Across the generations, every platform has catered to a few titles that fall into the “beat 'em up” or “hack-and-slash” genre—off the top of our heads we can name a couple: Kung Fu Master (NES) and Streets of Rage (Genesis) . Often times, these games use successive levels of pure violence as the mode of resolution to a story's conflict. Though timeless, the genre has had to find ways to evolve. By going from two-dimensional, to three-dimensional; from points-based, to style-focused; and from simple, raw punch-kick and one-two button-mashing, to lengthy strings of complex combinations across a possible 8 buttons, “beat 'em up” games have kept their place in our consoles.
Namco Bandai's 2009 premier, Afro Samurai, finds itself falling into the aforementioned category as the Pacific company's Western label, Surge, makes its debut with the re-imaging of the popular manga and anime series of the same name. Those unfamiliar with the plight of Afro will experience a condensed, non-canon version of his pursuit for the Number One headband. While simple in its gameplay, Afro Samurai offers up style and rhythm with gorgeously gory visuals and music that seems to embody the tempo of the action, while fitting in with the futuristic, feudal Japan environment. Ultimately, however, though compelling in its twist on visuals and audio mixes, Afro Samurai fails to capture true novelty with missed opportunities and too much reliance on limb-splitting action.
Central to the story of Afro Samurai (both the name of the game and our anti-hero) is his lifelong goal of vengeance for the slayer of his father, ironically named: Justice. In this world, warriors vie for coveted headbands, said to bestow godly powers to those who posses them; and it was none other than Afro's father who was the Number One. As Justice lops off Afro senior's head and assumes the rank of the Number One, it is Afro whom Justice invites to challenge him later in life to avenge his father's death.
In short, the game is Afro's quest to find the Number One, Justice—a simple story. However, the way by which Afro's story is told through the game becomes too choppy as it tries to fit so much into an 8-hour experience; so much so that it's only after the game is done that it makes any sense, and even then the “ah-ha” moment avoids some of the ancillary story lines which encompass Afro's journey. By trying to fit so much into the game, narratively, a clear plot has all but escaped it, leaving a simple-minded experience of running around and killing those who happen to be in your way.
With a story that's hazy and unclear for those who can't call themselves hardcore Afro fans, there's still plenty of action that would even make Ryu Hayabusa happy. The game's main selling point is Afro's ability to slow down time and manipulate the slicing angle of his katana, which can result in his enemies missing everything from their heads to fingers; wherever you choose to cut, that part of your foe will be separated from the rest of him(or her)self. The bloodletting mechanic has been expertly instituted here as the player always feels in control of the brutality, and even though you're likely to see the same enemies loosing the same limbs, in the same way more than once, slicing and dicing almost never feels pre-canned.
Unfortunately, it's the game's engaging violence, one of its biggest strengths, that contributes to some of its less-than-thrilling reception. Though the action is intense and brutal, it gets repetitive and boring. Once the awe of watching multiple bodies fly apart from one swipe of Afro's katana wares away, you begin to realize that all you're doing is going from one group of bad guys to the next, fighting a handful of different character types. Also, the fighting itself seems less involved than using a couple of standby combinations, as the enemy AI is more brutish than clever. Difficulty comes in by being overwhelmed by larger numbers of baddies, and not by skilled swordsmen--except for Kuma, maybe.
A leveling system gives you incentive to string together punishing combos as specific moves reward you additional experience points, but there's little to indicate how far along you are in your mastery past a page of a limited number of unlockable combos and an on-screen message that pops up when you've gained a level.
What should be clear is that repetitious fighting, coupled with some bland platforming that's light on the wall-climbing, doesn't necessarily make the game an unbearable labor in couch time—it's just that it's disappointing, especially when the game bleeds style both visually and aurally. Though Wu-Tang front-runner, RZA, personally contributed less to the game than the series, his direction has led to a soundtrack that crests at just the right moments with lyrical and rhythmic badassery. Yet, even with a remix of an old Sly favorite, distinct samplings, and a few Afro raps, it's hard to avoid noticing when the tracks reach the end of their loop and start anew.
It may not fair, but with such an obvious focus on the game's audio direction, it would have been nice to see a little bit more done with it in terms gameplay—Why not set up some sort of flow element for fights, where you time Afro's strikes to the beat and rhythm of your accompanying lyricist? Essentially, with such stylized visuals coming from art direction that's almost ripped from a manga comic book, and music that fits seamlessly with in-game contexts (aside from the breaks in the loop), it's a shame to see so little done with the core gameplay; even the Focus abilities are under-utilized with only a few boss battles requiring you to use them, and only one or two instances throughout the levels where they're needed.
A final nitpick is the stale, lifeless environment. Besides a couple of breakable objects in the first couple of levels, there's little to interact with as you cut your way through enemies. True, the framerate may be pretty stable except for a few instances, but the lack of interaction with the stages make the game feel a bit claustrophobic; there's no illusion of linearity here.
As a condensed version of the anime, hardcore fans may walkaway from Afro Samurai with mixed emotions, while the full-fledged newbie will most likely be somewhat pleased...and accompanied by a curious case of bloodlust. Though the game may have its shortcomings with an overemphasis on fighting and lack of puzzle elements, cut-and-paste story editing, a fairly limited combo list and nonexistent extra modes of play; gruesomely satisfying limb-lopping action, an album-worthy soundtrack, comic book art style, and superb voice acting (minus the over-used death threats from your enemies) from the show's cast, all combine for an experience that may leave you scratching your head as to why exactly you're killing so many people on either console—but it's completely worth a run through at least once if you're a fan of over-the-top violence in the name of revenge.
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