Katana arcing over my head, I leap, soar into the air before diving like a hawk, slashing and slicing leaving bloodied dismembered appendages and decapitated bodies in my wake. Sweeping legs and tearing jugulars I run on through the night, searching for my prey. I've got an afro and a kickass katana to boot. I am Afro Samurai.
Letting you jump straight into the action in the prelude, Afro Samurai quickly shows its true colours as a brawler, with the mashing of the X and Y buttons at the top of the menu. With the standard button configuration for such a game, the controls for Afro Samurai are competent, but nothing remarkable. The flowing nature and responsiveness of your avatar, Afro, however deserves a mention, with no button lag between the button-press and the on-screen action, the game allows for graceful, flowing combos to be achieved and havoc to be wrought upon the bodies of your foes.
Visually, the game is a treat, with the cel-shaded graphics wonderfully presenting the story of Afro Samurai in a manner true to and reminiscent of the animé from which the katana-swinging Afro has emerged. The game touts its environments as "neo-feudal" and this they most certainly are, with settings ranging from Japanese-styled fortresses lit by the shimmer of a waning moon to murky control-rooms with monstrous mechanisms and steaming vents. This range of environments allows gamers to witness the remarkable graphic styling, as recently seen in Prince Of Persia, in a wide variety of locations.
In any review, it is important to highlight the most prominent feature, and for Afro Samurai, this is most definitely the satisfaction of getting a stylish kill. While I won't be the one to say that this game's be all and end all is the chopping, mincing, slicing and dicing of enemies, that is the ball of bloody flesh and bones that this extremely violent game orbits around. AND IT'S BRILLIANT. Where other brawler games sidestep the censors by toning down the gore, Afro Samurai really rams the nail into the...throat of the sensors and, covered in a pink mist and speckled in red droplets of blood, emerges victorious with an 18+ PEGI rating.
While the swordplay is tremendously enjoyable and satisfying, not every aspect of the game left me grinning from ear to ear. The continuity of the plot, while crisscrossed for effect, was too haphazard for me to follow with any complete understanding. Most gamers take a game and play it over a number of days or even weeks. If you were to do that with this title, any previous plot development would be forgotten and you would be blindly slashing your way through a story you did not know. This flashing backwards and forwards made difficult for me to appreciate the plot. Presumably, to a fan of the animé, the muddled arrangement of story sequences would make perfect sense, but speaking as a majority of the game's potential audience, I was just fumbling my way through level after level without any great amount of understanding.
On the topic of continuity, the game has a tendency to flash the player from one location to another, handily leaving you facing the tunnel or passage you are expected to explore. While this aids the flow of the gameplay and reduces the time between the action, it makes the playing of the game feel too simple. Regardless of how enjoyable massacring droves of enemies can be, the reward of finding your way is often tragically lost to over-simplification. With the gameplay simplified to a few button mashing sequences in between a horde of short cutscenes, the title can have the feel of a game intended for a much younger audience. Other than the gratuitous gore and brilliant cel-shaded visuals, there is little to distinguish Afro Samurai in the gameplay from kids' titles such as Kung Fu Panda.
Proudly flaunting its 18+ certificate, brandishing it as if a badge of honour on the front of the box, Afro Samurai seems hard pushed to decide what it is; in two minds about the sort of game that it wants to be. It pushes the boundaries on representation with picture-in-picture sequences and the distinctive lack of a UI, but falls back upon over-milled and dated structural techniques, packing a level with enemies, having a short platforming section, repeating this ad infinitum before the boss fight. Especially considering the absence of a passably traceable plotline, this leaves Afro Samurai with little variety and the tendency to have me playing only in short bursts.
Where Afro Samurai truly shines, however, is in the audio. With excellent voice acting from entertainment god, Samuel L. Jackson, and a cast that almost equals this, the voicing is great, perfectly encapsulating tones and emotions - a rare thing to come across in game voice acting. The rhythmic blend of classic eastern tones with modern rap music, directed by rap legend RZA, while reaffirming the neo-feudal setting and environs, makes for the perfect soundtrack for a slashing day out, aiding to wonderfully portray the rebellious, "I don't give a f@*!", Afro.
The character design is another positive for Afro Samurai, with the cel-shading being highly detailed. The eponymous afro of Afro is practically a character in its own right and the cigarette wielded between the protagonist's lips puffs away as he slaughters, adding to his effortless swagger.
When it comes down to the edge of the blade, Afro Samurai is like a foot-long sub: It looks and sounds good at the time, but just feels wrong when it comes down to those last few bites. The core of the presentation looks stunning, especially when the action is intense and the environment is just a blur in the eyes beholding the gut-spilling fighting, but when scrutinized, the edges of levels and pieces of the environment can look less refined. Animation glitches are also common, with enemies spending a few seconds resting before releasing a torrent of blood. The cutscenes cut in and cut out too sharply for my liking and this gives a rushed feel to the final product. An equally minor point that deposits into the negativity bank is the low-rent typeface of the "Loading..." text. While this may seem overly scrutinous and pedantic, it struck me as highly noticeable set against a shining backdrop of cel-shaded glory.
Afro Samurai is a game that is a wonder to behold, but actually looks more fun than it is. The first few minutes of gameplay are brilliant, but once you come to realise that the remainder of the title will be those first five minutes spun out forever, it soon loses its appeal. The uncensored gore and butcherous fighting is quite a sight, but again, loses its shine after seeing it hundreds of times. Sometimes it can feel as though the player is being spammed with enemies with the single goal of stringing out the game's lifespan and this adds to the tedium. Probably more enjoyable for fans, this game would be brilliant as a fan service but to the general, unenlightened gaming community, I would recommend a rental of this game before purchase, or you may be disappointed.
Sam has been unable to peel his bloodshot eyes and RSI-ridden wrists from the world of gaming since he was first introduced to it, like all good junkies, by his Grandad. From those early days of MegaDrive sweetness, bashing through the throngs of enemies on Shining Force II, his love of all things games has extended upwards and outwards onto a variety of platforms. You can either believe that spiel, or get the real scoop and know that his spaceship actually crashed here some years ago and he is currently incognito as a games writer for Console Monster.