February 11, 2009
Set in a distinct universe where cell phones, cyborgs, and rocket launchers meet old-fashioned feudal Japan, Afro Samurai tells a tale of revenge. In this world of turmoil, there are two special headbands; Number One and Number Two. The owner of Number One is said to rule the world as a god, and their right to rule can only be challenged by the Number Two. Life for the Number Two is much more precarious, as absolutely anyone can challenge them for the right to confront Number One. Afro's father was the Number One until a gunman named Justice defeated him, leaving Afro an orphan determined to seek revenge. Players will follow Afro on his path of vengeance through nine chapters that closely, but not slavishly, follow the plot of the first season of the anime series.
Life for the Number Two is one of unending combat, which ultimately means a whole lot of bad guys are going to die. Afro can deal out fast light attacks, slower but more damaging heavy attacks, and kicks to cut his way through the opposition. There's also a focus mode that allows for more precise aiming of Afro's sword, and devastating instant kills. Combat is truly fast and furious, as arms, legs, and heads will go flying, and action fans should have no problem picking up their controllers and getting into the action right away. As Afro kills more enemies, he will level up, earning access to longer and more impressive combos, with such colorful names as "Pimp Hand," "Hardwood Thrust," and several others that can't be reprinted here. These enemies won't stand there and take it though, that's for sure. Expect the opposition to jump over horizontal slashes, dodge away from vertical slashes, and do everything they can to relieve Afro of his Number Two headband. Knowing that your enemies have the desire and ability to cut you down makes the combat much more interesting than slicing down hapless idiots.
Unlike typical hack and slash games, Afro Samurai features no on-screen HUD. Instead, everything players need to know about their situation can be seen by looking at Afro or his enemies. The pendant on Afro's sword indicates how much focus energy he has; growing brighter as more is obtained, with it flashing red to indicate experience being earned. The health of Afro and his foes is represented by a red outline to their bodies, which gets darker and darker as they near death. Even the length of Afro's combos has an on-screen cue, with longer combos resulting is more blood gushing from enemies. This system works great to provide players the information they need, without drawing attention away from the action at hand.
The boss fights, unfortunately, mark the low-point of the combat experience. Where combat against multiple foes feels dynamic and exciting, combat against solitary bosses is an exercise in pattern memorization of the worst kind. Each has a single weakness, bringing strategy down to the level of spamming the same effective move or technique over and over until the fight ends. Even worse, many of the bosses don't have checkpoints during the fight, so if you die several stages into a fight, prepare to start the whole thing over.
Not all the action in Afro Samurai is of the slicing and dicing variety, however. When Afro isn't busy pureeing foes, he'll be platforming from place to place in a very Prince of Persia fashion. Expect to do plenty of wall-running, jumping from conveniently located hanging bars, and jumping from wall to wall. These segments provide a decent change of pace from the hacking and slashing, but there's little depth or challenge to them.
Afro Samurai's action is a bloody extravaganza, but a few issues dampen the fun, including the camera, which is often as much of an enemy as the ronin trying to cut you down. While it's not broken, it often likes to hang out too low to the ground, making constant readjusting necessary for the best view of the action. It seems to get hung up when Afro is near walls or large objects too, and it's prone to changing angles suddenly, which could throw players off their stride in the heat of combat. These issues combine to make the final boss in particular incredibly frustrating, as I spent as much time fighting the camera as the enemy.
The checkpoints in Afro Samurai are also liable to cause a few headaches as well, mainly due to their inconsistency. Most checkpoints are well spaced, so death in a combat sequence or failure on a platforming sequence simply means trying that section again. However, several checkpoints are too far apart, where death could force players to replay several minutes of progress. In a few locations, players missing a platforming jump could find themselves respawning several jumps behind where they should have, and failure against one of the bosses of "Empty Seven's Story" forces players to redo the entire platforming sequence leading up to that fight, as well as the fight itself. Such inconsistent checkpoints will likely lead to some aggravating moments for most part.
Pacing also presents problems of its own in a few of the levels. Some levels, particularly "Okiki's Story," feature far too much backtracking between combat segments, which begins to feel tedious in a hurry. Other levels have exactly the opposite problem, with combat sequences that drag on too long, to the point that the fighting feels like a slog; you'll want a break for your fingers, and be terrified of dying as the checkpoint system could ask you to start it all over again. Most levels feel well balanced, but when the pacing is wrong, it's quite noticeable and irritating.
Beautiful cel-shaded graphics lend Afro Samurai its own visual style. The game periodically uses multiple frames on the screen at once to enhance the comic feeling of the game, whilst alerting players to key events, like new enemies jumping into the fray, or an enemy with a gun preparing to fire. The number of ways enemies can be cut to pieces is also extremely impressive. It seemed possible to sever any limb at any angle and have it faithfully represented on the screen, complete with a shower of blood. Enemies cut it half may try to crawl away, while other defeated enemies will finish themselves off through ritual suicide. The variety of ways opponents can meet their maker goes a long way to reducing the feeling of repetition that is common to hack and slash games.
The audio, easily the strongest aspect of this game, is a true delight to the ears, featuring a mix of hip-hop and Eastern influences that may seem strange, but actually works out incredibly well. The voice cast of the show lend their voices to the game, and deliver some excellent performances. Samuel L. Jackson's lines as Ninja Ninja are absolutely hysterical, and completely inappropriate to reprint in this review. A game's voice acting hasn't made me laugh this hard since GLaDOS from Portal. Unfortunately, the balance between voice and music volume seems a little bit off by default, making voices occasionally hard to hear. Thankfully, this can easily be fixed by readjusting audio settings in the options menu.
Afro Samurai's achievement list is one of the better ones released lately, with a good balance of points that can be earned for simply playing, and some which require more skill, like the challenging body part poker achievements. Some of the achievement names are pretty funny, like "I Am Rubber" and "You Are Glue" for the bullet deflection achievements. There's even an achievement for spilling copious amounts of blood. I could do without the momento collecting achievements, but since finding them unlocks special moves, at least there's a good reason to hunt them down. Getting everything will require two plays and some skill, but it's a fun list to work through.
Clocking in at about six hours, Afro Samurai is better suited as a weekend rental rather than a full purchase. The fast-paced and bloody combat, backed up with beautiful graphics and audio, leads to a good time, despite poor boss battles, inconsistent checkpoints and pacing, and an aggravating camera. Afro Samurai's dedication to staying faithful to its original material should be commended, and while the game falls short of greatness, it's certainly no mere cash-in.
Absolutely amazing music and voice acting from the show's original cast. Samuel L. Jackson's performance as Ninja Ninja is a riot. Minor sound balancing issues that can make voices hard to hear can be easily fixed from the options menu.
Nice cell-shaded graphics and use of multiple frames on the screen to create a comic book effect. The amount of ways an enemy can die helps keep the action interesting.
Combat is smooth and easy to pick up and play, but the camera has a tendency to be a real pain, and a few poorly spaced checkpoints have the potential to cause frustration.
Afro Samurai's dedication to staying true to the original material should be commended, but pacing issues and lackluster boss fights take away from it. There's little extra content to keep players coming back after completing the game's 6-hour story.
It's a well-rounded list of points earned for simply playing, and points that require skill. There's some creativity in the list, such as an achievement for spilling 2,000 gallons of blood. Ultimately, it'll take two playthroughs to get everything and most people won't have too much trouble netting the majority of the points.
Afro Samurai provides an entertaining and bloody orgy of death while it lasts, but camera issues, inconsistent checkpoints, and lackluster boss fights keep it from greatness.