My knowledge of the Afro Samurai anime series prior to the game of the same name reached only as far as recognizing Samuel L. Jackson voiced a character. After plowing through a couple spit-shined cell-shaded levels I quickly understood why Jackson was courted for the role. Foul-mouthed and driven by tenacious hip hop beats, the world of Afro Samurai will choose style over substance 11 times out of 10.
In Afro Samurai the game, Afro sets out to avenge the death of his father at the hands of “Numbah One,” a story lifted straight from the series. Various characters appear along the journey as I later discovered also came from the series though precious little time is spent with them. The game’s narrative isn’t meant to replace the series. If anything, finishing the game lights a fire within to dig further into the Afro Samurai mythos on DVD.
Afro Samurai needs every style point he can muster to overcome a game design that is by and large derived from its hack-and-slash ilk. The path to revenge is overrun by swarms of agitated renegade ninjas and an occasional stronger foe who would like nothing better than to skewer Afro with his own blade. Armed with only a sword, Afro has no choice but to stab, slice and horrifically dismember anyone blocking the path.
Though Afro Samurai is hack-and-slash by nature, a veneer of “style” morphs what should be a mindless button-mashing marathon into a rhythmically engaging gaming experience. The transformation starts with the game’s visual cell-shaded and water brushed style that reeks of coolness and ends with a powerful hip hop and rap soundtrack fused with Far East influences. At times you forget you’re mashing buttons and watch Afro seemingly step his fight moves like he’s performing on Soul Train.
A couple hours with Afro Samurai sees the novelty of style and vulgar-ridden cut-scenes replaced by concerns with a frustrating camera, inconsistently boss battle difficulty and uninspired level design that never seems to fully take advantage of its surroundings. In a game where 360-degree combat is nearly always a constant, the last thing you want to do is constantly lose your bearings because the camera isn’t on the same page with the action on-screen.
Gameplay issues aside, I commend Namco Bandai for putting a little extra effort into the PS3 and Xbox 360 Afro Samurai packaging. The outer front cover is actually an extra solid flap held in place by a small piece of Velcro. Opening the flap like a book reveals extra Afro imagery to help sell the game. A thicker interactive cover is a nice touch Namco Bandai could have easily passed on but chose not to.
Nagging issues keep Afro Samurai from excelling into a hack-and-slash classic but the style does, at times, trump substance and put a smile on your face. Though you’ve heard Samuel L. Jackson fire off cuss words in rapid succession before, you’ve likely never seen a game that looks like Afro Samurai or fought to a more engaging soundtrack. Rent the game and one of the DVDs, stomach the flaws and have a few hours of fun with a cigarette chomping, afro-headed samurai warrior.
– Dan Bradley