Namco Bandai Games christens their new western games division Surge with the release of Afro Samurai for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, based on the Spike TV anime starring Mr. Samuel L. Jackson.
Afro Samurai combines a hip hop vibe and music with a futuristic take on feudal Japan, creating an atmosphere that is equal parts mystic and urban. Now Namco Bandai Games hopes to take the unique feel of the cult hit series and carry it over to the video game world with an action-packed retelling of the anime's story.
Have they succeeded, or will they face the wrath of one bad motherf***er?
The story told in Afro Samurai isn't a sequel to the popular anime but more of a re-imagining of the origin we all know and love. As a child, Afro witnesses the murder of his father — a badass swordsman — in a duel for the No. 1 headband, which is basically the symbol of the greatest fighter on the planet. From there, Afro focuses on getting the No. 2 headband and avenging his father. On this journey, he'll make friends, make love, and make a whole lot of people die thanks to his trusty katana. The story itself is solid and intriguing, and it makes a somewhat decent appearance in the game, although if you have never seen the show, the emotional impact and the finer points of the story will be lost on you.
At the forefront of (the game's vibe) is Afro Samurai's combat, which cribs from most games of its type. You can issue weak and strong attacks, kick your enemies around, and string these three basic moves into a variety of combos. You'll spill a lot of blood using these simple actions, but if you really want to punish your acrobatic foes, it's better to enter focus mode and watch the guts fly. With a pull of the trigger, you can slow down time, adjust your blade's trajectory a bit, and lop heads, digits, or entire limbs off of your smack-talking enemies. You have to charge up focus mode by landing combos, but you will never go without the ability for long, and the resulting mix of old-fashioned button mashing and focus-powered slaughter is satisfying and fun.
While the game's faithfulness to the show is refreshing, the storytelling is rather inconsistent. I found myself lost from time to time as I ventured through Afro's disturbed memories. The platforming segments are also schizophrenic in their difficulty-they're either insultingly easy or obscenely difficult. Much in the vein of the Prince of Persia series, Afro can wall-run and leap across ledges in certain environments, but with clunky detection as well as clipping issues when it comes to some of Afro's more difficult acrobatic pursuits, the game just becomes plain frustrating in an extreme trial and error manner.
All of the pieces of the gameplay puzzle appear to be here, but often times these bits feel strewn atop a table rather than ordered, glued together and framed. For instance, the HUD-less design of Afro Samurai obviously allows its style to shine through in as many instances as possible, but there will be times when you simply want more information, such as the location of your next checkpoint locale (rather than having to rely upon the "Ninja Ninja" GPS—basically, Sam Jax barking commands to your next route) or a little more clue as to how power-ups are affecting Afro's battlefield prowess.
And the camera isn't always on your side, swinging loosely during integral boss fights and often settling in the wrong position at the wrong time. It's not so abusive that'll you'll be driven to tears, but with all the high-quality razzledazzle going on with Afro's lovely looks, hip-hop beats, and sophisticated revenge tale, it's too bad the spotless presentation doesn't bleed seamlessly into every aspect of its gameplay and mechanics. Yet, Afro Samurai persisted in mesmerizing us. And really, with Sam Jackson spouting lines like "That girl puts the two 'asses' in 'assassin'" in feudal Japan, how can we resist?
The two asses in assassin? Might have to buy this despite the average reviews.
Kotaku AU Note: Afro Samurai is out now in North America, but isn't due until April in Australia.