Afro Samurai is based on the story arc of the anime by the same name and loosely follows a handful of episodes that have Afro looking for his own father-killing equivalent of the six-fingered man. The story goes that Afro Senior was slain so that someone could have his No. 1 headband, and Afro is seeking the No. 2 headband to aid in his dish-best-served-with-a-side-of-katana quest. Like any battle over accessories the struggle is never easy, and the story will feel a bit choppy if you aren’t already familiar with the anime. This is a game, though, and what really matters is the ability to slice-n-dice some ninja, painted naked ladies and a robot – all of which Afro Samurai delivers with the kind of reckless abandon that has gameplay casualties.
The three primary attacks are a kick, a light attack and a heavy attack. There are a number of combos at your disposal but since you encounter many of the same type of enemy over and over just tapping away in random sequence will get you through. Did I say tapping? Yeah, I meant mashing. Have at it, Afro Samurai’s simple control scheme is not a nuanced wonder, though successive combos are rewarded with more blood-spatter on the screen. Additionally, Afro comes with a pretty necklace that glows as the murderous strikes add up. This is where your Focus is stored, and it allows you to slow time and use powerful attacks to slash through enemies like sanguinary butter.
If the Focus Amulet is fully-stocked, tapping L1 (or left bumper on 360) will trigger Overfocus draining the pendant and giving you a few brief moments of high-powered destruction. With L2 (or left trigger for 360) you can slow things down to slice horizontally or vertically, with the ideal strike being indicated when the peak of your blade shines bright. While the shine moves up the katana use the joystick to adjust the white line on the enemy to determine what you will be hacking off. This trick is integral to success in a game of Body-Part Poker in which removing an arm, head or legs turns over matching cards leading to power-ups like health, Focus and experience.
Characters models and the environments have a rough, hand-drawn approach that make Afro Samurai look and feel like an edgy Okami. The game doesn’t waste its M rating on the occasional curse or hint of violence: it is a bloody, messy thing and makes slicing off limbs simply beautiful. The animations and squelchy sounds for the blood spurting and the parts flying keeps the maiming fresh and visually interesting. The game’s music is “inspired by” The RZA of Wu-Tang Clan, which is good enough for a couple of great tracks, some okay ones, and plenty of repetition. Still, when the music is used it is used well and is accompanied by solid voice work. Samuel L. Jackson does double duty as both Afro and his bawdy alter-ego Ninja Ninja who provides valuable narration, and while enemy dialog is unvaried and repetitious cries of “motherfucker!” from the fray doesn’t really get old.
The bulk of the combat is satisfying, but not challenging, with many similar battles punctuated by a handful of bosses. It is a bit difficult to tell when you are taking damage until your shirt is pretty well-bloodstained and your heart is thumping urgently. This sort of determinedly vague inattention to things you thought mattered in a game carries over to other aspects as well. For example, your pendant will glow red as you collect experience in combat, and leveling up increases health, Focus or combos, but other than a screen announcing that you have leveled up there is nothing worth noting. Experience, like your health, is kept veiled and mysterious limiting in-game menus. You can’t change the camera or even adjust the sound without quitting the game to the main menu.
I surmise that some awkward game elements could be gimmicks intended to perpetuate the “flashback” and “memory” themes, but they end up being annoying. The enemy dialogue spews from the surrounds rather than the center channel, regardless of their location on screen. This may be because it is supposed to be “in your head”, but used constantly it just ends up being auditorily messy. Similarly, the load screens feature little flashback clips, usually an informative tidbit about bears ending with Afro’s eyes popping open when Ninja Ninja shouts, “AFRO!” Problem is, they don’t seem to be timed right so just as I’m about to learn something nifty from Otsuru about bear culture the scene ends. The argument for thematic continuity is that Ninja Ninja is interrupting the memory, but it just ends up being frustrating.
It is the camera, however, that kills me – and is less effective at enabling me to kill the enemies. Afro is faster than the speed of the camera, which not only can barely follow him but rarely finds the action. It is all too easy to lose the foe and when centering the camera requires you to abandon the precious attack buttons you are better off running around mashing. The worst part is how much the camera’s failings bring down other elements of the game, namely boss fights and platforming. Each boss in Afro Samurai has to be defeated three times in a fight, and with every round the boss uses a different attack. The bosses are not challenging, but avoiding a flame-throwing boss is fatal nine times out of ten when you can’t tell how far away you are or that you are about to get torched. Likewise, the intermittent platforming sequences fall flat as you miss an innocuous jump because the camera angle was weird. The only thing keeping these sections firmly at “lame” rather than “frustrating as all get out” is that for most of the game you are simply wall-running and platform hopping.
Critique makes it all too easy to forget that the game can be a blast. Afro Samurai is heavy on style and aggression, so it stinks that things like the camera get in the way of a game you really want to love. Afro Samurai is a six-hour excursion with plenty of ill-conceived aspects, but katana-wielding destruction is yours for the taking if you can cope with the oversights.