Review: Afro Samurai

Cel-shading has come a long way. In fact, just a few short years ago whenever it was introduced, it was laughed at. Just look at The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Its reception was lukewarm at best, and much of it had to do with the look of the entire package. Fast forward a few years, and titles such as Prince of Persia and Eternal Sonata are revered for their gorgeous art direction. One thing that can be said about the video game translation of Afro Samurai is that its cel-shaded art oozes style, but tends to lose its direction in terms of substance. Even with that said, this is by far one of the best anime-to-video game releases out there.

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Afro will avenge his father\’s murder at all costs.

Afro is a soul driven by vengeance. Bent on avenging the murder of his father, he has dedicated himself to finding and killing the “Number One,” aka the one who is said to rule the world. However, due to strict rules prevalent in the Afro Samurai universe, only the individual who wears the “Number Two” headband is worthy of challenging Number One’s title. Afro must find the Number Two in order to take down the current Number One, who was responsible for his father’s death. It was a grisly murder that happened right in the face of young Afro – a bloody beheading by a man named Justice. The Afro Samurai game follows the manga and the anime storyline closely but deviates in many different ways that series fans will be able to point out at every turn. Still, what’s presented is as close to the source material as we get, especially in an era of pitiful Naruto titles and beating the dead Dragon Ball Z horse.

The player assumes the role of Afro on his quest to take out Justice in a slick, stylish hack-and-slasher. The typical conventions are all here – button mash, slice enemies to bits, rinse, and repeat. Occasionally there are a few switches to flip, doors to open, and bosses to conquer, but the majority of the game will have you flitting from place to place on the journey to reach Number One. You’ll slice through some lesser ninjas like a hot knife through butter, then separate some at the torso until they’re weakly crawling down the path, half the men they used to be, literally. This is achieved by allowing weak and strong attacks mapped to the face buttons. More weak attacks can be strung together to up a climbing combo counter similar to that in Devil May Cry, and strong attacks take more time to complete.

Though you can use the very basics of combat to mow down lowly enemies, Ninja Focus will emerge as one of the most virile parts of your arsenal. Focus mode must be charged up by slashing through enemies, cutting off limbs, and landing combos. When Afro’s medallion shines, it’s time to unleash a stream of carnage upon unsuspecting enemies. This is completely satisfying, and you’ll find yourself wanting to use it all the time. If that isn’t enough, you can hold down the attack button long enough for Afro’s sword to gleam, and then unleash a power attack on enemies. This will slice off a limb or two, or ensure destruction. It’s quite addicting, and oozing with style. Along with regular attacks and special abilities Afro can parry, sprint, and even deflect bullets when necessary. Faced with a few lowly ninjas who need taking down a few pegs? It’s pure bliss to cut through each and every one. Combat flows very smoothly, and you’ll appreciate each stylistic second.

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Combat is decidedly gorgeous, and we all know that\’s always a plus.

Unfortunately, outside of the combat aspects of the game, Afro Samurai ultimately begins failing. Its platforming aspects fail largely because they are so finicky. Every so often you will be required to make some timed jumps or wall-jump. They never work just as well as you would like for them to, and if you can’t pull it off? You’re relegated to starting the section over again. As the game wears on, this will get increasingly more frustrating. It should also be noted that you can’t actually combine the hack-and-slash moves with any of the acrobatic prowess Afro possesses. This is quite disappointed, as it makes some battles awkward and disjointed. If you’re going to have a hack-and-slasher with a character who can pull off such moves, why not showcase them in a more interactive manner?

Since the game is 30% story and 70% combat, most of what’s presented IS the combat, so it has to be perfect. It’s not, but when it shines, it truly shines. Boss battles will have you scratching your head at times, and some fights will beg you to replay the match just so you can see how truly epic the fight actually was. Unfortunately, the spacing of fights and boss battles is a bit wonky. If you’re not exploring a completely empty area, you’re facing a horde of ninjas. Bosses come at the strangest times, as well, and make you wonder where, exactly, they fit into the scheme of things. This is disappointing, as combat basically carries the game. When there is no combat, there is no action, and that’s where Afro finds its downfall.

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Combat can begin to become a bit sparse, and the game spirals into mediocrity.

Even though the monotony may grate on your nerves, Afro Samurai‘s look will stick with you long after you’ve played it. Gorgeous and fluid cel-shading a unique, interesting motif that ranks up there with the likes of Rogue Galaxy or similar titles. Focus mode turns the game into a Sin City-like extravaganza. At certain points in the missions throughout, the camera angles will switch to a comic panel-style view, where you can check out the action in other areas as well. Soft-lit areas and buildings contrast well with the stark, rust red blood, making Afro an absolute treat on the eyes. As much as the game is a visual feast, it’s no slouch in the aural department either. With a complete soundtrack inspired by the rapper RZA’s music, you’ll be humming some of the tracks in no time.

Afro Samurai is one of the better video game adaptations that I have seen in quite some time. However, its few major flaws prevent it from being a must-add to your gaming library. Its gorgeous combat, bumping hip-hop soundtrack, and impressive visuals are tempting, but if you’re short on cash, your money would be better spent elsewhere – perhaps on God of War II or Devil May Cry 3. Still, if you’re a fan of the series and you’re ready to kick back with some good, old-fashioned (albeit flawed) hack-and-slashing, then by all means give Afro Samurai a rent.

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