Afro Samurai (PlayStation 3) Review

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Afro Samurai Publisher: Surge (Namco Bandai Games)
Developer: Namco Bandai Games

Platforms: Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3
Reviewed on PlayStation 3

Afro Samurai, the samurai with an afro and a monomaniacal thirst for revenge, seeks to claim the Number One headband for his own. If he has to, he'll hack hundreds of henchmen in half to destroy his father's killer.

Kyle Ackerman

Like the animated Afro Samurai mini-series, the Afro Samurai game is a triumph of style over substance. Afro Samurai himself is a stark figure, katana in hand, bellbottoms loosely brushing his ankles and teeth tightly clenching a blunt as he hacks apart hordes of henchmen. Despite the game's gorgeously stylized violence, it's a tiresome tale of revenge, with "Number Two" desperately hunting "Number One" to kill him. Yes, Afro Samurai is upset that Number One killed his father, but it's hard to care when he joins the masses of warriors killing their way up the chain of ranked warriors in search of an integer with a lower value.

The entire game does feel like an extension of the animated series, but everything unique about both the game and show could be distilled into a single-poster: an image of the eponymous black samurai and his huge hairdo, grimacing, smoking, and holding his sword menacingly, splattered with the blood of all who would have stood in the way of his revenge. As an action game, Afro Samurai is an extended series of repetitive combats interspersed with minor puzzles, repetitive bosses and portentous cut-scenes. But what do jumping puzzles really add to something best expressed as a poster or T-shirt? There simply isn't much to the anime, plot-wise, and very little of that makes it into the game.

Art, or the Art of Combat?

Afro Samurai feels like a game in which the artists on the design team won every argument. The gorgeous, stylized and cartoonish violence is only matched in its beauty by the dismal camera control. Afro Samurai is more fun to watch that it is to play. The awful camera makes it the kind of game where it takes serious skill to go up a twisting staircase, and late jumping puzzles simply suck. Even during heated battles, the screen will split, with the action continuing on one side and the other showing new foes arriving in cinematic style. But if you're trying to play, most of these flourishes are hard to focus on, let alone appreciate. Only a spectator can truly enjoy the visual style of Afro Samurai, while the player is frantically pressing button combos and trying to stay on top of a camera that desperately wants to escape.

The design team clearly went to great lengths to hone combat. While the lack of camera control ultimately makes it hard to feel entirely in control of Afro Samurai, it is possible to lop off anything from heads to individual digits with his blade, all of which is rendered with spectacular and detailed gore. Unfortunately, the same amount of effort didn't reach the rest of the game. There isn't nearly enough variety of enemies, making battles against the truckloads of henchmen monotonous, and while the levels look great, the level and puzzle design isn't particularly interesting.

Button Mashing Without the Power Gage

Afro Samurai is in that category of action games that require so many hard-hitting button combos as to give the average gamer carpal tunnel. He can pull off a staggering array of combos, if you can keep track of them all. While he unlocks a variety of moves over time, button mashing tends to work well, so it's entertaining enough to just slam buttons on the keypad and watch the stylized slaughter.

Where the game's focus on visuals really falls apart is Afro Samurai's attempt to avoid the usual clutter of user interface gauges and meters that plague so many games. But Afro Samurai didn't choose clear enough alternatives. Combo success is measured by the quantity of blood that splatters on the screen. To use certain special moves that allow Afro Samurai to slow time and focus on his many foes, I had to rely on noticing the glint on a dangling amulet. Likewise, to monitor his health, I had to watch for a red outline around Afro Samurai. The whole thing was awkward to do in the heat of battle, and even more annoying during boss battles. It's not tremendously fun to repeatedly hack away at special enemies with little idea if the fight would continue interminably or if I was one slash away from victory.

Put a Purpose to That "M"

More so than a typical Samuel L. Jackson film, Afro Samurai loves to use the word "F*ck." So pay attention to the ESRB rating: this isn't a game for kids (or even to play within earshot of those with delicate sensibilities). Blood constantly pools across the landscape, and nearly every enemy that Afro Samurai kills (and he kills thousands) calls him a F*cker. It would be nice to hear some other epithets. Is creativity antithetical to the urban street (feudal-warrior) feel the game is trying to achieve?

Afro Samurai also gets in more sex than the average video game released in America. I'd barely started the game when I faced off against a quartet of topless swordswomen wearing thongs and stockings (yes... one was sliding down a pole). Don't get me wrong – there's nothing wrong with sex, language and violence in a game when it reaches the appropriate audience, and the game carries an appropriate "M" rating. But it's nice when the sex, language and violence are supporting exceptional play or a compelling story. In Afro Samurai, it's truly gratuitous. The mature content is an end unto itself, not a vehicle for something else. Once again, it's all about style.

Looks Good and Sounds Good, But How Does it Taste?

The sound in Afro Samurai is superb. The soundtrack does a great job of blending a traditional Japanese-style sound (or at least a traditional martial-arts-flick sound) with appropriate hip hop. Furthermore, the sound changes appropriately and dynamically to in-game events.

But though the sound and visuals are stunning, plenty of other annoyances detract enough from the experience to make Afro Samurai merely adequate. I had to refer back to the anime to understand what plot there is. The loading screens are as deep as they are ultimately meaningless. And Afro Samurai is plagued by an annoying narrator (named "Ninja Ninja").

If you have the option of choosing which system to purchase Afro Samurai for, the PlayStation 3 game looks slightly better. At the same time, if you care about achievements, the PlayStation 3 version doesn't support trophies, while the Xbox 360 version has plenty of achievements related to cutting off body parts.

For passionate fans of the anime, there is a little extra content in the game to enjoy, even if the game is short enough to finish in a long afternoon. For those who aren't into the Afro Samurai anime, while it's a decent action game, there are better examples of the genre, so if the concept sounds appealing, watch the animated series rather than playing the game.

The Afro Samurai project has the advantage of Samuel L. Jackson behind it, and the Afro Samurai game is an obvious tie-in for the anime. Even so, when deciding to make a game, the pitch should be better than something like: "The hero is a samurai... and he has an afro? What does he do? Well... he kills guys... 'cause he's out for revenge!"

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on February 8, 2009 6:15 PM.

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