Once upon a time I played a football game on the Sega Megadrive called Ryan Giggs’ Cavalcade of Fecal Matter (or something like that) that has long stood as the worst game I’ve ever had the displeasure of playing. That hasn’t stopped there being genuine contenders to the throne in the twenty odd years since it first festered in that poor Megadrive’s cart slot. Escape Dead Island, Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City, Tomorrow Never Dies and Counterstrike: Nexon Zombies are all in that elite pantheon of excrement that the curly-haired Welsh wizard’s game presides over. Playing Afro Samurai 2, it has been hard to see it avoid becoming the newest member of this exclusive club, more worryingly it could run for the presidency of it.
Based on the Manga comic that became a five episode show featuring none other than Samuel L. Jackson as the titular character, and loosely a sequel to the original Afro Samurai game on last gen consoles, Revenge of Kuma Volume One is the first episode in an ongoing series and sees a different protagonist, namely Kuma, who is out for vengeance against his childhood friend Afro for eating the yoghurts in the fridge that he had labelled clearly. Well, actually it’s for killing the only family Kuma had, but either way you’ll be struggling to care or understand as the narrative is a scattershot of loud noises, screaming and sub-par dialogue that gets recycled a bit too often in places. The bare bones of a good revenge tale is in there, but as you’ll discover, anything that Afro Samurai 2 tries to do right wanders off the path of a decent game and into the thorny thicket of unfinished and broken ones, perhaps getting a little too deep into that scratchy undergrowth to ever find its way out again.
There are positives, and I’m going to list them now as a case for the defence. It’s a flimsy case sure, but it’s something that currently prevents Afro Samurai 2: RoK from sinking to the absolute rock bottom of the ‘’Sea of Terrible Games’’. First of all I love the soundtrack. Wu Tang Clan’s RZA (who is executive producer on the game) provides some catchy hip hop tunes, from artists including VisualEyez, for the game that I highly recommend listening to. Then I can commend some of the visuals. Not all, but some, as there are a few frames of art here and there that look striking. Final positive; the combat is sometimes alright. Now that’s out of the way I’ll discuss what Afro Samurai 2 does so wrong. Grab a seat if you aren’t already reading this on the throne, it’s quite the list.
So, when I said the music soundtrack is good, it really is, but somehow even that gets made into a bad thing as it often repeats and goes over dialogue in a loud and obnoxious manner, which isn’t especially helpful to a plot that’s already treading a fine line between confusing and nonsense when you can’t hear parts of of the story. I wasn’t joking about the visuals either. In fleeting glimpses the game actually looks nice, then things move on and the facade drops quicker than Arjen Robben in the opposition penalty area. Textures are missing, areas are shadowed to hide large portions of scenery that probably look no worse than what’s actually on show, and when shadows aren’t hiding areas then the game is occasionally making them disappear at random.
Character’s move in stuttering, disjointed fashion before, during and after combat in a manner not seen since Ray Harryhausen stopped doing film stuff. Meanwhile, cutscenes either exist as (admittedly decent-looking) storyboard panels with voiceovers or in game engine, where the camera sweeps around pointlessly on barely animated characters as they talk with nary a twitch of their lips. There seems to be no order nor reason to why and when one method is chosen over the other, and in general the timing of cutscenes is odd. What could potentially be the best action sequence in the game, for instance, is reduced to a particularly shoddy cutscene when it very easily could have been in game. The game is littered with strange design decisions like this that do nothing but showcase how poorly animated everything is.
This would be a great time for the gameplay to stand up and be counted, to drag the wreckage up from the depths and make Afro Samurai 2 merely a flawed game with potential going forward into the next episode. Sadly, this is not the case. The earlier of the nine chapters are incredibly slight on interactivity with 30 seconds of crawling on your belly and a minute or so of combat, with a peppering of climbing up walls on average in a chapter. Not a particularly satisfying way to begin a game, but the short, sharp bursts do well to mask some of the framerate drops and janky animation at least.
The action ramps up in the second half of the episode, mainly because new enemy types can only be defeated by certain moves from the three fighting styles you pick up from computer chips throughout the game, which makes fights more drawn out. Here’s where frustration truly sets in as the correlation between pressing buttons and the game responding is often slow and at times nonexistent, thus reducing fights to treacly slogs that create artificial length to what would otherwise be a brief episode. It makes Q.T.E. scenes laughable as you are given no idea how hard or fast you need to mash a button, and clearly the game missed inputs at times because I’d fail despite being incredibly timely and swift in response to the prompts given. When throwing in how riddled Afro Samurai 2 is with slowdown, and the generally poor representation of movement for characters, it makes for appalling viewing and atrocious playing. It doesn’t help that the game seems to confuse how many hits it should take an enemy -or indeed Kuma- to die. On more than one occasion a single enemy would take a ridiculous amount of hits to dispatch despite those of a similar ilk being swiftly dispatched. This is something the developers have promised to fix though.
The whole experience feels like that of an unfinished game and a final, damning factor in that is the upgrade system. The three styles of combat have branching upgrades like most modern hack n’ slash titles do that amplify health (that doesn’t seem to work) and add to your roster of moves. There is nothing really wrong with the system itself, more with how it’s wasted. During the latter, dragged out brawls that the game throws out it dishes you out upgrade points at an alarming rate. The only reason I didn’t unlock every point was down to the last one in each section being locked out till the next episode. By the time I’d finished, I had an additional fifty-something points for upgrades and nothing to spend them on. If the next episode were to use a new set of upgrades I’d understand, but what I had left could have filled out the current upgrades twice over so it seems highly unlikely this was purposeful. So, the entire system is ultimately pointless and should be replaced by simple pick ups for the next episode if this can’t be rectified.
Afro Samurai 2’s first episode is a disaster. Far too much goes awry and any glimmer of hope that tries to make itself seen is almost immediately engulfed in the landfill of issues the game has. The entire episode is merely two hours of your time, but other episodic titles out there right now are head, shoulders and boots above this dire display. I’m not even sure why Afro Samurai 2 is episodic to begin with beyond a tenuous Kill Bill link in that the developers are calling them "volumes". I can only naively hope that the developers take to Volume Two with the notion of fixing at least some of the problems in Volume One and rise above such devastatingly terrible beginnings. It surely can’t sink any lower than this.