Developer: Namco Bandai
Release Date: January 27, 2009
My knowledge of Afro Samurai was pretty limited going into this review of the PS3 version of the game; I really like the art design and know that Samuel L. Jackson provides the voice of the title character for the TV series and movie, but that was about the extent of it. I ended up enjoying most of my experience with the game, and while I can always appreciate a new action title, it doesn't do too well when held up against more hardcore titles, like Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry.
Afro Samurai tells the tale of a lone warrior who has decided to seek vengeance against the man who killed his father, formerly the Number One warrior in the land. Right now, Afro Samurai himself is considered Number Two, and there's some correlation between these titles and the headbands the characters wear. Afro Samurai's quest for revenge drives him into various conflicts with other like-minded warriors, along with a few friends. Accompanying Afro is his rowdy, and oftentimes downright mean, sidekick Ninja Ninja (another character for whom SLJ provides the voice-over, in the game as well as the film).
When Afro Samurai begins, it kind of drops you into the middle of the narrative, without much of a clue about what's going on or why you're tasked with fighting a bunch of guys in the middle of a city. As the game progresses, the narrative backtracks a bit to Afro's beginnings, and eventually no stone is really left unturned as his tale unfolds.
Afro Samurai is a straight-up action hack-and-slash title, using a third-person perspective as the player moves Afro around each stage, jumping, slashing and kicking away at various drones, with the majority of the enemies looking identical aside from some palette swaps here and there. Most stages contain one notable boss fight, and the bosses are where most of the game's challenge lies.
When controlling Afro, you can use two different attack buttons, light and heavy, along with a jump and a kick attack. You can block or parry blows with one button, and you can hold down L1 to enter Focus mode (think bullet time), which will slow down time around Afro and let you set up devastating one-hit kills with the blade. While in Focus mode, you can hold down the Square or Triangle button to perform a killer horizontal or vertical swipe. Hold down either button long enough to follow the trail of a spark up the length of Afro's blade, and when it reaches the apex, release the button to deliver the killing blow, often sending the limbs of your enemies flying. Focus mode is the real draw of the action gameplay here, and mastering it is absolutely necessary to take on the various enemy mobs you'll encounter. While in Focus mode, you can also perform rolls and various flips for defensive maneuvers, which you'll find more useful in the boss battles than in normal fights.
For the most part, enemy AI is pretty brainless, but later enemies put up a pretty good fight by blocking and parrying often. It's easy to lose in a big battle if you're not paying attention, since normal attacks will interrupt your combos if they hit. It becomes even harder when the larger enemies are tossed into the mix, and you need to divide your attention between the smaller, more agile guys who can hit you while you're trying to block the more powerful swipes from the larger opponents.
While you can't simply button-mash your way through Afro Samurai, the combat system isn't quite as deep as with the other notable action titles that I mentioned earlier. There are quite a few combo attacks that become available as you continue, but the lack of any on-screen meter takes away from the fun of seeing your uninterrupted attacks racking up, so the need to be fluid and precise doesn't seem nearly as important here. Also, you'll find that only a few attacks are really necessary to learn, and the game doesn't force you to have a great working knowledge of every available combo, so many of the unlocked moves end up feeling like a bit of a waste.
Visually, Afro Samurai certainly has a unique and interesting art style, which does a great job of mimicking the animated style of the show. Each character is full of color, and everything is done in pencil line work that adds to the overall charm. In-game animation is stellar, and everyone moves along smoothly, which makes them particularly interesting to watch in combat. There's a lot of blood and animated gore in the game, with a lot of attention paid to keeping up the mature themes from the anime.
Likewise, the audio is just as good, with a great soundtrack provided by RZA of Wu-Tang fame, and it really fits the world of Afro Samurai. There are even a few vocals laid down on different tracks, and it really helps to make some of the battles feel far more epic than they might be with just a typical game soundtrack. Along with that, the majority of the voice-over work in the game is handled really well, including the bits by SLJ, who has quite a few disturbing lines, and the series' dark sense of humor is present throughout.
Afro Samurai opts to do some interesting things, particularly with the noticeable lack of any head's-up display, or HUD. Everything you need to know about enemy health, Afro's health, or whether you have energy for focus attacks is displayed by the actual characters on-screen. When Afro takes damage, his outline starts to go red, and eventually you'll hear the fast beat of a heart that lets you know you're close to death. Enemies will display their damage in a similar fashion. Additionally, Afro carries a small charm that you'll notice swinging around his waist, and when this charm is lit up, it means that you currently have focus energy available. Both Afro's health and focus energy are refilled by combat, and every time you kill someone, a little bit of your health is replenished. However, the entire screen area is completely clean, so there's nothing blocking your way.
Unfortunately, you do have to babysit the camera a bit, since it doesn't do any type of auto-centering. All of the camera movement is controlled with the right analog stick, but it can be cumbersome to manipulate it in the middle of a fight because you'll have to take your button-mashing right hand off of the action to flick the camera around to a serviceable angle. It's an issue that has plagued Ninja Gaiden titles before, and it certain doesn't help things for Afro Samurai.
I still found myself really enjoying Afro Samurai for the PS3, but less so because of the action and more because of the setting and characters. The combat is serviceable, but it's not particularly new or mind-blowing; it just manages to make the grade and keep the game interesting. It's a solid first attempt at making a game with the Afro Samurai franchise, and if we see a sequel, I hope that the developers will build upon the current game to make the combat more unique. It is worth checking out, particularly if you're a fan of action games, but don't expect this title to replace your current top spot any time soon.
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