Developer: Namco Bandai
Release Date: January 27, 2009
When one thinks of games that are based on TV shows or movies, a single word usually comes to mind: bad. These are often the kind of games that have a low budget and struggle to reach levels of mediocrity. The real nails in the coffin are that these are games that are usually extremely short and fail to capture the essence of TV show or movie that made it interesting in the first place. Somehow, many of these games end up being profitable simply because they're riding on the wave of success generated by said TV show or movie.
Afro Samurai manages to break the majority of these conventions. The game looks good, perfectly captures the feel of the show and has excellent gameplay mechanics to back it up. However, it stumbles and falls into TV show game conventions in some other departments, which can make it a bit difficult to purchase, especially if you're not a fan of the anime series.
Afro Samurai was released more or less in sync with the second season-slash-movie, "Afro Samurai: Resurrection." In order to fully understand Afro Samurai, it helps to have already seen the TV series. Games like these often serve as supplemental material to the actual show and tell a side story for the fans, such as Enter The Matrix and Lost: Via Domus. Afro Samurai is playable on its own, but if you haven't seen the show, much of the plot will be extremely difficult to follow. The plot of Afro Samurai follows the same story as the TV show but is told in a dramatically different fashion. Major events still play out in the same order as they did on the series, and a few of the fights closely mimic the fights on the show, but this largely plays out as an alternative telling. The same locations will be visited and the same people will be fought, but the rest is fairly different. Stories that weren't very fleshed out in the show will be told in great detail in the game, and on the flip side, some prominent characters on the show will be largely glossed over in the game.
It's not as if the story told in Afro Samurai is very deep. Among the world of men, there are two bandannas, number one and number two, which mark the best warriors. Only the number two can challenge the number one, and the number one is supposed to be close to divine. Afro's father was the number one, a man named Justice killed him, and Afro wants to avenge his father at all costs. It just so happens that everyone else wants the number two bandanna, so there's going to be a whole lot of death between you and Justice. Afro is alone in the world, save for a loud-mouthed individual named Ninja Ninja, who has taken it upon himself to "watch Afro's back."
That's it for story, but the narrative wasn't really the star of the show. The show relied on a very unique style to get by, and the game emulates it perfectly. It's a gorgeous-looking style of cel-shading that can occasionally look like a painting. The way the characters cast shadows is reminiscent of a drawing, and whatever the developers did with Ninja Ninja and Afro's hair is absolutely amazing.
One of the show's highlights was a soundtrack that, while unusual for an anime series, managed to fit the show quite well. The show soundtrack was composed by the RZA, but the tunes in the game are only supervised by the RZA. Several different artists contribute to the game soundtrack, and they do a wonderful job of evoking the feel of the show. While the soundtrack may seem out of place for a game that occurs in a bizarre feudal Japan with guns and cell phones, it manages to be a wonderful fit.
The rest of the sound in the title is no slouch either. The developers have managed to get all of the voice actors from the show to record new voice work for the game. This is an all-star voice cast. Samuel L. Jackson steals the show as the voices of Afro Samurai and Ninja Ninja. The latter seems to have been written with him in mind, as I can't think of another actor who could pull off his the lines quite as well as he does. Joining him are Ron Perlman, Terrance C. Carson (Kratos from God of War) and John Dimaggio (Bender, Marcus Fenix). Even the random enemies blurting out a string of cuss words before they die manages to sound good.
The brutality of the show is also perfectly captured, so Afro Samurai is not a game for the kids because it's incredibly violent. Much like the show, Afro spends a significant amount of his time chopping up anyone who tries to stand in his way. It's bloody, it's violent, and it's beautiful.
This is the majority of the gameplay in Afro Samurai. This game isn't a particularly deep brawler, so most of the game battles can be overcome by simply mashing buttons. There are three attack buttons — weak, strong and kick — and there's some logic to being able to string together combos, but in the long run, it doesn't really matter all that much because game's well animated enough so that you can simply button-mash and watch Afro do his thing. For most of the kills you'll be making in Afro Samurai, you'll need to enter Focus mode, which is like bullet time. In Focus mode, holding an attack button lets you execute a finishing move that you can adjusts with the right thumbstick. This means that you can adjust your aim to hit an enemy who's jumping out of the way or you can select where you want to slice through an enemy.
That's right, Afro Samurai encourages you to choose where to cut off limbs. Arms? Go for it. Top of the skull? Swing away. Adding more to this is that in some battles, Ninja Ninja will sit on the edge of the battlefield, and when you run up to him, he'll ask you to play a round of "body part poker." Your next three kills comprise your poker "hand," and you're graded on which body parts you lob off and what kind of enemy you kill. Several of the game's Achievements revolve around getting specific hands during body part poker.
While the combat is a great deal of fun, when these fights turn into boss fights, things get significantly less fun. Most of the bosses feel somewhat cheap, and generally there's only one tactic that doesn't result in you getting your head caved in. However, due to the game's extremely wonky camera, it becomes very difficult to pull off these tactics. Boss fights can be fairly lengthy too, usually lasting upwards of three to four stages of combat. Each stage, the boss will add a new move to his arsenal, and if you go down, it's back to the start of the battle for you.
As stated, the camera in this game doesn't get the job done. In wide open areas, it'll be content to look in the direction that Afro is looking, but when you get close to the walls in boss battles, the camera never does what you need it to do, which is going to cause a lot of frustration. Furthermore, the camera controls offer limited options. Pressing right on the thumbstick quite literally swings the camera around to the right; that's the actual camera, not the direction you're looking. Therefore, pressing right on the thumbstick moves to the camera left. While some gamers may prefer this, many (myself included) really don't like it, and it's infuriating that there's no option to invert the horizontal camera movement, although the game allows you to invert the vertical camera movement.
When you're not fighting off hordes of enemies, you'll be platforming. While Afro Samurai aims to do something similar to the Prince of Persia games with wall-running and leaping off poles, the platforming here is never able to get off the ground. It's buggy, never quite feels right, and the camera loves to get in the way. The system is reasonably forgiving, never putting you more than a minute or so back on your path if you die, but that doesn't change the fact that the platforming just isn't fun. It usually remains quick and relatively painless, but one level toward the end consists of nothing but platforming that almost feels like Mega Man, which requires pixel-perfect platforming.
Afro Samurai is a fairly short game; my first run-through lasted just over five hours. In terms of replay value, there are five collectable items to find in each of the levels and a hard mode for you to clear if you want to give the game another go. However, once you've finished playing it, you're not going to look forward to dealing with the camera for another five hours and certainly not looking forward to the platforming and the boss fights. Afro Samurai has a ton of style with some nice combat, but once you require the camera to do anything other than sit calmly behind you, the game starts to fall apart. Fans of the show will get the most enjoyment out of this series, but the title can stand on its own to a certain degree. It's hard to recommend as a purchase due to its short length, but if you like the show or need to cut up something in as violent a way as you can imagine, renting Afro Samurai would be a pretty good place to start.
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