I couldn’t positively tell you what made me pick up Afro Samurai several years ago. I wasn’t a fan of anime, and had certainly never watched or even heard of Takashi Okazaki’s martial arts epic. Well…okay, maybe I do know why it caught my eye: the cover art looks gritty, and the title promises a badass time. What better reason could there be?
Looking back, I guess I should have known better than to expect a coherent experience. You can get away playing a licensed game without knowing a stitch about the IP – sometimes, most times even. But when it comes to anime, whether due to a cultural divide or a lack of proper context, following a basic plot can easily become an endeavor of Herculean proportions! And Afro Samurai gets into as much metaphysical and allegorical content as the rest, liberally spewing visual metaphors and symbolism left and right. So there was absolutely zero chance I could have even attempted to get any sense playing the game back then.
That was then. This is now.
As part of a brief period of me trying to get into anime (which my girlfriend steadfastly insists on calling “cartoon porn”, which isn’t entirely inaccurate) I worked my way through the Afro Samurai series. But let me not stray off on that topic; not only am I hardly qualified to critique the show, but I bring it up merely to illustrate that I made every conceivable attempt to get the much-needed context to make sense of the game.
Suffice it to say I still failed miserably, even knowing the whos and whys. Even after finishing the game, I still can’t tell if the game is a retelling of the show, a sequel or prequel, an alternate account, or a parallel story running concurrently with the original (though I suspect it’s the former). All the characters are there, from Jinno to Okiku, Sword Master to Justice, in most (if not all) cases voiced by the original cast, including Sam Jackson in the title role of Afro Samurai and Ninja Ninja – which, I suspect, was a big draw for many to actually purchase the game.
In its presentation, the game is nearly indistinguishable from the show, perfectly emulating the harsh animation style with its unique look that’s rather hard to call “smooth” or “pretty”. Equally as rough, though less purposely so, is the combat system. Afro effortlessly glides from one move to the next, stringing together lengthy combos with the random mash of a button. Yeah, there’s a long move list, with upwards of 60 unlock able skills as you level up, but it’s rare that combat doesn’t simply devolve into jamming on the Light Attack/Heavy Attack/Kick buttons. Slow-motion works great though, allowing for the immensely satisfying dismemberment you remember from the show.
Far and away my favorite part of the game though is its hip hop soundtrack. Wu Tang’s RZA is bills as the musical director for the game, though to what extent he did or did not (as some research revealed) have a hand in the final sound, he definitely contributed to it achieving a very similar musical style as the anime, which is to say stellar. It surprised me again and again how well a fit hip hop beats and lyrics made against a background of traditional Eastern instrumental melodies. My favorite moment in the game (musically speaking) happens early on as Afro walks into a dojo’s courtyard; enemies leap up and onto the walkway in slow-motion on all sides, accompanied by the staccato beat of “Kimono Dance”, then the action ratchets into full gear as katana steel swishes and clangs and rapid-fire lyrics begin pelting down. It’s a killer Kodak moment, worthy of the Afro name!
As a bonus, beating the game unlocks the full soundtrack of 22 tracks, to listen to at your leisure. The road to get it, though, is fraught with many hardships, as Afro Samurai is by far no cakewalk of a game. Prepare to be tested!
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