Slice and Dice with Style!
After a busy week of work, playing through Killzone 2, and getting ready for the Super Bowl, I found it difficult to find time to play Afro Samurai – a game that has a Metacritic press average of 60/100. When I finally did get down to business, I found myself pleasantly surprised by the game. It seems my peers have jumped on a bandwagon, claiming the game to be nearly unplayable due to extensive gameplay foibles and an incoherent story. I found no such difficulty playing or understanding the game, and I thoroughly enjoyed the short experience.
For those unfamiliar with Afro Samurai’s story, the protagonist is a badass black man who’s one-part Sheriff Bart, one-part Shaft, and a whole lot of Bruce Lee. Afro was brought up in a dojo after his father was murdered by an assassin. Afro not only seeks revenge for his father, but also wants to recover his headband and take his rightful place as the baddest mofo… Sho ‘Nuff!
Admittedly, Afro Samurai is not particularly innovative in terms of gameplay. In fact, the devs seem to have borrowed heavily from such titles as God of War, Ninja Gaiden, No More Heroes, and Devil May Cry. In other words, players will take advantage of extensive attack combos, turning their opponents into a quivering, bloody mess. However, borrowing proven mechanics is not always a bad thing. Last time I checked, those other games have been hailed as utter masterpieces. So, why has Afro Samurai gotten such a bum rap?
First of all, one of the biggest gripes of the game is that all this combo play feels more like a button mash and less like a test of gaming skill. On the contrary, pulling off stylish moves is simply a matter of memorizing the combinations. Certainly anyone can pick up the game and struggle through it by mashing their way to glory, but taking advantage of the advanced moves not only looks cool, it makes things a heck of a lot easier and satisfying. I’ve got a feeling that the majority of the reviewers out there didn’t take the time to familiarize themselves with the game’s controls. Studying the combo list with the Back/Select button, I was lopping off heads and getting flushes in Body Part Poker like it was nothin’!
I found the game’s controls to be excellent. Using the face buttons to initiate various kicks and sword combos is industry standard stuff. Players can also enter two different focus modes that allow you to pick body parts to slice clean through or clear out an entire room of unfortunate foes. Also, intricate dash attacks, enemy mounting, the ability to parry and attack, bullet deflection, etc. provide Afro an arsenal of moves that should make all but the most jaded gamers giggle with glee. Before long, I and my play partners hacked our way through the onslaught of enemies like cord wood. It was not only easy and intuitive, but the stylish nature of our killing spree looked like it was taken straight out of Kill Bill. Wading through waves of unprepared minions is hilarious. What’s more, the challenging, highly-stylish boss battles go a long way toward capping off the chapters and moving the story along.
On the downside, the game does suffer from rather uninspiring platforming. Often, players will miss jumps and wall runs. Thankfully, dying while platforming is not gravely punished. Players will simply start at the point where the mistake was made. This takes a lot of the frustration out of the often wonky jumping segments, however, I can’t help but think the devs were forced to put this instant restart mechanic into the game to make up for the substandard platforming. Also, the branching level design, while interesting and realistic, can be confusing. Luckily, calling up your Ninja Ninja GPS is just a button away.
Some have complained about the camera controls. Indeed, camera issues are perhaps the title’s biggest shortcoming. If you aren’t a Quake player from way back, or can’t seem to retrain your brain, you might struggle. Afro Samurai does allow you to select a standard or inverted camera along the Y axis, but players will not be able to change the X axis. This can be quite frustrating until you become accustomed to this nuance. I found myself using the automatic camera re-centering button via the right stick constantly, and this seemed to eliminate the frustration except during some boss battles. Still, players should never be railroaded into a specific control scheme by an unforgiving developer. I can see how some might want to pass on this title simply for the frustration surrounding the camera issues. Although, if you give up that easily, you’re probably a pussy. Okay…maybe not.
Similarly asinine, players are unable to access the options menu from the Start button. In fact, if you want to change BGM volume, invert the camera, change video settings, etc., you’ll have to wait till the game auto-saves, quit the game, go back to the title screen, make your changes, reenter your saved game, and mash your way through the repeated cutscenes until you’re finally allowed to jump back into where you left off. That certainly is not a sound development choice.
Thankfully, many design choices are successfully implemented. For example, the lack of a HUD really helps keep the cinematic feel alive. Players will notice their health dwindling simply by how their Gi begins to glow red and their thumping heartbeat. Players will also be able to keep track of acquired focus by the glowing bangle that trails from their Katana. It was an excellent choice to go HUD-less.
Also, accessing the combo list is a breeze. There, players will be able to keep track of locked moves, unlocked moves, and acquired XP in specific skills; players never have to manage Afro with time-consuming XP point-dumps. Automatically leveling-up in this way is not only rewarding, but it also means you’ll never have to stop the action or feel like you’re missing out on unclaimed skills. You also don’t have to grind your way through levels before reaching the boss.
Additionally, Afro Samurai exudes style from start to finish. From the gory deaths you inflict upon your enemies, to the cel-shaded, comic-book look, Afro Samurai is a very attractive game. The attention to detail in terms of capturing the feel of the anime and manga is excellent. I particularly liked the way important events swipe onto the screen, similar to how asides in comic books are implemented. Slicing your foes in half, cutting off their feet, scalping them, watching them perform Seppuku, etc. are gaming experiences that don’t really get old. Afro Samurai really is an awesome-looking game that loads on the polish. If it weren’t for the occasional framerate issues, this game would be nearly perfect visually.
What has attained perfection is the game’s soundtrack and voice over work. I have never heard a game with this much quality. The music in Afro Samurai is a combination of Eastern-themed samples and hip hop beats by composer Howard Drossin, with a few tracks getting solid raps from Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA. The songs are so good, in fact, I will be purchasing a copy of the soundtrack – it’s better music than the vast majority of hip pop out there. Likewise, the voice over work is sensational. Samuel L. Jackson’s role as Ninja Ninja is spot on. The witty, foul-mouthed lines that spew forth had me laughing and reciting them over and over again. For instance, catch phrases such as, “Mount that asshole!… ooh, that came out wrong,” grace this title’s aural stylings. A word of caution: this is a game that makes liberal use of its mature rating; MFs and F-bombs riddle the comments.
Afro Samurai doesn’t revolutionize action gameplay. It does, however, bring a level of quality to the presentation that is wholly appealing. On the basis of visuals and sound quality alone, this game simply can’t be failed. However, the game doesn’t just employ beautiful graphics and awesome music. I thoroughly enjoyed Afro Samurai’s combat mechanics. Anyone who tries to say this is just a button masher is either not a very good gamer or didn’t spend enough time with the title. How can you fault a game that tracks gallons of blood spilled as one of your stats? This may not be a must-buy, but it is a stylish action romp that will please a mature audience looking for laughs and an ass-kicking good time.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.2 Graphics
The Cel-shaded look is outstanding. Unfortunately, some technical issues do mar the otherwise beautiful visuals. 3.8 Control
Platforming is a bit on the weak side, and the inability to easily control the camera is a problem. Still, the extensive and intuitive combo list makes up for the control shortcomings. 5.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
This is the most aurally pleasing video game I’ve ever played. 4.0 Play Value
The simple action may get tiresome for those that don’t put the time into learning the controls. Also, the game is quite short. Nevertheless, I had a blast cutting my way through, and have made this game part of my personal collection! 4.0 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.