Big 'fro, big sword, big action. In a few words, that's the heart of Namco's upcoming Afro Samurai, an action game based on the cartoon series that aired on Spike TV in 2007. The pithy description doesn't nearly capture the series' heart, which is all about a son's love for his father, revenge, and--yes--big, big action. The developers at Namco are taking on the considerable task of bringing that huge action and the endless swordplay of the Afro Samurai series (which began as a manga created by Takashi Okazaki in 1999) to an Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 near you while maintaining the heart and soul for which the series is known. Based on what we've seen of the game so far, the developers seem to be well on track toward achieving that goal.
Though we've seen the game a couple of times already, today's look was our first at the actual gameplay running live. As good as the trailers made this game look, Afro Samurai seems to be living up to those lofty visual targets. The key technique is a dynamic cross-hatching system that gives the game a hand-drawn style--everything from the buildings to the characters look as if they were created from pen and ink. The backgrounds are colorful, and the settings took Afro everywhere from flowing streams tucked in mountains to menacing-looking villages where danger seemingly lurked around every corner.
Before you think this is some beautiful pastoral painting in game format, let's get real here: Afro Samurai is highly skilled at killing fools, and the game that bears his name is going to show off those skills to great effect. The game is still in the early stages, and combat is only partially complete in the game, but the moves that were on display during the demo showed off Afro's incredible arsenal of moves. The combat in Afro Samurai will have three components to it--ground, aerial, and terrain. The ground moves will feature Afro spinning and rolling around enemies, while aerial attacks will have him in midair slicing and dicing. The terrain attacks will let Afro interact with objects in the world--wall runs, flips off of ledges, and so on.
Flips and tricks are one thing, but it's where steel meets skin that Afro Samurai looks to have its biggest impact. With the ability to sever any enemy in two at any point on his or her body, this game is going to be a bloody mess (even if all of the blood effects aren't in the game yet). Afro's combat moves will have him flipping and slicing from every angle, and in some takedowns, you'll be able to choose the exact spot and angle of the cut you want to put on an enemy. That these kills are actual physical slices (as opposed to canned animations) are a particular point of pride for the development team, and it looks to add a lot of variety to the encounters in the game.
The game's music will help that variety too. A thumping hip-hop soundtrack will be featured throughout the game, and each new encounter with enemies will be scored by its own track. The encounters will also be synchronized with the appearance and movement of the enemies on the screen. While the music in the demo we saw was just placeholder, it sounded pretty good to our ears, and with work yet to do, we're optimistic that things will only improve as we get closer to the game's release.
There won't be any heads-up display in Afro Samurai; the only presentation flourishes in the game will be the occasional comic book-style panels that will appear dynamically when enemies appear or a plot point moves forward. Because there won't be a health meter, you'll want to pay attention to Afro's focus during combat. If his opponents are getting the best of him, he will lose focus; the game will begin to fade in color, and you'll know Afro is close to death. Similarly, if you're whipping enemies left and right, you'll get Afro in an over-focused state. The color palette will flatten out, and Afro will be able to cut through any enemy with just a single stroke. Afro's health won't regenerate automatically; instead, the only way to build him back up to health will be by battling it out with enemies and helping Afro regain his focus.
When he isn't slicing his way through walls of enemy flesh, Afro will be smoothly running and jumping his way through the game's environments. The development team at Namco is working to ensure that the levels in Afro are as open to the main character as possible--he'll be able to grab onto ledges and leap deftly as you guide him through the environments.
One of the keys to the character of Afro is that mentally he's not exactly all there. Between hallucinations and flat-out schizophrenia, Afro is the very definition of a tortured hero. This will be reflected most pertinently in Afro's Reflection mode, which the player can access at any time by pressing the pause button during gameplay. While the action falls away, you're taken to a dreamlike menu that features obscured or blurred images, which help tell the story of Afro Samurai. In Reflection mode, you'll be able to learn new moves, as well as piece together clues in the game's storyline, among other things.
The enemies you'll encounter in the game are almost all human--there's no magic or monsters in the Afro Samurai world. That said, you can expect to see plenty of weird enemies, including robotic ninjas and some really, really big guys who will surely pose a problem for you. There will also be the occasional challengers, sub-bosses who will require a bit more than button mashing to get through. Nonetheless, all of the enemies will have their own style--one of the sub-bosses we saw wielded a deadly-looking sword while wearing a derby hat like a proper English gentleman.
There are still a bunch of details to nail down with Afro before its release later this year. We don't know how many levels the game will have or if the development team has decided on a final control scheme for all of Afro's fancy moves. We do know the story will move in and out of the television series, providing plenty of backstory in the process. And based upon what we've seen, the team looks to have captured the essence of what the show and the character of Afro Samurai is all about, which is a great place to start. Stay tuned for more updates on this game in the coming months.