated into the game, with the background tunes rising, falling and changing tracks based on the on-screen action. It all happens seamlessly, as if an off-screen director were sitting there and giving cues to the sound engineer. The music for Afro Samurai was composed by well known hip-hop artist RZA.
The story line parallels the first season of the TV show but doesn't rely on prior knowledge, so there's no worry about getting up to speed before jumping in. The game relates the backstory of Afro's dad, the number one samurai in the entire world who was killed by his greatest rival. As a result, Afro took up the art and worked his way up to number two in order to earn the right to challenge his father's killer, the current number one. Of course, he has to deal with treachery, deceit and betrayal along the way, not to mention the hundreds of other challengers who all want to claim the number two title for themselves.
Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to take control of Afro directly — the demo was strictly hands-off — but from what we were able to see, the moves flowed naturally with standard attacks and combos. Afro has the ability to swing his sword or kick an opponent. Mixing up various attacks triggers the more damaging combos. It's not nearly as deep a fighting system as in Soul Calibur 4, but it should be enough to make anyone feel like a badass samurai with the controller in hand.
Of course, no combat would be complete without a finishing move or two, and Afro Samurai doesn't disappoint. When you manage to get an enemy down to the brink of death, you can trigger a finishing move that executes your hapless foe in a very bloody, slow-motion fashion, which looks quite impressive. According to the rep who gave us the demo, the finishing moves are automatically triggered by the game rather than by the player. If the conditions are right, it just happens.
It's too early to start forming any definitive opinions, but from what little we've seen, Afro Samurai looks to be off to a good start and has certainly whet our appetite for more. Here's hoping that it turns out to be better than Namco's last U.S.-developed effort, Dead to Rights.
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