Review By: Josh Miller-Watt
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When news of the Afro Samurai game first came out, it was met with the wild acclaim of fans of the animated series, and the relative indifference of everyone else. Such is the fate of most games based on an anime series - it’s only really going to draw the attention of existing fans. But anyone who dismisses the game as another cash grab on the part of the creators of the series is seriously mistaken in their judgment.
This game is the first product of the newly formed SURGE production company, a label created by Namco Bandai studios in an effort to create “games that are not only groundbreaking but also push the envelope.” Now, upon first glance, a brawler based on an anime series might not appear to be very cutting edge idea, and if you’re going just by the concept, you’d be correct. But this is not a game that excels in concept - nor was it meant to be. This is a game that excels in DELIVERY. It makes some new and interesting changes to the standard formula normally applied in these games, and the gamble pays off.
The graphics in Afro Samurai are top-notch. The rendering is done in an unique visual style which appears to be a symbiosis of cel-shading and more realistic next-gen shading. The two brought together create a very comic book feel for the game, and makes the various environments seem far more lush and alive. From the middle of a feudal Japanese town at nighttime to a snowy mountain passage literally constructed from memorials for all the dead who’ve tried to climb the mountain, the game continues to present new and interesting venues in a visual style that just pops.
The sound is hit-and-miss, as the music and voice acting are excellent, whereas the sound effects are not. As far as music goes, what can you say about a game whose music was directed by the RZA? His involvement in the game was almost a necessity, as it’s one for the most striking features from the animated series. The soundtracks are an excellent blend of rap and classical Japanese music, with a variety of rappers creating whole, unique tracks solely for use on the game. The music is of a high enough caliber that I could easily see the developers releasing the soundtrack separately and having it sell well. The voice acting is worthy of a five-diamond award. But again, what can you expect when you have an all-star cast including Samuel L. Jackson, Kelly Hu and Ron Perlman? Every time Ninja Ninja starts to talk, your speakers will begin to spew pure magic. And the voice of Justice is pure psychotic malevolence. In a sharp contrast to all this, however, the sound effects are mediocre. Any fan of brawler games knows that sound effects are important. When a blow lands, we need to hear the aural feedback. It lends a certain presence to the actual fighting. The sound effects are too bland here to merit much notice, and so you’re left with a sort of disassociation with the action on the screen. A little extra time here would have been well worth the effort.
The gameplay is good. Afro’s moves are varied and stylish. The difficulty curve on the enemies is well done, and even mobs of standard foes in later levels can do some real damage, as they begin to really work together. The mobs have this irritating tendency to have a man behind you tab you while you’re in the middle of a combo on another foe. One of the new features the game has is the ‘Perfect Slice’ system. Basically, when killing enemies, you build up focus. When you have enough, you can hold on the left trigger, which slows the action to a crawl. You can then have Afro charge a sword attack, releasing the attack button when the sword gleams white. While charging the slice, you can aim the slick to hit any part of the body and sever it. The split-second aiming becomes particularly important, as some foes are VERY good at dodging your perfect slices, leaving you cutting nothing but air. If you charge up enough focus, you can go into “Overfocus” mode, which is essentially a more socially acceptable way of saying “Kills every person in the room with one slice” mode. In Overfocus, time is slowed, whereas your movement is not, and every slash you make against an enemy is guaranteed to kill them (particularly large enemies and bosses notwithstanding). The combat in the game is fast and furious, and continues to please when you pull off that combo just right - an important feature in a game that consists entirely of combat. There are a few snags in the gameplay, however - thankfully, none of them having to do with combat. Afro can run up walls and the like, but not all of them. Only a few throughout the game. It seems odd that you can’t run up a perfectly flat vertical wall, and feels a bit limiting. Also, sometimes you and foes will get hung up on walls in weird ways. I’ve never become completely stuck in this way, but having to attack a foe who’s more or less standing on your head because of a clipping error can be a bit disconcerting. All in all these issues aren’t a major problem, but can irritate a person when they come up.
The story is where the game really picks up. This isn’t your standard “Follow the plot of the anime and throw in a mass of extra people to fight” offering. While the game does follow the GENERAL outline of the series, it differs in some key ways. For those who don't know, the premise is this. When Afro Samurai (and yes, that is his actual given name) was a child, his father was killed in a duel right in front of him by a horrific looking man named Justice for the number one headband Afro’s father wore. You see, there are two headbands in this setting, The headbands for the number one and number two killer. The number one is the best killer in all of Japan, and the headband is said by some to grant godlike powers. Only the wearer of the number two headband is permitted to challenge the number one. The problem? Anyone can challenge the number two, and it needn’t be a single duel - a whole mass of people can jump the number two, at any time. Now, throughout his life, Afro strives to claim revenge for his fallen father, eventually getting the number two headband. He then makes his way to mount Shumai, where the number one waits for him.The path is filled with people seeking the headband for their own purposes. Afro’s only companion is a cowardly, vulgar Ninja named Ninja Ninja (yes, really) who constantly complains, and vanishes at the first sign of the trouble. The game diverts at a few key points, however. I can’t say anything too specific, as that would ruin the surprises in store, but suffice it to explain that the origins of Ninja Ninja are finally explained. The various changes in the plot aren’t just simple “What ifs”, however. They show some real thought, and attention to detail. It seems like the authors of the animated series had some ideas that they thought about using for the animated series, but decided against, and have now used in the game. by the end of the game, the anime canon and the game canon are VERY different. It’ll be interesting to see if they make further games following the story of the first. But suffice it to say, the story is very well done.
Afro Samurai is a very capable brawler. The combat is well-executed throughout. The music and voice acting are both top-notch, but the sound effects need some work. The graphics are consistently impressive, from great environments, to lovingly-crafted character models. The story has some huge divergences from the animated series, but they work to the game’s benefit rather than its detriment. All in all, a quality first offering from a promising new studio.
Posted: 2009-02-26 06:45:12 PST