Poor Afro’s having a hard time. He can’t last for more than five minutes without getting attacked. It’s a tale of revenge, but mostly a story about headbands: legend proclaims that he who wears the Number One headband shall have the powers of a god, and his throne can only be challenged by whoever dons the Number Two headband. Which, I can’t help but feel, is a very orderly system for a society so anarchic. This is where Afro Samurai comes in, neatly sporting the Number Two headband and desperate to kill the Number One so he can avenge his father’s death. The hitch is that there are a lot of people after the thing on his head, and they’re all carrying sharp objects, guns and pointy sticks.
It’s a ripe franchise to be transmogrified into a game, and for so much of the design the developers, Namco Bandai’s new Surge imprint, seem to be getting it exactly right. The visuals regularly bask in their own cel-shaded splendour and the gory, accessible combat doesn’t overwhelm the casual player. The top-tier voice acting talent and Wu-Tang leader RZA helmed soundtrack are superbly executed.
The voice actors are a particular draw for the title, notably having Samuel L. Jackson as the roles of both deadpan protagonist Afro Samurai and comedy sidekick Ninja Ninja. There’s also, alongside industry veterans Terrence C. Carson, Phil LaMarr and John DiMaggio, Ron Perlman as antagonist Justice and Kelly Hu providing vocals for love interest Okiku. The narrative is a bit blaxploitation, and an unashamed perpetration of countless stereotypes, but it does it all with enough of a wink and a nod to make it a lot of fun, standing as an intriguing story that’s told well by the superb roster of voice talent.
It’s a shame, then, that the plot is virtually indecipherable unless you’ve watched the TV series. Levels flick from one locale to the other with no signposting, and the beginning of the game has you travelling back and forth through time with minimal explanation. They’re trying to mirror the structure of the five episode anime series, but can’t devote the necessary time to give it any cohesion. It becomes a mess in its own slickness and the cutscenes, whilst nicely stylised, are tragically unskippable.
The more you start scratching under the surface of Afro Samurai the more you realise how many basic, inexcusable mistakes the game falls victim to. They’re all here: intermittently wonky camera angles, unsuitable platforming puzzles and boss designs that force you to work against everything the game has previously taught you. Like a dodgy car salesman, Surge entices innocent gamers with a polished exterior and runs away laughing before the ruined insides are exposed. You can practically visualise Mr Wormwood as an executive producer.
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