For those not in know about Afro Samurai, it was originally a manga that then got adapted into a cartoon, and features an assassin literally named Afro living in a sort-of future yet feudal Japan. Possibly inspired by Highlander, the story focuses on the number one assassin (originally Afro's father), who can only be challenged by the number two assassin. This naturally leads to all the other assassins wanting to kill number two so they can challenge number one.
Of course, Afro is the current number two. This straightforward setup provides obvious fertile ground for a videogame. A beat-'em-up (or in this case slash-'em-up) makes sense, but in this age of gaming, if you're going to make something that holds the player's attention, you've got to avoid the megalithic hurdle known as Button Mashing. You've got to provide something approaching the depth and variety of God of War, even if you don't have the budget for something so grandiose.
Afro Samurai has pretty much one twist to make it stand out: the Focus attacks, where you slow down time (yawn) and precisely aim slashes to dissect foes however you like (yay!). The entire game's cel-shaded, cross-hatched cartoon look is fantastic, and it all looks particularly slick when an enemy is floating through the air on slo-mo just before you slice him half. Or chop his feet off. Or his arms. Or his head. It's quite satisfying to get a particularly brutal Focus strike off, especially early on in the game.
Alas, the buzz cannot last with gimmicks. Sure, it's a cool gimmick, but it doesn't take long for it to get old, and then you've just got an unremarkable action game, except with serious usability issues. First, the atrocious camera. It spins in reverse to your inputs – press left to look right – and there's no way to change it to the intuitive way that 95% of action games do it. The camera also has a weird tendency to drift to an upward angle for no reason. The view is also too close to Afro. Everything you want in an action camera: farther back, higher up, intuitive, simple – is lacking. Basically you have to constantly babysit the camera, and even then, you're often attacked by enemies you can't see.
The second major usability issue is the glaring lack of information. Afro gains experience and levels, but XP gained per kill, and XP needed to level up isn't given. Quite far into the game it's revealed that performing a perfect slice between the eyes or through the neck gains Afro bonus XP. Gee, that would've been nice to know hours ago so we could have been trying for extra XP all that time.
When Afro levels up, he may gain a new move, or he may not. There's no way to know what it is in a simple way – the game tells you nothing. Instead, you have to pause, then scroll through the loooong lists of moves and try to figure out which move you just earned. “Hmm, did I have that move before? I don't remember. I guess that's new?” You can't even press up to quickly flip to the last entry in the list. Why did it have to be such a chore?
The lists of moves certainly aren't lacking in combos. Unfortunately, the game doesn't provide incentive to use them – Afro can get by just randomly slashing and then blocking occasionally, and the really long combos just make it take longer to kill enemies, because almost every enemy can be killed with a single Focus attack. Why hit a guy fifteen times when he can be killed in a fraction of the time? On top of that, the Focus attacks gain more XP, so you're encouraged to use them as often as possible.
Another major frustration is the wildly winging difficulty. Most of the game is not challenging at all, with hundreds of the same clones providing repetitive fodder, and even most of the bosses are easily overcome by simply waiting to block their attacks and then counterattacking. Then out of the blue a boss with a flamethrower shows up, and it's so frustrating we were cursing at the TV. Now, difficulty based on fairness if fine; we don't mind losing to what feels fair. But this boss felt horribly cheap – often his fire would obscure the camera completely (there's that ugly head rearing again), and the window to attack him between fire bursts was extremely short.
Immediately after the hair-ripping flamethrower boss, we came to a place where our helpful and potentially imaginary sidekick Ninja Ninja informed us, “Cut the ropes!” Indeed a fat juicy rope twinkled like every other interactive object that came before. We approached, we hacked, we slashed, we jumped and slashed. We used Focus and did perfect vertical slice... and watched our sword bounce of the invulnerable rope. All this time, ol' Ninja Ninja yelled over and over: “Cut the ropes!” After literally five minutes of this, we got at a weird angle deep under the rope (not the angle from which you initially approach) and managed to cut the rope. “Wha?”
A perfect example of how Afro Samurai seems to have gone through zero usability testing. Nobody mentioned the invulnerable rope? Everyone said the camera was perfect? Scrolling through the lists for new moves was hunky-dory? Oh, right, the manual can take care of that! Indeed, the manual does explain so much that the game can't be bothered with. Oh wait – the manual's listed control for Dash is wrong. Good thing the only source of useful information on the game is trustworthy.
It’s really too bad that Afro Samurai is bogged down by nagging annoyances, because the core game is actually decent, if not spectacular. If it had a healthy dose of polish it would be a solid rental (but not full-price purchase). As of now, it could still scrape by on a rental for fervent fans of the show or beat-‘em-ups in general – just be ready to wade through a morass of irritations.
Jan 27, 2009