Hairstyles and Hapkido

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To most people, the words “Afro Samurai” probably conjure up more confusion than familiarity. Given the context of Japanese history, this is understandable.

That confusion also won’t go away if you decide to check out the anime, which the game is based on, either. Afro regularly encounters crazed religious cultists packing RPGs and flamethrowers as he wanders the feudal Japanese countryside backed by beats from the RZA of Wu-Tang fame.

The game adaptation of Afro Samurai is a loose and somewhat expanded retelling of the anime, which is itself a classic revenge tale, albeit one that’s tailored in the trappings of hip-hop culture (sort of). The plot revolves around the possession of the legendary Number Two and Number One headbands, held by the greatest fighters in the world, and the latter of which is thought to possess godlike power.

As a kid, Afro watches in horror as his dad, the so-called Number One, is beheaded by Justice, a freakish gunslinger, who is also the Number Two. Afro the becomes obsessed with killing Justice, taking the Number One from him and thus avenging his father’s death.

Although I’m usually wary of film/television-to-game adaptations, right off the bat it’s clear that SURGE did a bang-up job capturing the experience of the anime.

All of the game’s principal voice cast is present, with Samuel L. Jackson taking lead vocals as the monosyllabic Afro and Ninja Ninja, his crazed, white-fro sporting sidekick. The stylized graphics take the form of beautiful crosshatched cel-shading. The RZA personally oversaw all music that went into the game, making this one undeniably slick package.

Given Afro Samurai’s mature rating and the anime’s near obscene-level of gratuitous violence, it was easy to expect a lot from this would-be hack-and-slasher. Sure enough, within the first few minutes of the game, you’ve already spilled a couple buckets worth of blood.

Combat is relatively simple: Afro has a weak and a strong katana attack, some basic martial arts and a block. Afro gains experience from the enemies killed (although strangely, there’s no record of this anywhere—not even a status screen), which in turn lead to more and varied combos and “focus” moves.

This is all good, but my initial impressions were that the game still didn’t measure up to the anime’s over-the-top violence.

It wasn’t until a few hours into the game that I changed my mind, when I was forced to master Afro’s perfect slices to pass a series of rope-related obstacles. Up until that point, my track record for severing limbs from baddies wasn’t that great.

However, after having to perfect the perfect slice, Afro Samurai revealed itself as what it truly is: a near-non-stop display of blood spray and orgiastic gore. Set to the game’s killer hip-hop soundtrack, the combat, while occasionally floaty, suddenly became an opera of bloodletting.

After that, I stopped scratching my head over the game’s alleged ability to cut enemies in nearly any way.

Sick of decapitations and belly slices? Sweep that ninja into the air and cut off his arms. Tired of that pesky Ronin blocking your advances? Wait ’til his guard his down, then slash him down the middle like a ripe melon.

Hell, you can even chop off the tip of an enemy’s head, revealing the brain matter in his skull. Yeesh.

Afro Samurai even allows a little dark humor at the expense of its carnage. Every so often Ninja Ninja will pop up on the screen and introduce a hand of “body part poker,” in which accumulated arms, legs and heads count for high cards. Cut off enough limbs and heads to make a decent hand and you’ll be rewarded with additional experience and power-ups.

As Afro’s comic foil, Ninja Ninja more often than not steals the spotlight. Sam Jackson’s performance in the anime was stellar, but found Ninja Ninja’s personality to be somewhat undefined.

This isn’t the case here. In the game, Ninja Ninja is loud, crass and often damned funny, spouting off wisecracks, profanity and, uh, tasteless jokes left and right (in addition to acting as in-game compass for Afro).

“If every woman I stuck my dick in died a few hours later, I’d put that shit on my resume! Ha-ha! Now, would that go under ‘skills’ … or ‘other interests?'” he jokes to Afro, after the titular samurai’s one-night stand with a gorgeous assassin.

There’s no question that Ninja Ninja might be a bastard, but he provides some much needed contrast and humor from Afro’s tragic underpinnings. Needless to say, Jackson really steals the show here.

The rest of the vocal work is equally strong, both from Jackson and the rest of the cast, particularly Ron Perlman, the voice of Justice. The soundtrack is great too—the RZA might not have done it all himself, but he did contribute a few tracks for the game, alongside Wu-Tanger Method Man and others.

As much fun as it is, Afro Samurai is admittedly a little rough around the edges.

Much of the sound is kind of wonky. I had to slightly turn down the vocals and music in order to really hear the sound effects, and some voice samples seem to be missing from the game. There’s also some rudimentary platforming, which is hit-or-miss.

The game’s loading screens, which give flashbacks to Afro’s past, often cut off mid-sentence, and sometimes the story feels disjointed, with some parts of the storyline glossed over.

However, this review should make it obvious that the positives outweigh the negatives. (Justice’s fatalist speech on free will and a free-falling, mid-air battle against an android doppelganger are particularly great.)

If you can get past its minor shortcomings, Afro Samurai is a hell of a ride, while it lasts.

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