US: 27 Jan 2009
Ever since his iconic turn in Pulp Fiction as the foul-mouthed, philosophizing gangster Jules, there’s been a small cottage industry of entertainment products designed around Samuel L. Jackson’s uncanny ability to deliver swear words with an equal mix of righteous fury and wisecracking slyness. Jackson’s jaunty jive is one of the few things that separated Die Hard 3 from all of the rest of the series’ explosion-obsessed sequels, and it propped up Snakes on a Plane as more than just a bottom of the barrel B-movie/Internet joke.
It could even be argued that Jackson’s swear word superpower hasn’t been exploited enough. The Star Wars prequels would have been vastly more entertaining if Mace Windu would have had lines like “The Republic ain’t gonna stand for this Sith bullshit. Let’s fuck ‘em up with the Force!”
Jackson’s name all over the box stood was part of the reason I was so excited to play Afro Samurai. I was totally unfamiliar with the Adult Swim cartoon it’s based on, but the idea of hacking up evil ninjas as a cigarette-smoking ‘70s blaxploitation-style East-Meets-West Coast badass voiced by Sam Jackson seemed like gaming gold.
Unfortunately, however, a great concept does not guarantee great execution, and while Sammy and the game’s art department hold up their part of the bargain, the rest of Afro Samurai could have used a bit more time in the garage.
One might think that a game named Afro Samurai would be a totally goofy parody, but that’s only half true. The game actually unfolds as a moody, violent revenge tale with dark comedic elements. As the title character Afro, you’re out to take down your father’s killer—the Number One. There’s something nonsensical in the plot about two headbands giving their wearers special powers but it isn’t completely explained. Most of what you need to know is that there are hundreds of bad guys and robots in the way of your quest and it’s your job to slice and dice them.
This would all get a little too self-serious if it wasn’t for Ninja-Ninja, a white-haired, impish character that can best be described as Samuel L. Jackson playing Samuel L. Jackson. How else can you explain lines like: “Damn, that girl put both the asses in assassin,” after you attack a female ninja, or “Goddamn, deja-muthafuckin-vu!” after a cutscene. It’s the right amount of levity delivered by the Ninja Master of Dirty Talk.
Slicing people’s legs, arms, and heads off and watching the blood spurt everywhere might also strike you as funny, of course, but that depends on your sense of humor. The game developers sure think brutal violence is hilarious.
At certain points in the game, Ninja-Ninja asks you to play “Body Part Poker”, where you must cut off specific appendages at the right moment to collect body part cards and win achievements. You can also get an achievement simply by spilling a set number of gallons of the blood of your opponents.
Cutting enemies to bits is accomplished much the same as in most games of this kind. Hitting buttons in different repetitive patterns unleashes combos with your sword, and gaining levels will grant you new abilities and combos. The action is nearly identical to that of Ninja Gaiden II and Devil May Cry except for the addition of the focus moves which allow you to slow down the action and cut through multiple opponents at once or deflect bullets with your sword. The major flaw with the combat is that button mashing combined with a healthy dose of horizontal slashes in focus mode is basically all you need to succeed for the whole game. The rest of the combos look cool, but are wholly unnecessary.
Speaking of looking good, the game’s cel-shaded art is spectacular. The environments, backdrops and character models drip with style and detail and there are plenty of split-screen and black and white cinemas to give Afro Samurai a distinct graphic novel feel.
Some people may feel disorientated by the total lack of heads-up display—there’s no life bar, no combo meter, no map—but I applaud the decision because it helps keep you immersed in the beautiful game world around you. In addition, the developers have employed little tricks to replace the HUD. Instead of a life meter or hearts, Afro’s uniform gets progressively bloodier when attacked, and a little medallion flashes when his focus meter is full.
Instead of a map, you get what I can only describe as the Samuel L. Jackson button. When hitting the D-Pad in a certain way, Ninja-Ninja pops up and shows Afro the way to go (though he often leaves you to your own devices at times when you really need him with comments like “Bitch, I ain’t your GPS!”).
There are plenty of other nagging problems with Afro Samurai. The platforming jump-to-this-platform-swing-on-this-pole sections range from mediocre to painful, and the annoying camera doesn’t help matters. You’ll find yourself babysitting the camera angle because it never seems to be in the right place at the right time.
Ultimately however, your enjoyment of Afro Samurai may come down to how much you like the Adult Swim cartoon series, bloody hack’n'slash action, and Samuel L. Jackson. Other gamers worried about the repetitive combat, short six to eight hours of gameplay, and lack of a coherent story should look elsewhere.