Afro Samurai (PlayStation 3) review
"It [Afro Samurai] may not be the masterpiece it could or even should be, but it's still one of the better games of its kind to come along in awhile."
There are two kinds of people in this world; those who have seen the hit anime mini-series, Afro Samurai, and those who have not. Prior to playing its videogame adaptation, I was in the in the latter category. And let me tell you, if you are in the same boat, the game isn't going to make a whole lot of sense.
Which is a shame as its one of the most stylish games of its ilk currently on the market, and it consistently tantalizes us with hints of depth. The story, as I understand it, deals with a young Afro Samurai's father being slain by a cryptic gunslinger named Justice, for his #1 headband, making him officially the greatest badass to walk the earth. In order to reclaim the #1 headband, one must first slay the wearer of the #2 headband, which Afro does early on, solidifying his place as the #2. As such, every warrior in the world with something to prove is after Afro Samurai in order to take his headband, while Afro continues his vengeful quest for Justice (pun fully intended). It's a rather silly, but compelling premise.
Sadly, the details of the story get lost in translation. Afro meets a host of interesting characters, including: a beautiful assassin, a mysterious, ghostly warrior in a cartoon bear mask, and lest we forget, Afro's possibly imaginary alter ego, Ninja Ninja . How these characters tie into the story, however, is hardly explained. This is truly a shame as the audiovisual component of the game is almost always fantastic and scenes that should carry a lot of weight end up leaving us scratching our heads. Take my favorite level, for example, consisting of a multi-tiered boss fight against said mysterious, ghostly warrior in a bear mask, spanning across a wintry graveyard to the tops of a derelict tower. Not only does it look absolutely gorgeous, but the music is fantastic, and the way the story is told with bits of dialogue given out during the fight when Afro and his opponent's swords clash is nothing short of epic. Oh, how I pined to understand what the hell was happening during this otherwise amazing sequence! While the anime may provide context, the point is that the game should be able to spin a compelling yarn on its own, and it doesn't.
Thankfully, the game is a success in a myriad of other regards. Most notable is its aesthetic. Utilizing a cel-shaded art style that seeks to emulate the anime (complete with cross-hatching pen strokes), the game quite simply looks amazing. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it looks BETTER than its source material. Audio is another of the game’s strong suits with voice-acting by Samuel L. Jackson as the titular hero (as well as Ninja Ninja), Ron Pearlman as Justice, and Kelly Hu as Okiku. The music was supervised by The Rza, complete with some original tracks, of mostly good quality (even if the lyric, "If you live by the sword, you must die by the sword. That's the way of the samurai... samurai... samurai... samurai" will get stuck in your head for hours on end). Ultimately, the way the game looks and sounds, with its cross-cultural fantasy setting, is among the most unique and compelling worlds we've seen in a genre full of Devil May Crys and Ninja Gaidens.
The game's combat, i.e. 95% of the game, perhaps lacks the depth of something like Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden, but that's not necessarily to its detriment. It's easy to pick and up and play, and deceptively simple. While there aren't a lot of moves, they make every one count. The saving grace to the combat is what's called "focus mode," which could accurately be describes as, "awesome black & white slow-mo, limb-severing mode." After performing a combo or two, you'll build up your focus meter, allowing you to go into focus mode, where you must hold down an attack button and release it right as the spark reflecting of your sword reaches its tip. A bit like the active reload in Gears of War. You'll be spamming this move A LOT throughout the game, and much to my surprise (and eternal delight), it never, ever, gets old.
In truth, the game has as much in common with last year's No More Heroes as it does with Ninja Gaiden or God of War. Both games feature very simple combat mechanics (right down to the slow-mo, excessively bloody, limb-severing finishing moves), lots of style, and an interesting setting. Yet both are bogged down by poor pacing and repetitive combat featuring the same few enemy types ad infinitum. For better or worse, the game is only about six hours long, so it doesn't really have time to wear out its welcome. There is an unlockable harder difficulty for those who really want a challenge (as well as a little more bang for their buck), and a smattering of collectibles to find, so replay value is decent, if perhaps not as much as you'd like or expect for $60.
The game’s presentation is something of a mixed bag. At it's best, there are some unique, innovative visual queues like the comic bookesque split-screen panels that pop up to indicate oncoming enemies or a sniper about to shoot (time your response correctly and you can deflect bullets). I was also a fan of the dialogue that would pop up mid-battle when Afro's swords clash with his opponent. The removal of a HUD is also a clever step forward, even if its a little unclear at time how much focus power you've acquired. However, these neat little flourishes are undermined by equally baffling corners cut. When characters talk, their lips don't always move, which is unforgivable in this day and age. The cutscenes are very brief and explain precious little of what's going on. Worse yet, cutscenes are unskippable, no matter how many times you've seen them. When Afro Samurai introduces new ideas, it generally works, making it all the more disappointing that some old design flaws rear their ugly heads.
The game’s worst offender is its camera. In a staggeringly bewildering move, there is an option to invert the Y-axis, but not the X-axis. This is 2009, people. Get with the times! You can center the camera by clicking the right analogue stick, but it's a bit of a pain. Really though, it's not much worse than most other games in the genre, so I won't hate on it too much.
I probably sound like I'm being overtly harsh on this game, with all the antiquated bugbears that are present, but in the end, the game is still really stylish and fun, which are probably the two things people seek most when picking up a hack-and-slash spinoff of a TV series. Yes, the story makes no sense, the camera is annoying, and there isn't much more to it than fighting wave after wave of enemies. But when you're lopping off arms and legs off of topless concubine assassins in glorious slow mo, blood splattering all over, all is forgiven. It may not be the masterpiece it could or even should be, but it's still one of the better games of its kind to come along in awhile. Just be warned that if you're not already familiar with the saga, it's not going to make a lick of sense.
Freelance review by Jeffrey Matulef (February 20, 2009)
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