Stylish. If I had to pick one word to describe Afro Samurai, it would have to be “stylish”, or just plain “cool”. “Bloody”, “violent”, and “amazing” also come to mind. In January of 2007 Spike TV debuted the first episode of a new anime series titled Afro Samurai. In the best tradition of anime and martial arts movies in general, it starts with the simple premise of one boy’s quest to avenge his father’s death and becomes a tightly woven tale of intrigue, betrayal, and redemption. Now that he’s grown up, Afro Samurai begins in earnest his quest to track down Justice, the man who murdered his father before his very eyes.
For those of you that enjoyed the series and had high hopes for the game, you will not be disappointed. Instead of just regurgitating the TV series in game form, this title retells the tale of Afro from different perspectives. At times glossing over some areas of the TV show and then exploring more fully other parts of the story, you end up with a more complete perspective on all the characters involved.
“Whoever owns the number one headband will have the power of a god, and only the owner of the number two headband can challenge the owner of the number one headband.” As a young boy, Afro Samurai witnesses his father dying at the hands of a power hungry fighter known only as Justice. Justice was in possession of the number two headband and had been searching for Afro’s father, the owner of the number one headband. After his father’s death, Afro is taken in by the Sword Master and begins training in the school, his only thought a burning need for vengeance.
This game charts Afro’s path of destruction as he grows up, obtains the number two headband, and tracks down Justice. First and foremost it should be made very clear that this title truly deserves its Mature rating. With gallons of blood, copious (and quite creative) swearing, and some partial nudity, I had to check the game credits to make sure I wasn’t watching a Quentin Tarantino film.
Utilizing their “dynamic cross-hatching” art style throughout, Afro Samurai delivers the exact same look and feel as the TV show. The smooth animations as Afro engages his opponents, as well as the variety of movement for all the characters bring this title fully to life. Level design is another strong point for this game, with each environment realistically laid out, providing entertaining settings to fight your way through on your journey to the number one headband.
The set pieces in this game are beautifully done, combining elements like slow motion and split screen to showcase the action and heighten the drama. Techniques like bullet time (from games such as The Matrix and Max Payne) are well executed. The best part is that none of these bells and whistles are overused, they all play a meaningful part in moving the story forward, and are never there “just because”.
The sound quality of Afro Samurai is nothing short of amazing. The casting of voice talent for the different roles is spot on, with Samuel L. Jackson reprising his role from the series of both Afro and his wisecracking sidekick, Ninja Ninja. With Kelly Hu as the mysterious Okiku and Ron Perlman as the evil Justice, the main characters are all top notch. Even the minions’ voice acting is excellent. Whether they’re swearing as you come at them or gasping their last breath as you dismember them, there’s variety and believability even down to this level of the game.
When it comes to a game’s music, my only criteria for success is that it stays in background and doesn’t distract from my immersion in the game experience. Afro Samurai has taught me the error of my ways by having a musical score that is by turns haunting and frenetic. Slower-paced, more introspective levels have an almost poignant feel to them, while the frantic action of other areas is accompanied by much faster rhythms. The RZA deserves special kudos for the music they created for the various boss fights. Their music perfectly captures the feel of the game and is a welcome addition to it.
Controlling Afro Samurai feels smooth and natural, and is very responsive. One of the beauties of this game is that you can jump right into the action, hacking and slashing, having a great time. As you get more familiar with the control scheme though, you are button-mashing less and less and concentrating on timing and precision to defeat your enemies.
For example, you can pretty much fight your way through the first three levels of the game doing nothing more than jamming on the attack buttons as fast as possible. Once you reach the end of level three and face Brother 6, you’ll need to start using your dash attacks and big hit combos to be able to defeat him and move on.
As good as Afro’s controls are, the camera controls are every bit as bad. Surge did an excellent job of creating a slick, stylish game that proceeds at a frantic pace. So why does the camera always seem to lag behind the action? In fight after fight you face groups of enemies, moving back and forth through them to keep everyone off balance. Since the camera doesn’t follow you very well, you constantly have to press the R3 button so you can see what you’re fighting, and quite often you end up facing the camera, swinging away at…something. Your only real clue that there’s something there to fight are the sprays of blood you see after every swing. It’s unfortunate that with so much action and so many tight environments that the developers couldn’t have come up with a better camera control scheme.
One of the trends in recent games is to minimize the interface, so as not to detract from the players’ immersion in the story. Afro Samurai takes this to an extreme by having no interface on-screen during gameplay. Instead of any kind of health gauge, Afro is surrounded by an increasingly heavy red tinge, signifying the amount of damage he’s taking. When his health becomes very low, you’ll hear his heartbeat get louder and slower, letting you know that he’s very close to dying. The red tinge also applies to the enemies you’re fighting, so it’s easy to tell which ones are getting low on health also. While it does add to the game immersion, this takes a little getting used to. Expect to die a few times before you get used to just how low your health is when you’re red.
Overall the game play is excellent, with tons of variety in the way you can dispatch the hordes of enemies that stand in your way. Unfortunately, the gameplay is a little uneven – the minions you face can be killed by mashing buttons as fast as possible, but once you face any of the bosses, you have to use strategy and a variety of moves to find that boss’ weakness and be able to defeat him. Be prepared to fight the bosses over and over (and over) looking for those weaknesses.
Another innovation in this title is the addition of “Body Part Poker”. From time to time, Ninja Ninja will announce that it’s time for another round of Body Part Poker. You have a limited amount of time to create three “cards” while fighting. The Ronin, Samurai, and Ninja are the different suits, and the severed heads, legs, and arms are the “numbers” (told you this was an M rated game!). You have to create a three-card hand which will give you different bonuses. Let’s say you’re able to cut the heads off of three Ninjas. This would give you three of a kind, granting you extra attack power for a limited duration. The various bonuses are pretty much what you’d expect – extra attack power, restore health, extra experience, etc.
Yes, this game has experience and leveling. Just as the gameplay interface is kept hidden, so is the leveling progress. As you defeat your enemies, you’ll earn experience towards leveling up Afro. Although if you look at the status screen there’s nothing to show how close you are to leveling up, or even what level you are. The only thing that each new level changes for you is the different moves that are available. Every time you gain a new level, you’ll unlock new moves and attacks. It’s key to pay attention and practice these new moves, because sometimes those are the keys to making the boss fights a whole lot easier.
The one exception to learning new techniques is the Father’s Legacy moves. These special moves are not earned by leveling up, but rather by discovering the five “mementos” hidden on each level. The mementos are packs of crows that are scattered about each level. Once you have found all five, the new move is unlocked and you can go to the status screen to find out what it is. These are usually more powerful than your other techniques, and will give you a definite advantage as you progress through the game. Finding all the mementos is one of the few reasons to go back and replay a level.
With no multiplayer and no trophy support, there really isn’t much reason to replay this title once you have completed it beyond searching for the mementos hidden on each level and gaining all the Father’s Legacy moves. The “cool factor” should not be discounted though, and from time to time I’m sure you’ll want to come back and help Afro mow down a few hundred more Ronin and Ninja. Afro Samurai does so much so well, it’s a shame that the little things are what drag it down. With the superb voice acting and sound, frantic gameplay, and an engrossing (if at times confusing) storyline, Afro Samurai comes so very close to being game of the year material. Several missteps drag this title away from perfection. Whether it’s the poor camera controls, the absence of trophy support, or the limited replay value, each little mistake detracts from the overall game. For fans of the original series this is a must-have title, but for everyone else there are better games out there that will provide more play for your hard-earned money.