Afro Samurai Review: Hip Hop Hack and Slash

Hip-hop sensibilities and anime style clash in Afro Samurai, a hack and slash brawler based on the cult-hit animated television series.

Afro Samurai follows the story of Afro, a samurai on a life-long quest to avenge his father's death, set against the backdrop of a futuristic feudal Japan, where traditional Japanese sensibilities mingle with hip-hop culture. The game loosely follows the storyline from the animated series, following the Samuel L. Jackson-voiced Afro as he travels the land encountering interesting new people, generally killing them in spectacularly bloody fashion.

Afro Samurai is Namco Bandai's first release under their Surge publishing brand, geared at releasing games that appeal to the western world's particular palette. Is Afro Samurai a game fit to launch a new label?

Loved
A Work of Art: By far the most striking aspect of Afro Samurai is the art style. A combination of water-brushed backdrops and cross-hatched cel-shading give the game a very unique and stylized look that is hard to covey in words. In a way it reminds me of the hand-painted look of Capcom's Okami, albeit a darker, grittier version.

Slice and Dice: Combat in Afro Samurai is quite visceral and highly satisfying, at least once you put aside the notion that this is just a generic hack and slash title. Landing punches, light attacks, and strong attacks builds up your focus meter, which allows you to perform focus moves. Time slows to a crawl, the screen turns white, and if you time it just right you wind up slicing through whatever is in the path of your sword, be it arm, leg, head, or torso. Lining up multiple enemies for a wide-sweeping focus attack is as satisfying as anything I've experienced in the genre.

The Got-Damned Voice Acting: The excellent voice cast from the anime returns for the video game adaptation, with stellar performances from Kelly Hu, Ron Perlman, and - of course - Samuel L. Jackson. As the voice of Afro's "traveling companion" Ninja Ninja, Jackson delivers some of the raunchiest dialogue I've ever heard, and he delivers it damn well. Just make sure you don't play it around anyone's mother, or things could get really awkward.

A Little Decapitating Music: If the anime Samurai Champloo taught me anything, its that hip hop music and samurai swords go together inexplicably well. I often found myself moving along to the music as I played (I would never call it dancing). Where the soundtrack truly shines is during the game's big set-piece battles, where the rhythm of the background music almost seems to guide your every move.

Hated
Slaughter, Rinse, Repeat: As entertaining as the combat in Afro Samurai is, repetition does set in from time to time, particularly in portions of the game where you kill enemy after enemy, desperately hoping that the next one is the last and you can move on. As frustrating as that can be, you'll also find yourself in areas where you wish enemies would just pop up to make things a little bit more interesting. For a game that focuses on the rhythm and flow of combat, the enemy flow can be annoyingly inconsistent.

Cheap-Ass Boss Fights: Boss battles in Afro Samurai have two settings - ridiculously easy or throw your controller at the screen shouting obscenities difficult. Things start off simple, with Afro needing only to block until he can get a few slices in, but soon you'll find yourself facing the flamethrower guy, also known as the f***ing flamethrower bastard. While similar games will at least hint at the strategy needed to take down a more difficult boss, Afro Samurai gets you used to fighting one way and then hits you with a guy you can't fight that way.

Platforming Done Wrong: The developmental focus for Afro Samurai was clearly the combat, as the platforming feels as if it were thrown together at the last minute, simply to provide a break in the action. The movement controls that flow so well during battle don't work nearly as well when trying to clear a jump or navigate some of the game's more labyrinthine levels, and the aforementioned camera issues just make it worse.

Not being all that familiar with the source material, I began playing Afro Samurai expecting to experience yet another sub-par anime tie-in that injected characters from the show into as basic a game as the developer possibly could in order to make a quick buck. I was pleasantly surprised to discover a beautifully rendered game with an involving storyline and compelling characters, all wrapped around a fighting engine that is completely satisfying, both in complexity and sheer bloody brutality. At times its pacing falters and frustration begins to set in, but then the fighting music kicks in and suddenly it's all worth it.

If you can manage to slice your way past the game's more pressing problems, you'll find that Afro Samurai has more than enough style and substance to make up for its shortcomings, delivering a solid, visceral hack and slash experience that's sure to satisfy the violent psychopath lurking in all of us.

Afro Samurai was developed by Namco Bandai and published by Surge for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. It was released on January 27th, for $60. Played PlayStation 3 version to completion.

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