Game Review – Muramasa: The Demon Blade
A complete review of gamings artiest brawler to date
If there’s one overlooked developer that deserves acknowledgment in the gaming community, it’s “Vanillaware”. Their previous games on the PS2 – “Odin Sphere” and “GrimGrimoire” – received critical acclaim from the people who played them, with the unique art direction and 2D style in particular garnering high praise. Yet, despite the positive reviews, very few gamers have ever played these titles, or indeed even heard about them. As it always is, the different and strange often lose out against the more known titles like Call of Duty and Final Fantasy.
Thankfully, the Vanillaware team continues to power along, taking what they learned from their past games and refining them in the next. All their hard work came to fruition with the release of their third game in ‘09: “Muramusa – The Demon Blade” is a side scrolling action game like no other. Its beautiful backdrops are matched only by its highly addictive and enjoyable gameplay, that keeps you coming back for hours on end. Had it been a PSNetwork or Microsoft Store download, it might have received worldwide attention…
… but sadly, for the moment, it’s only on the Wii. Damn. Time to dust off that ugly white box and recharge those AA batteries. It’s been a long time.
UPDATE: On September 15, 2010, Vanillaware annouced they will be bringing both Odin Sphere and Muramasa as HD ports to the next gen consoles some time in the future. This article will continue as a Wii game review, but ultimately it should translate onto the other consoles without issue.
(For the TLDR crowd)
* Beautiful art direction, in both character models and background
* Fitting, nostalgia inducing music
* Addictive gameplay that’s both fun and challenging
* Multiple endings
* Original Japanese voice overs add to atmosphere
* Multiple control choices available to suit your preference
* No motion sensing!
* Few combat moves, and only two styles of sword
* Not quite enough backdrops
* Story is vague unless you pursue all six endings
* Some occasional backtracking through levels
* Can’t sell excess goods to vendors to garner more cash
Before we get started, how about some mood music?
Muramasa has one of the best and most fitting soundtracks I’ve heard for awhile. I’ll talk more on that later, but for now, this tune should send old time gamers reeling back into Shinobi nostalgia.
Story – Neurotic Ninja vs. Foxy Samurai
Muramusa : The Demon Bade tells the tale of two souls as they fight their way through ancient Japan. Momohime, a beautiful Princess, becomes a deadly Samurai after she is possessed by a malevolent spirit, desperate to escape the afterlife. And he’s willing to fight Heaven and Hell to do so. On the other side of the country, Kisuke awakens in a field, plagued with amnesia. Enemies immediately attack, calling him a “traitorous Ninja”. They accuse him of betraying his clan, and make it known that the seven skulls he carries on his belt were once his friends.
Aided and encouraged by some mysterious Fox Spirits, the two anti-heroes begin a bloody journey across Japan, destroying everything in their path as they search for a legendary Demon Sword that might have the power to change their fates.
Vanillaware has spun some fantastic tales in the past, with Odin Sphere featuring five different characters and perspectives, running along the same timeline. Muramusa doesn’t quite have that level of depth. Though the two stories run along side each other in the same time period, they don’t really intersect. At no point do the actions of one character affect the other. In fact, it’s on revealed that they exist in the same timeline when they accidentally bump into one another at the various hot springs scattered around the map (events that always yield some amusing dialogue).
It was rather risky on Vanillaware’s part to put the gameplay ahead of the story this time around, but in a way it works. Each chapter has a goal, even if the reason seems somewhat vague, and there’s always a giant boss to face off against at its end. That alone should keep most people playing. For those who do stick it out, most of the game’s more confusing questions are answered through its six alternate endings, which don’t require complete restarts to unlock.
Overall the story is alright, but not the driving force behind the game. With gameplay this good, I doubt many will mind.
Style and Layout – Killing Cross Country
The layout of the game is fairly simple. You have an overworld map with sixteen locations on it that spread from one side of Japan to the other. Each location is a ‘level’, made up of a varying number of screens (say between five and twenty), with numerous branching paths and places to explore. Since it’s all on a 2D plain, the characters simply run across each screen into the next, and the backgrounds change accordingly.
Each character starts from a fixed location – Momohime on the right, Kisuke on the left – and slowly they work their way across the map, their progress impeded occasionally by unbreakable barriers. To continue, they must fight bosses and acquire new swords, that give them access to the next areas. Once a location is unlocked, the player is free to explore as they wish, though all this travel can take some time; a small gripe for people who dislike a lot of running around between boss fights. Thankfully there’s only one point in the game that actually requires you to backtrack, otherwise it’s a constant move forward.
Fast travel options become available later in the game, but they do cost money. It’s best to complete each story once, at which point you can teleport to any location on the map for free, which makes travel far more bearable.
Gameplay – Total Mayhem
Fighting in Muramusa is nothing short of insanity. There’s a reason one of the main stories is called “Rampage of the Pandemonium Sword”.
Both characters are available to play from the start, and you can even switch back and forth between them mid-game if the urge takes you. After a quick tutorial, you’re thrown straight into the action, and it won’t be long before you’re slicing and dicing your way through hordes of demons and attacking ninjas.
It’s very hard to describe how Muramusa battles pan out. You really have to see one in action to understand, so I’ll just show you this video:
Pretty amazing to look at, yes? The game lets you choose whichever control style you like, be it Wii-mote and Nunchuck, Classic controller or Gamecube pad. Personally I used the Wii-mote and Nunchuck, and found it worked perfectly. Best of all, there’s no motion controls involved, so you can simply lay back on the couch and massacre those baddies. No need to wave your arm like crazy or keep anything point at that blasted sensor bar. Hurray!
As for the combat itself…
One of the main problems in their previous brawler, Odin Sphere, was that even when your character was attacking the enemies, you could still be hit, juggled and dealt exorbitant amounts of unblockable damage. This often became frustrating, and interrupted the flow of the combat. Vanillaware took this onboard for Muramusa, and has made it so that during battles, as long as you keep attacking, you’ll never take damage! It’s the durability of your swords that will decrease instead.
With three swords equipable at a time, the game becomes both frantic and involved. As you fight, you’ll need to watch how much strength your current sword has, and switch it out for another one just before the durability depletes completely. Mis-time the switch, and the sword breaks, dealing a hefty amount of personal damage and leaving you stunned. It all comes down to timing and knowing the power of your enemies, since some can break swords in a single hit, while others are little more then annoyances.
Even if you break all your swords, however, it’s not the end of the world. “Demon Swords” regenerate over time as long as they’re kept in the sheathe. They just take their sweet time about it. Capturing the souls of those you kill or using an item will speed up the reforging process, but in the end it’s best to avoid breakages altogether.
Good players will find themselves switching swords on a regular rotation, while bad players will probably break all three and be left scratching at their enemies with a shattered hilt. When you’re tackling a boss twelve times the size of your character, I can tell you now; that attack is not particularly effective.
It might sound technical, but the game is actually very forgiving. Dying comes with no kind of penalty, other then being transported back to the beginning of the battle you just lost. All the items you might have used are refunded, and you even get to keep the experience you earned during the fight. This means new gamers can practise and grind for as long as they want, moving the game pace along at their own speed.
One interesting factor about the gameplay is that even though you’re expected to complete two storylines at roughly ten hours each – using characters and battle techniques that are very similar, I might add – the fighting just never gets old. I’m not even sure why that is.
From a technical standpoint, and when compared to other games like it, Muramusa should get boring. I should have reached the stage where I was “over” the unique style and constant random encounters. It just never happened. I was always enjoying it. For a whole week I was unable to escape its grip, until all six endings had been achieved, and even then I wanted to play some more.
Exactly what makes the gameplay so addictive is beyond me, though the most logical word that comes to mind is “fun”. Enjoyable and fun. Is it bad that so few games instil that feeling nowadays? Hmmm…
Weapon System – My Sword is Bigger then Yours
Muramasa handles it weaponry and upgrades differently to most games. Each character starts off with a single low level blade, and new ones have to be acquired by killing bosses. Once a few swords have been found, players can then combine two and reforge them into a more powerful version, using the souls of those they have defeated and a piece of their own spirit. Every sword is displayed on a “forge tree”, that looks somewhat like a family blood line:
As more swords are earned or created, the tree opens up so even stronger ones can be forged. Each character has their own tree to begin with, but after finishing their stories for the first time the two can merge, eventually forcing the tree to condense down to a single sword: the ultimate Demon Blade. Acquiring this requires not only completing at least four of the six endings, but also beating some of the most ball-breaking challenges in the game (more on those later).
Though it seems confusing to begin with, the forge tree is actually a fantastic way of keeping your damage levels on par with enemy strength as the game progresses. Smart players will horde souls and spirit well ahead of time, so as soon as the next boss is defeated they’ll be able to forge three or four new swords immediately, making the following levels a lot easier to deal with. Assuming your character has levelled up enough to use them, of course.
As a bonus, every single sword has it’s own special ability. These can range from cyclones of multi-hit destruction, to a single, powerful stroke. Each use will drain durability, but learning when and where to execute them can mean the difference between winning or losing a battle. They’re also very pretty to look at, so that alone will make you want to try them all.
The only downside I can think of in regards to the weapons is the lack of variety. There are two types of sword: heavy swinging samurai ones, and fast flurrying ninja ones… and that’s it. Given that there’s over a hundred swords total, a few extra styles wouldn’t have gone astray. Some of the special abilities are a little underwhelming as well (in fact some do next to nothing in terms of effect), making you wonder why they were included at all. But these are just minor niggles in a fairly solid system overall. Moving right along.
Misc. – Challenge Dungeons, Items and ‘Cooking Ninja’
There are many items in Muramasa, most with varying degrees of usefulness. Healing items, accessories, teleport mirrors and cooking ingredients are the most common. Many can be found hidden in levels, earned in combat, or bought off merchants with money. Which brings up one of the more annoying flaws in the game: money is scarce, and the merchants will only let you buy, not sell. Should you max out a certain item, you’ll be stuck seeing “You cannot carry anymore of this item” messages every time you find another one, simply because you can’t get rid of the ones you have. You must either waste them, or learn to ignore the message. It might seem like a small issue, but really it’s a silly oversight. Every game should have a sell option.
While consumables and basic accessories are plentiful, the best can only be acquired by fighting in the various “challenge” dungeons hidden around them map.
Most challenges are sealed off until you have acquired a strong enough sword, and even then they have a ‘recommended level’ warning when you attempt to enter them. And for good reason. The challenges are just that: extremely friggin challenging. They can be anything from a showdown with one hundred martial art monks, to killing a dozen bosses in a single fight. The hardest one of all is aptly named “Total Pandemonium”, and has you facing off against nearly every enemy in the game; a battle that can last over half an hour. Hardcore.
Damn, Makes Me Wish I Could Cook
In order to maintain your characters strength and keep them at full health, occasionally our murderous main characters will need to pause for dinner. This not only heals them, but helps accumulate “spirit”, which is needed to forge swords. Popping into the nearest café will usually do the job, but recipes for your own cooking can be found scattered about the map. Preparing your own food on the field can apply handy status effects, like regeneration or invincibility, and make that upcoming boss battle a touch easier.
Plus, it’s just a nice way to take a break from all the slaughtering. Even Samurai need to eat.
Graphics – Art At Its Finest
And finally we come to Muramasa’s best feature. The art style of this game is incredible. Every single frame is a masterpiece, painstakingly created with a level of love and detail that many modern games simply can’t compare too. The authentic feel it lends to the games atmosphere and sheer awe it inspires with each new area is unmatched. As an example, here are just a few of the fine scenes you’ll come across in the game:
- Palace Under a Blood Moon
Beautiful. Breathtaking. Stunning. Absolutely gorgeous. It’s hard to find the exact word that can adequately cover how much I love the artwork in this game. It’s definitely one of the finest 2D creations ever made.
Sadly, there are only about thirty different backdrops in the game, since they no doubt took an enormous amount of time and money to make. Though you won’t actually tire of seeing them, by the end of both characters stories when you’ve seen the same scenes a couple dozen times, you will begin to wish there were just a few more to oogle. I’d still choose these over sixty hours of ‘next gen brown’ any day.
If fantastic backgrounds weren’t enough, the character models are simply impeccable. Animations are so fluid and detailed that you find it hard to believe they’re sprites. Facial expressions, limb movements, fighting animations… I have no idea how long it took to make everything look as natural as it does, but these artists are undeniably some of the most talented in the industry (man, you know next-gen gaming is in trouble when sprite-art makes me gush this much).
Have a look around youtube for some more videos and watch them closely, is all I can say. Screen shots really don’t do this game justice.
Sound – Ninjas To My Ears
As mentioned earlier, the soundtrack for Muramasa is almost as beautiful as the visuals. In fact, here’s another song to end the review with (Note – the best part starts around 0:50):
Road to Heaven – Battle Version
While the previous song was an example of the regular ‘running through levels’ music, you can hear a notable change in the battle music like this song. Quite clever how it can blend traditional sounding Japanese instruments with modern day electro. Really makes the fights feel intense and chaotic.
The music is great, but the general sound affects tend to be a little overwhelming. Combat is so fast paced and brutal that the combined noise of clashing steel, screaming demons and the death throes of the defeated amounts for one loud game, especially to those who aren’t playing it. Personally I loved the perception of mayhem it exuded, but apparently the girlfriend didn’t feel the same way. Bah. Critics.
Lastly, Vanillaware decided to keep the original Japanese voice actors for all the cutscenes (with English subtitles of course), adding a much greater feeling of authenticity to the game then a dub would. This may make the story a little harder to follow for some, especially when you’re expected to remember and keep track of all the Japanese names that are thrown around, but it’s worth it in the end.
The End – If At First You Don’t Succeed, Commit Seppuku
One ending per character not enough for you? Fear not. This game has six!
The first two are earned from merely completing the game. Naturally they don’t go well, since neither character has a sword powerful enough to change their inevitable fates. If players were to quit here, they may feel somewhat cheated, or maybe disappointed with the results.
The second set of endings is earned by taking two particular swords into the final battle. This results in an entirely different fight <Spoiler: Highlight to see> Where both main characters get to face off against each other in an epic showdown to the death. <End Spoiler>. Once again, however, neither character holds the true sword, so don’t expect a happy ending.
The last two endings are earned when every single sword has been forged into the greatest and most powerful weapon. Taking this to the end game will finally let your characters escape their fates, and reveals the all important events that occured prior to the games beginning. Which just happen to be the events that explain everything and make the whole story easier to understand.
Hmm. Risky business there, Vanillaware. I don’t know how many people would be willing to stick through the entire game, just so they can find out why exactly they’ve been killing half a country. On the other hand, it’s pretty rewarding for those who do.
So is it worth buying a Wii just to play this awesome, unique, slightly flawed work of art? Ultimately I’d say no, though if you already have one of Nintendo’s pride and joys propping open a door somewhere there’s no reason for you not to go out and track Muramasa down.
Should you bother getting it when the compilation eventually comes out on the next-gen consoles in HD? Abso-freakin-lutely. You’d be doing yourself a grave injustice, and missing out on one of the most amazing and arty titles to come our way in years if you didn’t. Everyone loves Ninja, and they don’t come much better then this.
As always, I don’t consider it accurate to give a game a single score as the sum of all its parts. So instead, I’ll base it on the level of enjoyment I experienced during my play time.
Muramasa: The Demon Blade
Chaotic, sword swinging, demon slaying, Ninja filled awesomeness, all wrapped up in one beautiful package.
Enjoyment Rating: 9.5/10