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• Muramasa: The Demon Blade

developed by Vanillaware/published by Marvelous Ent. & Ignition Ent.
1 Player/1 DVD/Nintendo Wii/ 2009.08.09

Muramasa: The Demon Blade is a side-scrolling action game developed by Vanillaware, known for director George Kamitani’s absurdly detailed graphical style and fluid animation. I live for this kind of stuff. In the majority of games today, the quest for realism blots out all traces of the artist’s individuality and expression. Colors become desaturated as 3d models rely more and more on photographic textures. Muramasa is the antithesis of this movement; its style is detailed but clean, crisp, and colorful. Some of the characters and monsters have gnarled anatomy reminiscent of old Japanese ink drawings, and the layered settings are dutifully rendered interpretations of unspoiled landscapes. The game propels you forward simply to see what visual splendor lies just around the corner. In a nutshell, games like this simply don’t get made very often, so when they do I’m chomping at the bit to play them.

There were three major issues with Odin Sphere, the game’s predecessor: loading times between areas; slow-down during busy battles; and repeated use of the same areas and monsters. Muramasa corrects these issues thanks mainly to the Wii’s better hardware, which means you won’t see any loading screens or slow-down whatsoever. And unlike Odin Sphere’s five selectable characters that trekked through the same areas fighting the same bosses, Muramasa has only two characters which visit plenty of unique locales and fight entirely different bosses.

Game Play

Muramasa has much more jumping and platforming than Odin Sphere, meaning the areas are larger and have more verticality. You won’t have to worry about falling to your death as there are no pitfalls, but just having the extra room to move adds greatly to the experience. Your character is able to perform a double-jump, and can glide for a short time as well. Additionally, many of your attacks will involve upward and downward thrusts as well as air-juggles, allowing you to use the added room to deal more damage to your enemies. The real meat of the game lies in its battles, so it’s a good thing they are fun – and blindingly fast.

The battle system is relatively complex, but once learned is incredibly flexible. You can equip three swords and swap between them at any time. Short swords deal quick but light damage, while long swords are slow but powerful. Each blade has a unique special attack that deals added damage. However, during the course of using a blade’s special attack or blocking enemy blows, a sword will lose its durability and shatter. A broken sword is useless for attacking and defending, but will slowly reforge itself when sheathed. Knowing when to sheathe and unsheathe your swords adds to the strategy, since unsheathing a powered-up blade unleashes damage to every enemy in your vicinity. Different types of attacks, such as combos, upper cuts, downward stabs, charging stabs, somersaulting whirlwinds, and ninja-style dashes are possible. You can also equip a set of perishable items to use during battle that will replenish your strength, heal status (such as poison), or sharpen your blade.

Story

As its title suggests, the game centers around a line of demonic blades forged by a talented (but mad) swordsmith, that compels whoever wields them to commit murder or suicide. In his thirst for dominance, the reigning Shogun will stop at nothing to possess them – causing chaos and strife across the land. Two swordsmen trained in the Oboro style, however, manage to control the blades’ unearthly powers for their own purposes. The game follows these two characters’ separate but intertwining stories as they cut a swathe across Japan.

Momohime is a beautiful princess who’s body is stolen by the soul of Jinkuro, a fallen swordsman. She often has no choice but to watch as he uses her body to chase down a legendary weapon. Kisuke is a ninja who is being hunted for a crime he no longer remembers, who must follow the vengeful spirit of Torahime, who was killed protecting one of the cursed blades. Along the way they’ll encounter a host of characters (both human and mythological) which can be a bit confusing, but ultimately the stories are straight forward. Each character has three endings apiece, so you won’t know the whole story until you’ve mastered the game. Thankfully, you won’t have to restart from scratch.

Replayability

Once you’ve finished the game with both characters for the first time, areas previously off limits become open to you and you can warp at save points. All of the areas and bosses from one character become available to the other, so even though you can technically go finish the game immediately, you’ll go back to previous areas to explore them. Additionally, optional challenges become accessible that will put your skills to the test. Completing these extra tasks will reward you with powerful new equipment and swords. By completing the game a second time with specific swords equipped, you’ll be able to forge the ultimate weapon in the game. You can then complete the game a third time to see the final, true endings for each character.

Known Issues

There’s a few slight hiccups in an otherwise great game.  For starters, you can’t go wherever you please due to multi-colored barriers.  These along with the optional side quests (available later) mean you’ll do quite a bit of back-tracking throughout the game.  Another issue I had was the difficulty settings make the game either too easy or too difficult, without much middle ground.  Finally, the game is best played with the Classic Controller add-on, which some people may not own or feel compelled to buy.

Conclusion

Muramasa: The Demon Blade is an exceptional game that has corrected the major flaws tarnishing its predecessor. The main draw is undoubtedly its presentation, which is second to none. The graphics defy belief – imagine Hokusai’s classic wood print “The Wave”, but moving – that’s in this game. And there’s so many incredible set pieces to explore, and mythological demons to slay.

When I was a kid, I never would have dreamed 2D graphics could be this good. And the music by veteran composers Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata diverges from their normal compositional styles, but perfectly matches the distinctly Japanese setting of the game.  Last but no least, the game’s addictive battle system and extensive replayability will keep you glued to your television for 15~25 hours (my total play time was very near the latter).

Vanillaware’s blistering 2D action game is truly one-of-a-kind on the Wii, and is just begging to be played.  If you own a Wii, you’d be doing yourself a disservice not to.

Quick Run Down

PROs:

  • Unmatched 2D Graphics
  • Excellent musical score
  • Addictive battle system
  • 2 main characters/multiple endings
  • No loading
  • No slow-down
  • Full voice-acting (fittingly, Japanese only)

CONs:

  • Back-tracking can be tedious
  • Character motivations can be a bit unclear
  • Too easy or too difficult (limited settings)

One Sentence Review: Unbelievably gorgeous and brimming with screen-filling bosses, it’d be a crime to pass this one up.
One Word Review: Sharp.

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