Sunday, June 14, 2009

Review: Afro Samurai

Namco Bandai Games

PS3, Xbox 360

If part of the review process involved adding subtitles to games, I’d probably settle on something like Afro Samurai: Lost in Adaptation. (Unfortunately I was beaten to the punch by the slightly more entertaining Afro Samurai: I've Had It With These [expletive deleted] Samurais On My [expletive deleted] ‘Fro!) Year-old memes aside, it’s pretty clear that the transition from anime series to video game hasn’t been terribly kind to Afro Samurai. It’s uncommon for a slavish reproduction of any form of media to pay off, but this game could have benefited from slightly more cribbing from – and less free interpretation of – the original series. Not to say that the charm of the manga and the anime isn’t present in spades in the IP’s third major outing, but for all of the effort put into reincarnating the storyline, the beat-em-up game suffers from minor misteps.

Cell-shaded and coloured with the same muted tones of the anime series, the game plays like an extended episode – although at roughly six hours, it clocks in at three times the total length of the series. And for all of that time to expound on just what the hell is going on, Afro Samurai still doesn’t get the story across. Moreover, while it has polish in spades and Samuel L. Jackson returning to the fold, portraying both the kick-ass Afro and his constantly swearing sidekick Ninja Ninja, the game soon wears thin. Now, I’m not saying I wouldn’t pay through the nose just to listen to Sam Jackson talk to himself for six hours, but there’s a limit to how much of the same hack, slash, rinse and repeat I can put up with.

While you gain experience throughout the game and learn new moves, you don’t need them. There isn’t a boss that cannot be beaten with repeated taps on the heavy attack button, occasionally interrupted with a judicious block-and-evade combo. Killing enough of the cookie-cutter enemies (among them assassins, bulky guys with clubs and half-naked stripper-ninjas) gains focus, which can be spent in chunks to slow down time, or blown all at once to engage in a one-hit-kill spree to clear large crowds of enemies. The game plan is set in the first battle scene, and in contrast to the poorly explained and ever-changing plot, it stays constant throughout.

RZA’s influence, so vital to the anime series, is back in force on the beats, even if he couldn’t be personally involved in the process. Too busy to score the game himself, RZA offered up his notes and samples to composer and producer Howard Drossin.

The battles are highly stylised, and it sure is fun to slice and dice in time with the music, dismembering waves of enemies in new and interesting ways. And for a while, the combat is utterly brilliant – RZA’s melding of C-movie samples, soul tracks, Wu-era beats and laconic raps is the most complementary music possible for the game. Until the point where, through my own ineptitude and unwillingness to spam the heavy attack button, the battle lasts just a little longer than anyone had planned, and there’s a pause. Silence. And the same track starts up again, and momentarily jolted from your violent reverie, you continue.

So here’s the kicker: players can’t draw out the intensely enjoyable combat, aiming for enemies’ heads and thrilling in the cinematic qualities of the slow-mo finishing moves, without experiencing a little hiccup that says two things; first, an inference on your lack of skill, that you are remiss for not having killed everything on screen; and second, that the durée of combat is shattered, and is no longer the graceful, rhythmic and interactive moment-as-continuum that it should have been. All of which is to say that lacking the simple addition of a bridge or looping track, enjoyment can go downhill very quickly.

All in all, Afro Samurai is a collection of opposing statements, a rebuttal of its own marketing bulletpoints. The game apes the cinematic sense of the anime, but the camera can be poorly integrated at times; it uses RZA’s music to great effect in battles, until the end of each track; and while the epic story is present, it’s shifted almost beyond recognition. There’s little explanation as to whether you’re in the game’s present, or playing through a flashback scene, which adds to its disconnect. This one’s strictly for fans of RZA, afro-toting and cigarette-chomping martial artists, Samuel L. Jackson saying motherfucker, and the inevitable Venn diagram intersection of the three.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

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