Afro Samurai is the coolest game on the planet … for about two hours.
When a game has Samuel L. Jackson’s voice, a gorgeous anime art style, musical direction from the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA and gallons upon gallons of blood spraying and spilling all over the screen, it’s very easy to get spellbound.
But the haze of cool eventually fades after a few more hours, and you’ll find an experience that’s just as flawed as it is fun.
The game is an incarnation of the cult hit anime miniseries featuring Jackson and the RZA’s music along with actors Ron Perlman and Kelly Hu.
You play the Jackson-voiced Afro Samurai, sort of a Black Belt Jones-type character with the blade skills of The Bride from “Kill Bill.”
He’s on a quest to avenge the death of his dad while warding off the trouble that comes with wearing the “No. 2 headband,” which signifies his place as the second-best killer in the world. He encounters many strange characters, kills a lot of people … and then kills some more. You get the idea.
The game’s art style does a fantastic job of capturing the vibe of the Afro Samurai universe without looking like a half-hearted, cel-shaded attempt to mimic the series. It’s a feudal-but-futuristic world, so for every angry swordsman you face, you’ll also get androids, crazed monks with flamethrowers and giant, churning machines.
Adding more flavor to the playing experience is the most enjoyable collection of in-game music I’ve heard in a few years. The RZA inspired and supervised a lot of these tracks, some of which layer beats of varying paces over some Ennio Morricone-esque, spaghetti Western-style guitar twangs. You’re also going to get hit with some wailing violins, electric guitar, and some Asian-inspired instrumentals. All of which makes for a splendid collection of melodies to slaughter people to — because if there’s anything Afro does well, it’s end lives.
The game’s combat system is hit or miss, but wow, can it hit. Afro is a legendary swordfighter, even being able to slice bullets into fragments that can kill others around him.
Players can also trigger “focus mode”, which is like “bullet time” in that it slows everything down. This enables Afro to charge up his sword attacks and wipe out three or four enemies in one swing.
And by wipe out, I mean Afro’s cutting arms off, slicing enemies in half, hacking off both a guy’s legs at the same time — if he can cut it, it gets cut. Think of the restaurant fight scene in “Kill Bill.” Now picture that happening all the time.
But as satisfying as all this might sound, there are some nasty problems in this game, and no amount of style and flash can cover them.
First off, the game’s platforming aspects are reprehensible. Afro has to pull off some Prince of Persia-inspired wall running and jumping, which would be cool if the controls weren’t so sloppy.
You’ll blow your share of jumps and chances to grab onto things, even if your button presses are perfectly timed. Afro will sometimes not even grab onto ledges or platforms, and apparently, falling into water kills him instantly. I never felt 100 percent comfortable doing anything that didn’t involve swinging my sword at someone in front of me. Not a good thing if you’re trying to change up the gameplay.
Compounding the agility problems is the awful in-game camera, which features a screwy inversion setup (where pushing the stick right turns it left) that really can’t be configured exactly to your liking. This means you have to babysit the camera every step of the way, which will throw you off, probably because most of the other games you’ve played have cameras that work.
The most irritating aspects of the game are ridiculously cheap and clunky boss battles. The fight against the monk called Brother Six is profanity worthy and unbearable. It’s bad enough when he smacks Afro down with a fast, out-of-nowhere and unblockable punch attack, but then he fries him with his flamethrower while he’s getting up. And you can’t escape from it. You just have to eat flame.
There are other boss-fighting sins exposed in these battles, such as the “you-can’t-hit-me-because-I’m-in-an-animation” problem, or the “you can only hit me from behind, and I’ll still whip out a miracle block even though you have a clear shot” issue. This isn’t like “Ninja Gaiden,” where it comes down to skill to overcome the enemy — this is sloppy cheapness in its purest form. Somehow, I was able to finish the game.
There’s also not much in the way of storytelling. You have a lot of dialogue and narrative, but it felt like it was there to showcase the voice talents of the actors than to let me know why I should care about the events surrounding Afro Samurai. It felt like an extremely simplified version of the original story. It certainly isn’t long — I was able to finish the game in less than six hours.
Fans of the series will certainly find a lot to like, and in some ways, I still want to keep playing it. The music is too good, and the visuals are too pretty. It could be a nice stress reliever — for a short time, anyway.
Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Rated M for Mature
Our rating: 6/10