Afro Samurai Review: Stick to TV, Kid
This is my first review for TGH, so I was rather excited about the whole experience. Then I was told I would be reviewing “Afro Samurai,” and not much changed. I had always wanted to see the show, but never made time to do so. Now, after beating the game and watching a good portion of the series, I know two things to be true. First, all Afro Samurai episodes will soon find their way to my library. And second, the game will quickly find its way out.
The game follows the show’s plot closely, with Afro on his quest to avenge his father, and obtain the number one headband, a headband that is rumored to give its user god-like powers. The show is overflowing with interesting and mysterious characters, and the game tries to accommodate fans of the series by hosting most of those individuals. However, Namco Bandai seemed quick to forget about adding in any sort of story. Having not seen the series before playing the game, I was completely confused by what was going on, but I knew damn well that I wanted to find out. Audibly and visually “Afro Samurai” has all the elements it needs to deliver an enjoyable story, but it simply seems to pass on the chance.
Its visuals and sound are the game’s strongest points. The graphics are sharp, and Afro’s cel-shaded animations are as smooth as his TV counterpart. All the environments are completely unique and look like they’re ripped straight from the pages of a comic book. The sound is fantastic as well, as The Rza remains intact as music producer of the series and delivers hit after hit of samurai-slicing beats. Samuel L. Jackson, Ron Perlman, and Kelly Hu all reprise their roles from the show making the voice acting top-notch. All these factors help contribute to making the game feel like a natural extension of the show. Sadly, I’m not reviewing the show, I’m reviewing the game, and from the moment you pick up the controller, “Afro Samurai”’s repetitive, unrewarding gameplay will consistently detract from the charm of the series.
To have even a chance at enjoying “Afro Samurai”, you must be a fan of the hack-and-slash genre, as you will be performing a good deal of amounts of both. The game throws seemingly endless waves of enemies at you. leaving little room for originality in the area of gameplay. There are no real thought-provoking puzzles in the game, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get stumped. Often, the game’s lack of direction, or completely busted camera will have you hoping to stumble into a solution. For example, when Afro gets lost you can push down on the d-pad to have Ninja Ninja (your sidekick) magically appear and show you the way. However, operating the camera is such a chore that you’ll often spend time just trying to find Ninja Ninja onscreen. Another huge annoyance is that you’re only given the ability to invert the y-axis and not the x, forcing you to have to adjust, no matter what. People not accustomed to playing using the default setup will not only have to battle tons of enemies, but the camera as well, undoubtedly leading to your demise, more then a few times.
The gameplay eventually becomes stale, as even average enemies can beat away on you while sustaining myriad amounts of damage. Afro is able to go into “focus mode” where enemies slow to a crawl and are rendered practically defenseless; this is almost always the quickest way to eliminate hordes of enemies. The screen fades to black and white and anyone Afro takes a swipe at is gruesomely sliced in half. Initially “focus mode” impresses, but after using it a few hundred times any novelty it had wears off.
The unfortunate thing about the game is that it has cool ways to dispose of your enemies, but rarely demands that you use them. Whenever you level up, you gain flashier, more brutal combos, but their inputs are confusingly similar, and with so many enemies crowding Afro, it’s difficult to decipher variation in his animations. You also don’t have much incentive to use these advanced combos throughout the game, as mashing the quick and heavy attack buttons at random got me through the game’s normal difficulty. After defeating numerous lackeys you will come across a boss, and this is where real frustration sets in.
The boss battles in “Afro Samurai” are, without question, the most frustrating part of the game, which is a real shame, because, while these bosses may be memorable, they are for all the wrong reasons. On more than one occasion I was left dumbfounded on how to best an enemy. The biggest problem lies in the game’s inability to guide the player; Afro must use certain techniques to rid himself of end-level foes, but the game never lets you in on what those techniques are. One boss required me to reflect a bullet back at him with my sword, in order to have him drop to a lower level where I could dispose of him. Eventually you gain this ability after you level up enough times, but you’re never aware of it, so it became a constant battle of trial and error until I bowed down to an online faq. “Afro Samurai” never insists that you learn these moves, and it secretly tucks these abilities away for you to magically discover on your own, but if you don’t know them when you need them, you’re S.O.L.
With all these complaints, there’s just no real reason to recommend the game to anyone who’s not a diehard fan of the series. Even they will see little reason to garner up enough patience to get through this eight-hour romp, as replaying it only awards you some music, art, and the chance to tackle this, already, frustrating game on a harder difficulty (I’ll pass).
Afro Samurai has everything in common with the show, except for its entertainment value. The graphics and sound are impeccable and lay the groundwork for telling the great story that is encompassed within the “Afro Samurai” anthology, but the game fails to do even that; throwing series’ villains at you without any explanation as to why you’re fighting them. This, coupled with the unresponsive platforming, repetitive gameplay, and total lack of camera, all help make “Afro Samurai” feel like a missed opportunity. For those of you looking for excuses to get into the Afro Samurai universe, pick up the DVD’s. For those wanting a reason to abandon it, pick up the game.