In the holy trinity of modern action games -- "Ninja Gaiden," "God of War" and "Devil May Cry" -- you might find that, when forced to make distinctions between the three, you'll only be splitting hairs over minute details. They share eerily similar gameplay foundations: enter room, cut up bad guys, exit room, perform some light platforming and repeat until unfairly difficult boss fight.
"Afro Samurai" had a unique opportunity to liven up this genre that has grown stagnant and predictable. Despite the usual low-quality licensed game stereotype to overcome, the developers of "Afro Samurai" nevertheless felt content with offering a mostly enjoyable, yet highly derivative action game.
Fortunately, the game overcomes the hurdle of being bogged down by a licensed property. Those unfamiliar with the source material are no worse off here. The concept of playing a badass samurai named Afro on a path of bloody vengeance in a modernized version of feudal Japan fits right in with the sort of eccentric fiction for which video games are known.
The story can get overly pretentious and heavy-handed at times, but it manages to squeeze in some thought-provoking dialogue between all of the bloodshed, giving players some reason to believe they aren't killing just for violence's sake. At the same time, Afro's sidekick, an unobtrusive wisecracking ninja voiced by Samuel Jackson, provides comic relief.
More importantly, "Afro Samurai" knows it's cool. Unlike the typical flat shading found in most anime-inspired games, "Afro Samurai" opts for a rough, sketchy look to give an effective illusion of hand-drawn animation. The music in particular gets the player's blood pumping better than any of the game's storytelling, featuring a pleasing mix of hip-hop beats and traditional Japanese wind pipes.
"Afro Samurai" features simplistic, yet gratifying, combat that encourages striking a balance between offense and defense. On one hand, the entire system of gaining experience points to unlock new combos is totally superfluous, but slicing a guy in half to release pools of blood is an act I was all too eager to repeat. Enemies don't rest on their laurels, and will strike your turned back at any given opportunity. If not for the generously large tolerance for punishment, the combat would require some modicum of skill, but despite its false semblance of depth, it rivals its peers on the pure satisfaction scale.
Unfortunately, most of the boss fights commit the cardinal sin of requiring experimentation through repeated failure. The spectacle and grandeur of a couple of the fights fade away when the game forces players to master consistent parrying (pressing the block button in time with enemy strikes) or be so visually disorienting that the game gives seemingly zero feedback on player performance.
The developers somehow managed to design a camera that remains fixed in place when players need it the least and require babysitting when they need it the most. Between blind leaps of faith in the platforming bits and desperately swinging your sword at the TV screen in the hopes that enemies are on the other side, it'll probably inhibit your enjoyment to some degree.
As a 5-6 hour adventure with no additional modes, "Afro Samurai" makes for a great rental. It has its fair share of minor annoyances and doesn't distinguish itself from other action games in terms of gameplay, but in an industry where games based on anime series are a dime a dozen, there's enough quality M-rated action to make it worth a look.