You kids don’t know how easy you have it. Back in the days when the NES was new and Jack Neely was writing Secret Right Now columns on a kerosene-powered printing press, we (the other kids and I, not Jack) had to walk nine miles in the snow to the nearest Kmart to pick up officially licensed video-game versions of obscure cartoon adventures.
Each and every one of those games was unadulterated crap, let me tell you, but they were all we had. We played every one of those poorly coded monstrosities until the 72-pin connectors were worn down to gritty stubs, and by God we loved them.
Samuel L. Jackson wants us to believe that Afro Samurai is more than one of those dime-a-dozen B-level franchise cash cows, and part of me wants to believe him. Of course, only half of that is because I like it when a standout title raises the bar in a previously mediocre genre—the other half being because Sam Jackson scares the bejeezus out of me—but that’s beside the point.
Jackson’s enthusiasm, though it remains a constant thread in everything he touches regardless of its quality, is not entirely without base. Afro Samurai is a mediocre, repetitive slash-’em-up redeemed only by the stylistic efforts of its creators and the fact that it contains no glaring game-breaking errors. For a run-of-the-mill adaptation, this is high praise indeed.
Jackson’s contributions to the game were considerable—he voices both the titular Afro and his quasi-imaginary friend Ninja Ninja—but they aren’t the auditory heart and soul of Afro Samurai. For that, turn to the game’s score, a light feudal hip-hop arrangement featuring tracks by the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, who also scored the English dub of the Afro Samurai anime and receives music director credits for the game. As game soundtracks go, it’s triumphant.
And it looks stylish. Hell, Afro Samurai is hot. Strictly speaking, it’s not the most taxing of games graphically; cel-shaded games rarely are. But the attention paid to the right kind of visual detail makes Afro Samurai one of the few games to date that can, for instance, transition from cutscene to gameplay seamlessly.
Speaking of cut scenes (and yes, I hate myself for that), let’s talk about combat! If you’ve played any of the last few thousand third-person action games, you’ve played Afro Samurai. The only notable addition to the “two buttons, 700 combos” school of gameplay is the laser-guided precision of Afro’s sword. Where practically every other game in modern history is some variation of Schrodinger’s Blade, Afro’s fighting style actually draws enough from such outlandish notions as biology and physics to come to the conclusion that Afro’s sword strokes should leave wounds where they impact Afro’s targets.
Unfortunately, these elements add up to maybe a few hours of pure goat-throwing entertainment. Once that buzz wears off, you start to realize that Afro Samurai was only created to be stylish, and that will only carry interest so far. What a game looks like is only a promise; how a game plays is what that promise should deliver. Afro Samurai is long on the former and short on the latter.
It’s painstakingly crafted but poorly built, and when code and style collide, Afro Samurai suffers. When Afro-friendly work-arounds can be implemented, such as the environmental cues that signal Afro’s impending demise or the blood spatters that signal combos building, the game’s disavowal of all things not Afro Samurai is a nice touch. When they can’t, or when they overlap with its other problems (such as the one-two punch of no map and annoying level design or the infuriating camera/inconsistent difficulty curve/button-mashing mechanics combo), Afro Samurai becomes a pretty thing to watch while becoming frustrated by playing Afro Samurai.
Its biggest problem is that at for all its audio-visual bombast, it could have been released two console generations ago. It relies too heavily on the game’s much-lauded polish to carry it when its tired level designs and bland combat won’t. Other franchises get by with such formulaic core design through a combination of gimmick-heavy gameplay and fanboy rabidity; while Afro Samurai isn’t horrible for trying to cultivate a similar audience with similar tricks, it won’t be anything more than a decent spin-off game by doing so.