Crispy Gamer

Afro Samurai (Xbox 360)

This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3 and tested on the Xbox 360. No notable performance or video differences were noted. The PlayStation 3 edition doesn't support Trophies.

So, as far as I could figure, I (as Afro Samurai) was supposed to swat the missile back at the guy firing it at me. I knew such a move existed for bullets, but it wasn't working here. I could use Focus to dodge the artillery until the cows came home. But, clues as to how I could mount any kind of offense and proceed in the game were not forthcoming. And scanning the environment for clues just drove home how terrible the camera is in Afro Samurai.

This bottleneck sums up the frustrating paradox of Afro Samurai: It looks cool, and encourages you to do cool things, but the tools you're given to perform said coolness are flawed and faulty.

Afro Samurai for Xbox 360 review
Sure look bad-ass, don't he? Too bad the game makes the player feel like a spaz, then.

The game's pedigree drips with geek cred. Afro Samurai tells the tale of a lone samurai trying to avenge his father's death by a gunman named Justice. Afro's father wore the No. 1 headband, a talisman that marked him as the greatest warrior who could only be challenged by the No. 2 wearer. After Afro earns the No. 2 headband in a tragic fight, he searches the land to find Justice and vengeance.

This lore first appeared in a manga by Takashi Okazaki, then jumped to television as an animated mini-series on Spike TV in 2007. Samuel L. Jackson reprises his roles -- as both Afro and the trash-talking sidekick Ninja Ninja -- as do Ron Perlman and Kelly Hu. The game encapsulates the story told in the mini-series, letting players roam through the futuristic yet feudal Japanese setting.

You'll work your way through Afro's quest, hacking and slashing waves of enemies. There are mild puzzle-solving and some platforming elements, but this game bears no pretensions about being anything other than a button-masher. Don't bother looking at the combo list. Trying to nail the specific moves separates you from the groove of battle. Focus, the game's Bullet Time effect, allows you to aim your swing, and the Body Part Poker mini-game lets you perform real-time precision slicing. Body Part Poker is easy, and makes it fun to quickly level up Afro's abilities. But you never really know when those upgrades are going to happen, and they bear little effect on your play style.

Afro Samurai for Xbox 360 review
You get a free salad and soft drink with your order of samurai leg, sir.

Afro has an odd, minimalist design. There's no heads-up display, and the game delivers information visually, through camera fly-bys, rather than textually. It mostly works, but it would be better if the camera weren't so twitchy, and the collision detection weren't so iffy. And it tends to break down completely during the boss fights, like the one I began with.

The cel-shaded look -- textured with scratchy pencil lines and animated in punchy, syncopated fashion -- is the main draw of Afro Samurai. The proceedings sport the show's dark, hardscrabble vibe. Loading screens pepper bits of backstory, like the dismembered head of Afro's father sputtering "Avenge me." Like the show, the Namco release seems determined to channel the energy of old-school Shaw Brothers kung-fu flicks: Bizarre bosses, the maybe-magical headbands that the major players obsess over; and topless, tattooed stripper-assassins all bear the perfect B-movie experience. Your enemies spit obscenities as geysers of blood announce their painful deaths.

On top of that, you get beats by Wu-Tang Clan chief architect the RZA intertwined with Samuel L. Jackson's excellent moody and hyperbolic voice work. As executed by Surge -- Namco Bandai's label dedicated to Western gamers -- Afro Samurai's presentation sets the tone for a gleefully violent experience.

Afro Samurai for Xbox 360 review
How do you know the guy in the bear mask doesn't care if he lives or dies? Nope, not the fact that he's fighting Afro. It's the cigarette.

But as good as the distinctive art style and sound design are, the repetitive fights against faceless swordsmen and annoying sequences of spawning enemies gets old quickly. Style doesn't win out over substance: The egregious use of freeze-frames and slow-mo becomes snooze-worthy, the bizarre non-player character dialogue ("This ain't worth dying for! I got kids!") starts off funny but loses its freshness, and the boss battles lack clarity. It's not uncommon to pull off a particularly slick move like, say, slicing two enemies in half with a single swipe, and have the aforementioned crappy camera miss the action altogether.

There are moments where everything syncs up the way it's supposed to: The lean, muscular beats kick in, a group of enemies swarms, and you slice through them with balletic grace. Ninja Ninja pipes up with some shit talk, the rap lyrics get you pumped, and you think this ain't so bad. But, overall, Afro Samurai's a messy jumble. Even in its best moments, the flow's never quite as fluid as you want it to be. It's a collection of stylistic flourishes that aren't enough to forgive a wobbly gameplay experience.

This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.