Muramasa: The Demon BladeESRB:
Platform: Nintendo Wii
Developer: Marvelous Entertainment/Vanillaware
Publisher: Ignition Entertainment
Following closely in the traditions of its predecessors, such as Odin Sphere and Princess Crown, Muramasa: The Demon Blade continues with much of the same formula that made those games popular and entertaining: beautiful hand drawn backgrounds and characters combined with an interweaving storyline connected to the playable characters. Also found in Muramasa is a heavy influence of Japanese folklore that permeates the game with impressive results. For fans it is easy to see after a few minutes of playing this title that Vanillaware has ‘upped its game’ so to speak. So what did I think? Read on.
Muramasa's strongest point is probably its beautiful visual style. I am a sucker for hand drawn art and this game delivers in spades. The art design is in a word, phenomenal. Backgrounds are richly coloured and feature deceivingly detailed architecture that drops you right into ancient Japan. From blowing cherry blossoms, bamboo forests to imperial cities, each region really has its own personality and style. I must admit I really didn’t think that the Wii was capable of this level of detail and motion. Just when you think you have seen it all the game throws something else at you, like incredible boss battles that are fantastic and monstrously huge in size while still keeping the animation smooth and fast. The little details are something to behold as well, such as the silhouettes of people in their homes or the sparks from fires blowing around the town. This game has some of the best graphics I have seen on the Wii.
Lush backgrounds literally pop out of every screen and do not be surprised if you stop just to look at some of the amazing art in this title. From battling on giant ancient tree limbs to running across the tiles of a giant Edo castle, nearly every kind of late mid-1800s Japanese setting is represented in breathtaking flair and detail. Even more amazing than the backgrounds may be the detail put into the characters themselves. Whether they are enemies you see over and over or a single boss you only see once, every character seems to have the same amount of stunning detail.
Another area the game definitely excels at is in its presentation. From the moment you turn the game on the menus, interactions with characters, or even the combat engine itself, is well presented. Navigating menus is instantaneous, equipping characters can be done in literally seconds, and if you want you can skip story sequences as they can be boring after watching them time and again. The entire game has a slick polish that most games of today do not.
Technically speaking, Muramasa runs very smoothly, with very short load times and virtually no noticeable slowdown. Granted the gameplay is so fast and furious, you may not notice the odd bit of frame rate or clipping issues.
Muramasa has a soundtrack that blends traditional Japanese orchestral music with a pinch of electronic flair. I think most gamers will like it as it lends to the gameplay so well. It does not matter if you dash across sprawling rice paddies or fly up an ancient castle wall, the music fleshes out the experience superbly. It is a treat for the ears, as is the rich and authentic classical language. The decision to use the Japanese voices fits the game very well, much like its predecessor Odin Sphere. Once again the voice work is so traditionally engrained you would almost think you were in the land of the rising sun. Finally, the game’s weapons, equipment, and all other sound effects are equally impressive with most swords having their own distinct sound. It is quite gratifying to take out multiple enemies with such panache and flair and the battle sounds are part of the whole experience.
As for the gameplay, Vanillaware took inspiration from their past titles. If you are a fan of their previous games then this title will almost seem like playing a whole new game. Combat is so fast paced that early on it will seem like you do not know what you are doing; however, you will soon realize the combat engine is a simple yet well designed system of stunning enemies in the air and chaining combos with visual timing. Initially boss battles will seem overwhelming, but with the right items and mastery of combat they are brought down to size easily and effectively. The ability to equip three blades simultaneously might seem overkill at first, but since enemies are able to break your weapons you are going to need backups. Often you will be faced with up to 30 enemies attacking at once and your sword will break more often than not which will force you to switch to the next one very quickly. Much of the game is based on this mechanic of switching swords, which is a benefit to you because each sword has its own hidden technique which you will figure out as you progress.
With the ability to use the Wii Remote, Classic Controller, or GameCube Controller, you have some variety that suits a plethora of gaming styles. That being said you cannot customize the button inputs. This is particularly annoying because the game lacks a dedicated jump button as you have to press up and use the control stick to navigate platforms in the air. You should get used to it, but it is far from ideal. In addition, there is no regulating your movement speed, it is either stand still or run at full speed. Practice will come in handy here, and the frustration level will also ramp up considerably as you learn the nuances, but in the end you should get the hang of it.
Precise and responsive controls are critical for action games. In this regard, Murasama could be compared to Ninja Gaiden (the newer version), where you have sharp and accurate controls that you have to master. Ninja Gaiden gives you all the tools you need, and the challenge comes from seemingly impossible waves of monsters that punish even small mistakes. Muramasa, on the other hand, feels somewhat loose. You may get lulled into thinking you do not need to get good at timing special attacks, evades, or air combos, since enemies are neither smart, nor very tough. With that being said, be prepared for mayhem if decide to ramp up the difficulty level as Murasama is absolutely insane at its highest setting. The third difficulty level is unlocked after finishing the first two.
As you would expect in a role-playing game, you will level up as you make your way through the game. By boosting your HP and strength, you can customize your character by equipping various accessories and swords. As you gather the materials needed, as well as soul energy from battle, you will be able to forge stronger swords (over 100 in total). There are standard and large size blades, and each one has its own unique special attack.
Along with the improved combat engine is the new use for items. Once again restoration items and cooking have returned which is similar to Odin Sphere. This time however you are able to obtain recipes and books which give your character the ability to cook food while on the go. Simply by obtaining items while traveling, or from a merchant, your character can now cook up their own healing items instead of having to return to a NPC to buy them. This is very helpful when you are about to fight a boss and need those few extra Rice Balls or Roasted Squids and you do not want to go all the way back to a merchant. When you begin to do this, the game will feel more like the traditional RPG so many are used to. Though much of the RPG influences might seem forced at first, such as having to cook food or talk to NPCs directly to obtain key story points and items, much of the rest of the game’s RPG elements are very subtle. Like in Konami’s Symphony of the Night, the game plays much like a 2D Action/Platformer with the RPG elements such as level acquisition and items all regulating themselves to the background menu screen. They directly influence your character such as the level of blade you can use, but they don't directly affect the combat.
Another thing some people might have a hard time with is the size of the game. Muramasa is a free roaming game, meaning that after you complete an area, like in a Metroid type of title, you must travel back through it to get to a different area if you are directed to do so. The downfall here is having to go through the same area over and over again. Unfortunately you will have to do this more than a few times throughout the game. The benefit though is added experience from more battling, thus gaining more HP to level up your character. The resulting actions also open up more areas of the game allowing you to cross into areas where you could not previously access. This in turn keeps the game from being truly free roaming until close to the end of the game. One good point is that after completing the main story you have the ability to warp to different provinces via save stations.
The third major point of interest that will be a controversial subject for some is the localization and style of the game. Heavily rooted in both Japanese Folklore and Anime design, little was changed in the game when it was brought over to North American shores, including the Japanese text and the Japanese voices being left intact throughout. This has left a very distinct and heavy unique flavour and many might not be accustomed to this Japanese presentation. But have no fear, all of the games Japanese dialogue and text has corresponding English text. That being said, the Japanese content definitely feels authentic and suits the game very well.
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