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Muramasa: The Demon Blade Review

Muramasa: The Demon Blade [Wii]
ESRB Rating: T
Number of Players: 1
Genre: Action RPG
Publisher: Ignition Entertainment
Developer: Vanillaware
Release Date: September 8th, 2009

As game console technology evolves and improves, game developers can strive to create deeper, more complex worlds.  Some opt for hyper-realism, pushing the envelope of raw power in order to make your TV seem like a window into another dimension.  However what often proves far more breath-taking is a game with beautiful artwork and design.  Muramasa: The Demon Blade is an example, offering unparalleled beauty in its visual presentation.  It’s a shame that the hardcore market ignores Wii software due to the platform’s lack of horsepower compared to Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, but Muramasa would undoubtedly make you stop and say, “Wow….”

Like Clover’s legendary Okami (incidentally also available on Wii), Muramasa is set against the backdrop of ancient Japan.  The feudal aesthetic makes TDB even more appealing.  Also, similar to Vanillaware’s Odin Sphere, Muramasa emphasizes style over technical prowess.  Yet thankfully, substance is not sacrificed.

The story splits between two distinct characters, Momohime and Kisuke.  Momohime is a girl possessed by a renegade spirit, while Kisuke is an exiled ninja with no memory of his past.  To avoid spoiling anything however, I won’t elaborate any more.  Despite the game’s heavy action focus, there’s a surprising amount of plot and dialogue.  Conversations are carried out in Japanese as well, which lends to the game’s flavor.  Some may sour at the absence of an English dub, and one certainly wouldn’t have hurt, but the native track is beautifully done, so it feels pointless to complain.  Story advancement also partners with the in-game visual engine, so the cut-scenes don’t interrupt the gameplay as drastically as an RPG with elaborate animated or CG cinematics.  Most exchanges are quick too.  You can even enjoy the game without understanding its plot, but it’s refreshing to see the historical fiction angle rather than space science fiction or Western medieval times.  The script is hardly straightforward though; there’s a healthy amount of curve balls.

Now the gameplay, which is simple and fun.  Rather than offering deep combat and RPG character-building, Muramasa instead provides a streamlined experience that blends the classic brawler formula from older classics with new touches.  Combat is easy to handle, and control support extends to the Classic controller and standard Wii-mote/nunchuk combo.  Muramasa is a bit of a masher, but don’t let that turn you off.  Characters can execute basic slashes, slide attacks, uppercuts, dash attacks, combos, and so on.  Each weapon is equipped with a “Secret Art” attack bearing unique effects, though some blades you acquire serve as mere improvements over previous weapons.  Players can even perform quick draw attacks with well-timed weapon switching.  There are dozens of blades to gather, either through story sequences of weapon forging, but only three can be active at one time.  Strengths and weaknesses apply, not to mention passive effects to boot; such as health restoration.  Remember when I mentioned weapon-switching though?  Yeah, that’s crucial…not only to heal sheathed blades with the quick draw, but your arsenal is actually susceptible to breaking.  If that wasn’t enough, swords double as your “keys” to unlock new areas of the map.  There isn’t much else to worry about aside from basic accessory management.  It’s nice to have this simplicity though; it keeps the gameplay well-paced.  The characters gain experience and level up, but you’re not concerned with distributing points or do excessive grinding.

Weapon forging is perhaps of the highest importance.  By acquiring enough spirits and becoming fit to wield a particular blade, players can gain new ones.  Characters can also cook to restore health, provided they have the necessary ingredients and cooking manuals to understand how to make a dish.  Or you can choose the “fast food” route by visiting a food stand, though vendors are happy to sell meal stock.  You do all this while exploring a vast, 2D side-scrolling world.  In that sense, Muramasa feels like classic Super Metroid, which is always a plus.  But while Metroid focuses more on exploration and finding secrets, Muramasa is more concerned with throwing hordes of enemies at you and progressing the story.  That factor helps to set the game apart from the rest of the pack, so it comes off as homage to the classics, rather than a clone.

The difficulty is manageable on the default “Muso” mode, but those looking to up the challenge can tackle “Shura.”  Even on “Muso”, battles can prove somewhat frustrating, particularly when facing high numbers in demons’ nests. However, enough leveling up and some fast fingers can overcome anything.  Some criticize Muramasa for lacking strategy, but the game is too fun to consider it an issue.  The map is large in size, so the game world is extensive, and the characters’ stories are noticeably different, even though they share the landscape.  This gives the game some more length.  However, tedium does rear its head with regards to the backtracking, which extends the campaign without offering anything new.  It’s annoying to travel back through areas.  Players can use mirror items to teleport back to save points, but some are placed immediately before boss rooms.  This in no way kills your enjoyment, and it’s the only issue I really had.

What needs to be said is that Muramasa is one of Wii’s biggest visual showcases.  The gorgeous design makes for a jaw-dropping experience with intricately-detailed and colorful backgrounds.  The my only criticisms are the reuse of a few backdrops, and some enemies are repeated, but there’s also plenty of diversity.  From city streets lined with cherry blossom trees to snowy hills and sunny fields, there’s a lot to take in.  It’s a marvelous tribute to how fantastic 2D artwork can be, and challenges the misconception that games have to achieve virtual reality to be worthwhile.  The music is also wonderfully done, with a scintillating arrangement of tunes that bring to mind the feudal Japanese era, although some songs are influenced by modern music (for example, one fight theme features rock guitar).  The voice work is also incredible, with a great Japanese track to bring the characters and game world to life, while instilling it with a sense of authenticity.  Again, the best comparison in this capacity is Okami, and Muramasa is no slouch.  It’s difficult to fault the game at all here.

As far as single-player action games go, Muramasa offers a hefty value that’s borderline irresistible.  With an impressive adventure to start with, two distinct characters to play, and 108 blades to collect, you’re looking at 20+ hours, which is great for the genre.  Then of course there’s the amazing visual presentation, beautiful music, and great level of polish.  Wii owners looking for a sweet hardcore experience simply need to buy this, or have their status as a gamer revoked.

Scoreboard:

Story: 8/10

Gameplay: 8.5/10

Control: 9/10

Graphics: 9.5/10

Sound: 10/10

Value: 8.5/10

Overall (Not an average): 9/10

Muramasa: The Demon Blade (Wii) First Impressions

First of all, WOW. The visuals just pop out and everything is really gorgeous. Obviously the Wii isn’t HD, but I have my console hooked up to a 47″ LCD HDTV via component cable (480p) and it still looks friggin’ fantastic. Some of the backgrounds seem to be repeated, but it doesn’t appear to be a big problem. In the first couple hours of play, I’ve gone from plains, to forests, to city streets lined with cherry blossoms, and more. All of the backgrounds are incredibly intricate and colorful. A clear step up from Odin Sphere, and that’s impressive. I wonder what Vanillaware could have done if they had a bigger budget and put the game in HD on a more powerful console…but I digress, Muramasa for the Wii is a really beautiful game, and it wasn’t too expensive to produce either.

Combat is pretty easy. The tutorial made me think it would be a little more complex to handle, but so far I’ve just been able to “mash” the attack button and get through most any fight unscathed. Not sure how I feel about that–on one hand, I kind of expect some fights to be difficult enough to require some tactics, but on the other hand, the controls and combat might just be fluid enough where I simply don’t notice it, lol. You can do slide attacks, uppercuts, dash attacks, combos, and “Secret Arts.” You can also swap between three blades on the fly. During combat, regular wear (as well as blocking and reflecting attacks) will eventually cause your weapon to break. You can quickly swap it for another blade, while your sheathed blade will ‘heal.’ Another cool feature is that if you unsheathe your sword at the right moment, you can do a Quick Draw attack–which is basically a screen-filling attack. You can equip one accessory in addition to your weapons. Also, you can forge new blades in addition to acquiring weapons from the bosses. Each blade seems to act like a kind of key. They allow you to break barriers, giving you access to new areas. In that sense, it’s a little like Super Metroid, which is always cool with me. Actually…it almost feels a little like Metroid and Ninja Gaiden put together. I other reviews I’ve read of it, the complaints I’ve heard mostly pertain to the layout—more specifically, to the fact that you aren’t really transported back after boss battles, which requires more backtracking. Now, I’ve only played for a little bit, so I can’t quite see how far the map extends, but it does seem like a sizable adventure.

The music is pretty beautiful. It’s a wonderful arrangement of tunes that fit with the feudal Japanese era (some songs are a little more modern), but in general, the music really brings to mind something out of Japanese myth—or otherwise refer to Okami for the next best comparison. I find it interesting that Nintendo has both this and Okami, which are rather intriguing portrayals of Japanese mythology. So far, I’ve experienced the story of Kisuke. He’s a renegade ninja with amnesia (OMG!), who carries six skulls along with him. Apparently he is considered a traitor and the six skulls he carries were ninjas from Iga that had accompanied him on a prior mission. I have not yet played as Momohime. I do dig the fact that the game has Japanese voice work with English subtitles. I do think it certainly wouldn’t have hurt to have an English dub option available, just because I know personally some people don’t really care to read in an action game—which I feel sorry about, because it’s a rather minimal issue.

I’m very excited for the rest of the game and so far, I don’t have much of anything negative to say about the experience. The visuals are some of the best on the Wii, especially considering the fantastic art direction, the music is well done, and the gameplay brings to mind lots of gaming classics.  Expect a review from COE soon!