The Cutting Edges of Art meets Japanese Lore.
Art is a broad form of entertainment. Canvases, sculptures, music, and poetry have existed over millennia but these are only the tip of the iceberg. In today’s world, the categorization of art has grown to epic proportions ranging from obscene to the big screen. Nonetheless, in any medium, art is a prevalent form of creating unmatched emotion in its viewer. Videogames are the point of emphasis in this review and the subject is a game called Muramasa: The Demon Blade.
Like many games before it (Okami, Ico, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and even this team’s own Odin Sphere), Muramasa is a beautifully sculpted visual masterpiece that is as enjoyable to look at as your typical Renoir. From colorfully hand drawn backgrounds to the animation of every on screen object to excessive layers of parallax-scrolling, Muramasa is a true orgasm for the eyes, a game that makes you say “woah” throughout almost your entire experience.
Fully reproducing something you would imagine out of Japanese lore, the game is lush with environments where everything on screen seems to flow with the storyline; cherry blossoms, blowing crops, sunsets, and rustling fabric are only a few of the magnificent things you’ll see throughout your adventure. Enemies are over the top and villages are covered with fluorescent lamps.
The game’s story is fittingly told in Japanese using English subtitles and though it’s a bit over the top at times, it isn’t unimaginable in this luscious fantasy land. I did feel that the story was a little less emphasized, sometimes confusing, and even lacked some of the grace of the game’s graphical external coating but it nonetheless fit the mold of Japanese lore and complemented the art style.
Players are given two sets of options when beginning the game: which difficulty level they wish to play on (where the lighter of the two is far too easy and the more difficult of the two is just right for action game aficionados) and which storyline they wish to follow. The game itself follows two separate converging storylines about two different characters (Momohine and Kisuke). As you play, your progress as well as the items you find dictate the ending you’ll receive as well.
The music is another strong point towards Muramasa’s overall appeal, featuring a blend of all sorts of styles of music, all balanced together by an underlying Japanese twang. At times I heard songs resembling a few of the better musically equipped games that I’ve played such as a few Castlevania titles and even some homage to Viewtiful Joe. The game’s music is perfectly pristine throughout the traversing and evolutionary according to the environment at hand; boss battles are laden with harder guitars while the hot springs has a nice soothing music to match the healing powers of the water.
Action is the main breed of gameplay you’ll experience in Muramasa but there are some touches of exploration as well as some RPG elements to spice the game up a bit. Battles are about 90% action, 10% strategy where most of the enemies can be hacked away at to defeat but a few require special attention to fell. As you progress through the game, enemies will become more and more resilient and may obtain some new techniques as well. For instance, the generic ninjas you encounter at the beginning of the game end up acquiring bombs later in the game to give you further problems.
Combat can be controlled using a variety of different controller schemes (as is customary on the Wii) but I found the Classic Controller’s D-Pad to be the best bet for controlling your character. Most all of the combat is activated using the A button and some sort of direction on the D-Pad/Joystick. Secret arts can be used by pressing Y and swords can be swapped by pressing the L button while X activates items and R cycles through a small list of your useable items.
The game’s action is oriented around three things: swordplay, collecting, and eating. As you play, the need for swordplay is obvious (as the game features two different samurais). Once defeating your foes, you’ll receive souls that can be used along with spirit to forge new weapons. Souls can also be collected all around the environment along with several hidden items. Doubling as both a healing item and a sword forging limitation, eating gives your character the spirit needed to forge each of the 108 swords available in the game.
Swordplay remains fairly consistent throughout the entire game which can lead to a slight amount of repetitiveness after hours of gameplay; though there are over a hundred different swords in the game, there are really only two types (and thus two types of basic combat). The “blade” type of sword is faster and more fluent while the “long blade” type of sword is predictably longer and slower. The variation, however, comes from the secret art that each blade contains. These arts range from projectiles to shields to special techniques and can tip the scales of battle in your favor at the cost of a small portion of your swords spirit meter.
The real strategy of the game comes from blocking and protecting your equipped swords in battle. Before the battle begins, you are allowed to equip up to three different swords, each of which can be swapped instantly in battle according to your liking. In order to nullify damage, players must hold down the A button to block enemy attacks. However, damage does take its toll on your weapons and thus the preservation of each sword’s spirit meter is vital towards success in battle as full depletion of the meter will break the sword and rend it temporarily unusable. Thus, it is important to swap your weapons constantly as their spirit drops and in the style of a fighting game, the weapons not being used will slowly but gradually replenish their spirit meters until full.
Another invaluable technique in battle involves quick draw sword slashing, which usually becomes available at the beginning of battles and after a decent portion of battle has been played since your last quick draw—when your weapons are flashing, you can perform a weapon swap that will damage all enemies on the screen at once. This proves to be extremely important in boss battles as well as some of the challenging side dungeons you’ll encounter.
Battles occur in spurts where players will attempt to finish the enemies as quickly and efficiently as possible before continuing. At the end of each battle, a summary screen appears revealing how well you fared as well as the bonuses received (mon, the in-game currency, as well as experience). There are a large amount of enemies but after facing the same ones multiple times, it can become more of a chore than an enjoyment.
Boss battles are particularly difficult but equally interesting, often some of the most artistic moments in the entire game. However, I even found these battles to become repetitious merely due to the large amount of life that each has. Finally, there are side dungeons you can enter throughout the game that consist of literally 100 enemies of a certain type and can be truly brutal at times. These are the moments when spamming successful combinations are really the only successful strategy and these bloody marathons are nerve racking to the end.
All in all, swordplay is enjoyable but a little too much on the repetitious side for my tastes. I found that many times I forwent even using the basic slash for any successful spam of the same technique that I could find. If I couldn’t defeat a battle, I would sometimes be forced to use special arts and the quick draw attack, then evade the enemy for a while until my meters replenished which was successful but often drawn out and monotonous.
Collecting is a large portion of the game outside of combat and though it’s largely weighted in importance, it’s equally dulling in experience after playing for a large amount of time. The placement of the souls and items never really seemed tricky or inspired to me, but rather sputtered aimlessly throughout the land. Sword collecting occurs at your own pace though each boss does yield a story driving sword that allows you to destroy barriers of a certain color. This made the game feel a small bit like games such as Metroid or Castlevania but only to an extent; the progression of the game’s exploration whole heartedly relied on these barriers being destroyed, thus losing some of the variety you’d experience in the aforementioned games.
Also, the link to Metroid/Castlevania reaches into the level design itself, where each province you visit contains a series of paths in which you must embark. However, there is little room for non-linear gameplay as well as secret areas due to the barriers and thus, it ends up feeling more like a straight up 2D action game because of this. In fact, the elements attributed to the abovementioned games actually end up becoming some of the less welcomed moments from the game, including a large amount of excessive backtracking, worse than in any game I’ve experienced to date. Don’t get me wrong, the visuals are definitely worth a double take every once in a while but after you’ve traversed the same barren area over three times, the backtracking turns from pleasant to painful.
Eating comes in a variety of different forms. You can buy food items at the local shops and merchants that can be used during or outside of battles (serving as important healing items). Players can also visit local restaurants to purchase home cooked meals; I found these to rarely be used for their healing purposes and almost entirely for the large amount of spirit it provides. Finally, there is a cooking system taken straight from the Tales series of RPGs that allows you to cook your own meals using ingredients and recipes you find throughout the world. These items are either used in battle or eaten on the spot according to the type of meal you create.
Muramasa: The Demon Blade is truly a work of art that will be remembered amongst the likes of Okami, Odin Sphere, Wind Waker, and many other titles as art in video game form. Its visual production on the Wii is superb and its style is equally enthralling. Combat in this action paced game is fast paced but quickly repetitious and backtracking through environments adds to some of the chore-like problems experienced in the game. Still, the game succeeds in its approach towards an impeccable presentation even if the rest of the game doesn’t live up to its glossy outer shell. Recommended.