Ever since I played Odin Sphere back in 2007, I converted into a Vanillaware fanboy. Sure, the gameplay was far from deep, but the story left me compelled and yanked my emotional chain repeatedly. On top of that, the fantastic visuals made the 2D junkie in me fill with glee, and I’m glad that 2D can still do great within the 3D gaming market. The following month, their other game, GrimGrimoure was released, which was a fun console RTS featuring more great visuals, but it never made the impression that Odin Sphere had. Now fast-forward to 2009 with the release of Muramasa: The Demon Blade: a pseudo successor to Odin Sphere exclusively for the Wii. Having two successes under their belt, did Vanillaware deliver once more in a quality game? They most certainly did.
When you start Muramasa, you get to choose between one of two stories. In one you’ll play as the tragic princess, Momohime, while the other involves the amnesic Kisuke. Momohime is a gentle soul who got killed off along with her family one night by the evil swordsman, Jinkuro. Jinkuro was in need of a new body, and had a specimen in mind, but an accident occurred, and his soul got trapped in the deceased Momohime. Desiring a strong, masculine body, he hold’s Momohime’s soul captive to make use of her body, and travels the land to find a blade that enables him to transfer bodies once more. In Kisuke’s tale, he starts off with no memory of his past and is chased down by a horde of ninjas who want to behead him for being a traitor. While shaking off his adversaries, the Kitsune, Yuzuruha, requests his skills to take down an evil spirit that recently re-awakened. He decides to accept the request of the pretty lady while roaming the lands to find out the crimes he supposedly committed. Both stories take place in Feudal Japan, but the events do not overlap with each other.
The premises are decent, but the main issue is simply having so little story present. Muramasa tosses you straight into the gameplay, and only after plowing through hordes of enemies do you get your first bit of story; neither tale provides proper introductions. Story segments appear only during, before, and after boss fights so you’d think that the writers would pack as much information as they could into those segments, but you’re dead wrong. The scenes are too brief, only giving you the gist of what’s going on while skimping on the details. This leads to a feeling of disjointedness with sudden events and character introductions that leave you in a “Huh, what?” state of mind.
Initially, XSEED was slated to publish the game, but mysterious circumstances caused the game’s publisher to change to Ignition Entertainment, who gained notoriety when they did a sloppy localization on the graphic adventure, Lux Pain, months ago. While there are far less grammatical errors here than in Lux Pain, Ignition failed to localize the script in an engaging way. It just reads too basic; Ignition played it safe by translating word for word and nothing more. I ponder if part of the reason the story is too vague is that some things were lost in translation. A little spicing up of dialogue can go a long way even with the simplest of things.
Despite all the script’s faults, it’s not all bad. There are some occasional bits of humor, and the plot itself is actually solid when you piece it all together. There are also six endings available, and they’re quite decent. Muramasa’s story does have potential, but it needs a more compelling narrative and better localization to reach that potential.
With the story playing such a minimal role, it’s up to the gameplay to save the day. Muramasa follows a simple structure of going through a series of chapters known as acts, where you go from place to place, exploring the lands through Metroid-style exploration. On the way to your destination, you fight hordes of enemies until you reach the boss where you are treated to snippets of plot. Upon completing the boss fight, you obtain a sword that enables you to break one of the eight colored barriers scattered throughout the land. Rinse and repeat for 7 more acts, lasting about 7-10 hours for each story.
It may sound too repetitive, but the game remains enjoyable thanks to the combat. You won’t ever learn new kinds of basic moves, and there are not many kinds of enemies to face, but what makes the combat fun is simply its fast-paced nature. It’s hard to convey in words the sheer adrenaline rush you receive whenever you’re up against many foes in fast, over-the-top sword fighting, with lots of things flying across the screen while pulling off all sorts of fancy moves to defeat your opponents in stylish ways. This frantic way of fighting leaves you feeling excited, and can make you an addict in slicing and dicing. Granted, the fights do play out the same way so it can feel repetitive, but there are some aspects that prevent the combat from going stale.
For starters, Muramasa has some of the greatest boss fights I’ve ever faced. Each character has eight of their own bosses that are all well thought out with vastly unique designs, and their own ways of fighting that brings out the over-the-top action so well. Every boss fight turns out epic, and it’s a blast duking it out with such mighty foes. Where else can you fight giant centipedes, an explosives-happy little girl, or even battle within the digestive system of an ogre?
Another unique aspect to the game is the swords themselves. There are 108 to collect in total; you can equip three of them at once and can switch them on the fly. As a bonus, when your sword gauge flashes, you can unleash a quick draw attack that deals damage to every opponent on the screen. There are two types of swords to play with: blades and long blades. Blades are the weaker, but faster swords that are easy to chain attacks with. Long blades are more powerful, but slower in executing attacks. Despite two distinct sword types, long blades are flawed because regular blades can do as much damage, sometimes even more simply by pulling off more attacks with ease. Even with the faults, long blades can be useful due to another feature known as secret arts.
Every blade has a secret art, an ability embedded in the sword. They can be used with the press of a button, unleashing a special attack to topple your foes. Because there are 108 swords to get, and these abilities are barely rehashed, you have dozens of flashy attacks at your disposal to decimate your foes in all sorts of fun ways. Granted, some secret arts are clearly better than others, but having such variety keeps the combat fresh. Of course, you can’t simply spam these abilities. Every sword has a soul gauge meter that these abilities drain, which causes your sword to break easier. If a sword does break, do not fret. The soul gauge regenerates when you switch to another sword, and there are items that can recover it. In order to obtain most of the swords, you must make use of the forge system.
The forge is a giant skill tree where you create new swords and equip them if you meet the stat criteria, although there are some limitations. You need a sufficient amount of soul and spirit points, which are gained by killing enemies and eating food. You also have to progress the story to obtain blades that unlock more of the forge tree. Each character has their own forge tree, but towards the end, the charts intertwine, and completing both stories is how you’ll get the best swords.
Alongside the forge system is a cooking system where you find or shop for ingredients and recipes to cook meals when you are not fighting. Some meals give you consumable items, but most are eaten on the spot. These kind recover a lot of HP and provide you with lots of spirit points as well as a temporary boost such as attack or EXP bonuses. If you’re not in the mood to cook, you can dine out in a restaurant instead. Unfortunately, the restaurants are in areas where you are bound to already have full HP. Because of that, the only use for restaurants is to farm for spirit while enjoying a cute animation of eating food.
Outside of combat and getting from point A to B, there isn’t anything else to do except stump challenges. Throughout the game, you find barriered stumps, which can be broken the same way as field barriers. Inside a stump sits a challenge, which usually consists of fighting 100 of the same enemy in groups of 10. Other times, you fight multiples of the same boss at once. These challenges are amongst the hardest portions of the game, but they are optional, and reward you well if you take the time to complete them.
As for difficulty levels, you can choose between Muso (normal) and Shura (hard). Muso is suitable for those who are weak at action RPGs, but if you are remotely decent, Shura is where the fun lies. In Shura, enemies are always capable of killing you in a few hits, no matter how strong you are. This creates enough tension to keep players on their toes, but it’s not difficult to the point of frustration.
Despite fun combat, nice challenges, and some nifty features, there is one major drawback. Because the game utilizes Metroid-style exploration, it inherits the associated backtrack problems. Backtracking is far too excessive, and the shortcuts are inconvenient. The travel service spots are poorly located, and the item used to get to save points does not help much if you want to head back to a spot you visited hours ago. There is a feature which enables you to travel to any save point, but that’s only post-game.
Even when you beat the game, there’s some post-game fun available. Both final bosses give you a blade that breaks white barriers, useful to gain access to the ultimate stump challenges. These challenges mostly pit you against multiples against the same boss, but one in particular is a major endurance test where you face against everything you encountered and a special boss in the end. Completing them awards you with some of the best equipment in the game, and they’re worthwhile to earn. Also, if you beat one of the stories in Shura mode, you can unlock Shiguirui mode where your HP will always remain at 1. It’s a feature most suitable for extremely hardcore players.
Sticking with their strengths, Vanillaware created another gorgeous game with an excellent art style, setting the standard once more on good 2D design. Muramasa’s visuals are colorful and detailed, containing all sorts of lush backgrounds, great character and enemy designs, and some slick animation. Best of all, there is never any instance of slowdown to ruin the immersion. There is a fair amount of reused backgrounds and enemies, but it’s a minor flaw that does not stop the game from being a visual treat. No technically proficient 3D game can capture the essence of a game with a great art style.
Sakimoto, known for his heavily medieval style of music, takes the helm to compose Muramasa, where he needs to change his methods to fit with the Feudal Japan tone. It’s a gamble when composers change styles, but Sakimoto managed to pull it off, and created one of his best works to date. His slow songs are a treat to listen to, creating a strong ambience to enrich the setting, but what makes the soundtrack excel are the fast-paced songs, notably from the battle themes. They utilize the music of the area theme by kicking the tempo up a notch, and sometimes mix in modern music styles such as light touches of electric rock to create some memorable music. The most unique aspect is that the songs have seamless transitions rather than reverting to the beginning of a song.
In a rare move, the game only features Japanese voice acting rather than a dub or utilizing the practice of dual voice-track. It’s a nifty move Ignition made that kept this very Japanese game as authentic as possible. As for the voice acting itself, it’s solid work. Each voice actor fits his or her respective character well, and their formal way of speaking gives off a theatrical vibe.
You can play Muramasa with either the Wiimote + Nunchuck combo, classic controller or even the GameCube controller, which all work out fine. The only thing to note is that you need to press up to jump like in fighting games, but that’s simply a matter of getting used to it. The interface is easy to follow, and micromanaging is non-existent in battles due to shortcuts enabled for swords and items.
Muramasa is a fun game, but it’s not for everyone. If you are bothered by minimal story, repetitive fighting, and a fairly short length, then it’s not for you. For all other action RPG fans, Muramasa succeeds in delivering pure fun factor that’s addicting and highly accessible with excellent aesthetics to complement it. The game adds enough throughout to keep things fresh, and it does not overstay its welcome. The Wii may not be an RPG juggernaut like the other platforms, but Muramasa is a gem that proves to be one of the best RPG experiences on the console.