Samuel L. Jackson is one stylish dude. His new game, based on his smash hit series Afro Samurai is full of style: Almost to the exclusion of every thing else.
Afro Samurai follows its protagonist, also named Afro Samurai, on a quest to avenge the death of his father. Style is the order of the day here and this title is oozing it out of every crevice. The game’s graphical presentation looks like something straight out of a comic book. Developer Surge used some neat graphical texturing techniques to get the characters to look as authentic to the source material as possible.
The graphics are complimented by a variety of cinematic techniques, boosting Afro Samurai’s visual presentation to the next level. The most prominent of which are comic book style panels that cut into the screen whenever a significant foe enters the fray, or a boss is about to do a super attack. Combining screen cuts of this nature with the comic book texturing of the graphics serves to turn the game into a visual powerhouse. All of this is great, but the fact that the soundtrack is just as impressive puts the cherry on top of an already great looking sundae.
In addition to the graphical innovations, Afro Samurai benefits from one of the best soundtracks in gaming (which may or may not have been done by the RZA). The soundtrack is rife with an East-meets-West mentality with Eastern flutes and pipes over hip hop beats, creating something fresh for your auditory senses. If you’re familiar with the work of Nujabes, the tunes in Afro Samurai are similar in nature, and the music certainly sounds like something out of Samurai Champloo.
The game’s voice work is excellent as well, with talent coming from the likes of Kelly Hu, Ron Pearlman and Mr. Jackson himself. It’s unfortunately, the story is so muddied and obscured as the game gives the player no clue as to why or how Afro is going to the next area. The game seemingly just jumps from locale to locale, with no rhyme or reason behind it. This is a humongous shame because the things the characters say are actually interesting, and so are the characters themselves. Those unfamiliar with the source material, will be grasping for strings of continuity in it all. It would be best to just take all of it at face value and see the game for what it really is, a hyper violent, hyper stylized, Ninja Gaiden-esque brawler.
It should be known that Afro Samurai wears its M-Rating on its sleeve. The game has nudity, violence, dismemberment, and sexual content in droves. You’ll be fighting against topless female ninjas, cutting the heads and throats of baddies, and listening to Afro’s companion Ninja-Ninja (also voiced by Sam Jackson) telling you to **** that ****. And there WILL be a time when you’re cutting off the head of a topless female ninja while Ninja Ninja tells you to **** that ****. You will never dispatch an enemy without some kind of limb or appendage coming off in a way it’s not supposed to, with a full compliment of blood to boot. Parents be warned.
For the majority of your 6-to-10 hour quest with Afro, you’ll be slicing and dicing your way through a billion different baddies with a billion different hats. Afro has a full set of combos at his disposal, but for the most part, I got by with mashing the strong attack button until the enemy’s body fell apart in a bloody mess, rinse and repeat. The game encourages you to build combos which it gauges by splattering increasing amounts of blood on the screen, but their doesn’t seem to be any tangible motivation for doing so.
You’ll build experience points to unlock additional attacks, but given the ease of dispatching the normal baddies, you’ll really only need the strong attack combo to get by for the majority of the battles. The combat is plagued by a lack of sensory feedback for when your sword makes contact with an enemy, there‘s no difference in the kinetic feel between when you slice the air and when you‘re slicing through a torso. This makes it hard to easily gauge your button presses for combos, and it turned me off from using any of the longer combos in the later game, despite their satisfying and gory finishing moves.
Aside from the simple slashes and kicks, Afro has a few other tricks up his sleeve. The most notable is the focus mode. In this mode, every thing slows, and Afro’s attacks turn into one hit kills, all of which ending in a torso sliced in half, either horizontally or vertically. Every once in a while, the focus mode turns into a guessing game as stronger enemies will attempt (failing) to dodge your attacks, which results in feet or arms getting chopped off in most instances. The focus mode is also used for a variety of other things, the coolest of which is slicing bullets in half.
While the focus mode adds some variety to the mix, it ultimately isn’t enough to keep the game interesting after a few hours of play. The baddies never change or get difficult, they only get more health, get bigger, or dodge your attacks more. In other words, they just get annoying. The game never varies their patterns or changes them in any significant way, which means that the same strong attack combo you used on the enemies in hour one, will work in the final level, except that now it will take about 20 hits to kill one of them instead of 5. This isn’t helped by the fact that anything that isn’t combat, isn’t fun.
For the most part the game is entirely linear. You’re walking down paths the game set for you for 80 percent of the game. Any time the game isn’t telling you exactly where to go, it’s easy to completely lose track of where you are in the level and get completely disoriented. There are some plat forming elements sprinkled into the levels, but they aren’t put in to challenge the player, or change the pace. The game also has a problem telling the player what they’re supposed to do if it’s anything more than killing the opponent. This makes for some truly frustrating moments, when you’ve been killing a never-ending swarm of bad guys for 15 minutes when you were really just supposed to throw one at a well.
Ultimately, Afro Samurai is a stylish, yet lackluster character action game that never lets you feel as powerful as Ninja Gaiden’s Ryu, or as agile as the Prince of Persia. For those starved for some combo driven action, Afro Samurai is worth checking out, at the very least to see an incredibly pretty game in action.
Reviewer’s note: The Playstation 3 version was tested for this review
Gorgeous graphical presentation and great cinematic touches.
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The main focus of the game is combat, and it doesn't do that particularly well.
Great East meets West soundtrack, but the parts with lyrics are a bit sketchy.
Short game, but no real reason to play through aside from hard mode.
Worth checking out for fans of the show and character action junkies.