If I wasn't reviewing Afro Samurai, fighting Brother 6 would have been the point where I threw the controller at the floor, screamed an obscenity, and sold the game back to GameStop. Packing a flamethrower and three separate phases to the fight, Brother 6's battle is the exact moment when Afro Samurai's super-slick visuals, awesome soundtrack, and fuzzy feeling you get from slicing bad guys in half stopped mattering to me and every one of the game's numerous flaws came together to derail the experience.
That sucks because Afro Samurai can actually be a lot of fun at times.
The story told in Afro Samurai isn't a sequel to the popular anime but more of a re-imagining of the origin we all know and love. As a child, Afro witnesses the murder of his father -- a badass swordsman -- in a duel for the No. 1 headband, which is basically the symbol of the greatest fighter on the planet. From there, Afro focuses on getting the No. 2 headband and avenging his father. On this journey, he'll make friends, make love, and make a whole lot of people die thanks to his trusty katana. The story itself is solid and intriguing, and it makes a somewhat decent appearance in the game, although if you have never seen the show, the emotional impact and the finer points of the story will be lost on you. Thankfully, Samuel L. Jackson is on hand to voice Afro and his insane sidekick Ninja Ninja.
Black, white, and red all over.
All of that aside, Afro Samurai is a beat'em up if I've ever seen one. With sword in hand, you'll take control of Afro and be left to govern him with a simple button setup -- there's a light attack, heavy attack, jump, and block button. Now, there are combos to learn if you like, but there's really no reason to do so -- I made it through the whole game without ever having to tap Select and check the move list; simply alternating your attacks and mashing buttons gets you where you need to be. Usually, I condemn button mashers, but I can't do that here because it's just too damn fun in Afro Samurai.
See, the Afro Samurai anime is a pretty bloody affair. Afro's constantly cutting limbs off and watching as geysers of blood spurt into the air, and thanks to Surge and Namco Bandai embracing the Mature rating, this is carried over to the videogame. When you're slashing through a swarm of enemies, their blood is getting kicked onto the screen. When you slice someone's feet off, the enemy will fall on his or her back and kick the stumps in the air as blood pours out. When you slice a dude's head in half, the detached part falls to the ground so you can see the goo inside. Sure, you're just pounding buttons, but the satisfaction you feel when you run your blade through a stubborn, glowing red enemy -- there's no HUD in this game so the only way to know if you or an enemy is injured is by watching for a red glow around the body -- is the stuff that little kids' nightmares are made of.
All of this bloody, bloody violence is amplified by Focus. As you're battling the thugs dumb enough to get in your way, you will no doubt notice a pendant hanging from our samurai's neck that grows brighter as you kill. This is your Focus reservoir. If you've got some juice in the tank -- i.e. it doesn't have a black aura around it -- you can slow down time so that you can deliver some big screen-worthy blows in black and white. With L1 held down, you'll slow time and be able to either slice horizontally or vertically. To get the most out of the slices, you'll need to hold the button down until the shimmer on your blade reaches the peak so that your attack can cut through the enemy in one blow. This setup is great for when you've whittled the crowd of bad guys down to the final few. Meanwhile, tapping L2 with a full Focus amulet kicks you into Overfocus. Here, you'll completely drain the pendant but be able to rush around the screen for a short period of time killing each enemy with one normal slice.
Sure, slicing people in half and watching torso-less bodies drop to the floor is awesome, but what makes all of that even better is the ability to aim your swing. While you wait for the shine to get to the optimal spot on your sword, you can use the joystick to move a white line on the enemy up/down or left/right depending on your swing angle. This means you can lop off whatever appendage you desire, and it also makes the mini-game Body-Part Poker possible. See, sometimes you'll be fighting and catch a glimpse of Ninja Ninja chilling on the ground. If you walk over to him, he'll announce the start of Body-Part Poker. Three cards will pop up face down in the bottom left corner of your screen, and it'll be up to you to flip them over. Lop off an arm and one of the cards will flip over showing an arm. Lop off the head or legs and those cards will flip over. You're trying to assemble different sets of cards for different power-ups such as extra health, Focus juice, and experience points.
Yeah, Afro Samurai has experience points, but there's really not much to tell you about them. Apparently, you're gaining these points as you wipe the floor with all the bad guys and when you level up, you get more health, Focus, or combos. As I said before, I never used the combos, so other than the "Level Up" screen popping up every now and again, I wasn't even aware of these changes. Without a HUD and without any way to check what level I'm currently at, I could care less about XP. In fact, the game is a linear story, so it's not like you need to worry about leveling up to take on a boss -- it all happens naturally.
And with that, the shortcomings of Afro Samurai begin to creep in. You can't track your XP; you can't modify the camera, sound, and other options from the in-game start screen; the story feels disjointed; you're seeing the same handful of enemies over and over again; the game doesn't have Trophies; and although the game tracks how many foes you've beheaded and how many gallons of blood you've spilt, you can only view these stats by quitting your game and checking them at the main menu. One of the most intriguing issues I have with how this game is presented has to do with its load screens. Rather than have you stare at a still image or whatever, Afro Samurai uses these spots between segments to have a flashback. Usually it's Otsuru telling Jinno some fact about bears, and it always ends with a closeup on Afro's eyes snapping open as Ninja Ninja yells for him. It's a nifty idea, but the loads and the scenes aren't timed right -- often Otsuru would get cut off midsentence. Sure, you could argue that Ninja Ninja is just interrupting the memory, but there's an awkward pause between the flashback and the yelling that screws that idea up. Plus, there aren't enough of these flashbacks to keep the element fresh. By the time I was done with the game, I was sick of hearing about how long a bear can hold its breath.
Another weird issue is the sound in Afro Samurai. On one hand you have some excellent voice work by Samuel L. Jackson, but on the other hand, the world seems oddly empty. You'll be fighting people, and there won't be sound effects. When I was fighting Brother 6, he'd stop and laugh but there wouldn't be any sound. When I was running through levels, it was super-quiet. On one hand, the music inspired by the RZA is phenomenal and few experiences in the game can beat Afro walking around in slow motion slicing up a series of baddies with some lyrical mayhem as a backdrop, but on the other hand, there's only a few tracks in the game and they repeat pretty quickly. Like most of this title -- including the graphics that look slick but suffer from slowdown when the game starts showing action from multiple angles -- the sound is a mixed bag.
Still, these are minor problems. The real issues -- the issues that tripped this game up and kept if from getting Greg Miller's seal of approval -- come down to the camera, the platforming, and the bosses.
The camera… dear God, the camera. In this game, you'll be screaming around environments and stabbing everything that moves. You'd think that Surge would give you a solid camera that provides a great vantage point for Afro, but that's not the case. The camera barely follows our hero, and it's up to your right stick to keep it focused on the action. You'll kick on Overfocus, start flying around the room, and quickly lose sight of whom you are fighting. Rather than have the camera center on Afro when he blocks -- a move many brawling games have adopted -- Surge left the "center camera" button assigned to R3. That's right; if you want to center the camera in this fast and furious button masher, you have to take your thumb off the killing commands and click the right stick. Needless to say, this leaves you open to attack and is a major headache when you're dealing with the game's insistence on pouring enemy after enemy into your environment. Worse, for non-inverted folks like myself, is that swinging the camera left or right is permanently inverted in Afro Samurai. Sure, from the main menu -- again, you can't modify any of your options from the in-game start menu, which can be a huge bitch since you can't just save anywhere you want -- you can invert or uninvert the up/down option, but there's no help for left/right.
Knock, knock -- Afro's home.
Out of my three major complaints, the crappy platforming in Afro Samurai is by far the least severe. In fact, if you don't stick it out until the end of the game, you probably wouldn't even know it existed. Once you've made it to the Empty Seven's hideout, you're going to have to ascend a series of stone platforms, shafts, and poles jetting out of walls. Up until this point, Afro's only had to do the Mario-leap between walls a few times, Price of Persia wall run here and there, and spring from poles once or twice. This is the first extended section of these devices being put together, and it stinks. I was wall running into head-on collisions with enemies, Afro was pulling himself onto the bars and then leaping off in the wrong direction, and I would wall-hop up to the very top of a structure only to have Afro's foot get caught on the uppermost ledge and then have to watch the character fall all the way to the floor. Sometimes, I'd land on a platform and hop off it only to die, come back to said platform, and have it crumble under my foot as soon as I landed on it. Other times, I'd fall to my death from one of the uppermost ledges and be forced to continue from a lower ledge I passed on my way to becoming floor-pizza rather than the checkpoint right before the higher jump. When you're this close to the end of a game, the last thing you want to do is slow to a snail's pace and retry the same lame jump over and over again.
And with that, we're back to the where we began -- Brother 6's lame boss battle. It's important to point out something here: I like difficult bosses. Please don't think that anything I'm about to say stems from the bosses being too hard; all of these comments are about the bosses being cheap and dumb. See, every boss has to be beaten three times in the same fight. Each round, the boss has a different attack in his repertoire. With that first Brother 6 battle, it's all about his flamethrower. In the beginning, the thrower just spews fire that you have to run around avoiding before coming in for the strike. The second section has Brother 6 shooting a gigantic fireball at you and creating a ring of fire around his feet. The third and final phase adds a three in a row version of the flaming circle. This entire battle is bullcrap. Since the camera is all over the place, it's next to impossible to know how much safe space you have between Afro and the flamethrower's spew. When Brother 6 shoots the fireball, the goddamn thing somehow follows you and hits you most of the time. When you rush up and attack the guy, he'll continue his melee animation even as you do damage, and if he's got both fists on the ground and you land on them, it'll knock you on your ass. I can't tell you the number of times I'd get burnt fighting the camera and get caught against the environment so that as soon as I got up Brother 6 could light me up again. Did I mention that there are no checkpoints between these phases? If you die from a triple ground blast in the last tier, you have to do it all over again.
So frustrating. I think I screamed things that Ryan Clements might never recover from.
Worse is the final battle (obviously, spoilers ahead). Just like the anime, Afro's story comes down to a battle with the wearer of the No. 1 headband, Justice. This battle is the definition of both a "cheap boss battle" and a "lame boss battle." When the fight begins, Justice just shoots from the center of the environment. You can't bounce these bullets back at your foe using Focus like every other fight against a gun-totter, so you have to run around the level using trees as cover so that you can get close enough to stab the opponent. Even then, the bad guy can juke left or right and start shooting you (which pushes you way back) again. In the end, I ended up using the poor hit detection of the game and swinging my sword through trees to kill the bad guy. After a brain-dead second phase, I went back to swinging my sword through the tree to finish the cheap shot-taking boss. This wasn't fun. This wasn't a suitable end to the game.
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