Muramasa: The Demon Blade - Staff Review  

God Will Be Cut
by Adriaan den Ouden

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Less than 20 Hours
+ Breathtaking, handrawn visuals.
+ Terrific boss fights on an epic scale.
+ Great soundtrack.
- Terrible localization.
- Lots of backtracking.
- Not much customization.
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   When Odin Sphere was released in 2007, I wanted to love it. I tried to love it, but despite everything the game had going for it — breathtaking 2D visuals, complex and engaging combat, and a fantastic, multi-threaded storyline following five interesting characters in a strange and captivating fantasy world — its excessive repetition and incredibly poor framerate destroyed what would have otherwise been one of the greatest gaming experiences I've ever had. So when developer Vanillaware first teased Muramasa: The Demon Blade on the Wii, I was eager to see if they could correct the mistakes of the past. With stronger hardware and hindsight on their side, Muramasa had the potential for greatness. Sadly, that potential fell short. While Muramasa is still a highly enjoyable game, it simply doesn't live up to the genius of its predecessor.

   Muramasa follows two characters in feudal Japan, Momohime and Kisuke, masters of a unique and rare combat style called Oboro. They both have their own individual story that takes them all across Japan, and although their paths occasionally cross, their stories don't intersect and are completely separate, setting the game apart from Odin Sphere. Momohime is a noblewoman whose body has been possessed by the soul of the villainous Jinkuro, who is using her body in an attempt to reclaim a powerful demon sword. Kisuke is an outcast ninja who has lost his memories and finds himself branded a traitor, hunted wherever he goes by his former colleagues.

   The most depressing thing about Muramasa's storyline is that it may actually be quite good. I say "may" because I can't be certain; the localization is simply atrocious. The dialogue is poorly written, the names of people and places are brought up without context or background, and the lack of an English vocal track ensures that most of the extremely Japanese names fail to remain associated with their respective owners. Barring an extensive knowledge of Japanese history and Shinto and Buddhist mythology, players will be lucky to be able to follow the story at all. While I'm still not entirely sure of all the characters and their respective roles in the two story arcs, what I was able to follow seemed quite strong. Momohime's is a tale of redemption while Kisuke's is one of devotion, two powerful concepts that feel right at home in a world of ninjas and samurai.

A divine pedicure. A divine pedicure.

   Luckily, Muramasa's storyline is very unobtrusive, taking up a very small portion of the game's time. For the rest, you'll be traversing gorgeously detailed landscapes and fighting flashy, high-speed battles against ninjas, samurai, and demons. Muramasa's combat system is significantly simpler than Odin Sphere's, but at the same time is much more accessible and easier to get into. Momohime and Kisuke are able to equip three swords, each of which has a limited amount of soul power. Soul power is depleted when attacks are blocked or repelled, and when the blade's secret art is used, a special attack unique to each sword. When it runs out entirely, the sword breaks, diminishing its attack power to pitiful levels and also preventing it from being used for defense. To rectify this, players will have to constantly switch between their three swords, allowing the others to regenerate while not in use.

   Battles themselves are extremely fast paced. Players will need to attack nearly constantly, not only to ensure a speedy resolution, but also in order to protect themselves. Attacks double as a defensive maneuver, and while there are times when discretion is the better part of valor, there are other times when beating on your opponent without mercy is the better part of survival. Players will also need to learn to fight in the air and to maneuver among platforms in order to get to far-off and flying enemies, and various other tricks and techniques exist to make the combat much more engaging than it might otherwise be. There are also two different types of swords, speedy short blades and powerful long blades, each of which needs to be utilized slightly differently in order to be effective.

   Defeating enemies yields experience and souls, the latter of which can be used in conjunction with spirit, a substance gained by eating the various food products found in the game, to create new swords. The forging tree in Muramasa is enormous, but sadly it is also extremely linear. While there are dozens of branching paths leading to different swords, the way the tree is designed ensures that every player is going to create the exact same swords in the exact same order. Strangely enough, when both storylines are completed, each character gains access to the other's sword tree, which provides enormous customization potential. Had this been included from the beginning of the game, it would have made the forging process much more interesting, as well as providing a legitimate reason to go through the two stories simultaneously rather than one at a time.

   One of Muramasa's more irritating flaws is that it forces you to backtrack through the same areas almost constantly. This eats up a lot of time in an already short game, and quickly becomes a nuisance. A handful of shortcuts are available in the form of boats and porters, but more often than not the places they offer to take you aren't where you want to go. In the end, it's almost always easier to just walk, and again, a teleportation option becomes available once the game is completed, another feature that would have been helpful during the game's main duration.

Let Let's go fly a kite, up to the highest height.

   Of course, art direction has always been Vanillaware's area of expertise, and Muramasa does not disappoint; indeed, it sets a new standard for 2D games. Everything is hand-drawn and animated, from the environments to the characters, and everything is immaculately detailed. There will be several places throughout the game where players will simply stop in their tracks in order to take in every detail of the stunning artwork.

   Most impressive, however, are the boss fights. Each boss is enormous and impeccably designed, and they also feature some of the most incredible animations in the game. They are likewise the most enjoyable sections of combat in the game as well, and both Kisuke and Momohime each have their own unique bosses to tackle, none of which are repeated between the characters except as optional encounters. Some of these fights are as bizarre as they are brilliant. One has you facing off against an enormous mountain god, fighting each of its limbs individually starting with its enormous foot in a scene reminiscent of Monty Python, and another sees you leaping from platform to platform, seeking to destroy a statue of a god while under constant assault from a pair of demi-gods.

   Muramasa's soundtrack is equally impressive. Hitoshi Sakimoto has been in great form as of late, and Muramasa's classical Japanese style is just what one would expect from the man behind the Final Fantasy XII and Valkyria Chronicles soundtracks. Most impressive of all is that each track actually has two versions, one for combat and one for traveling. Whenever a battle begins the music transitions naturally into a slightly faster, more energetic version of the same song. The effect is subtle and brilliantly executed, easily one of the most impressive features of the game.

   Did I enjoy Muramasa? The answer is a resounding yes. However, the game still fell quite short of my expectations. While most of my issues with Odin Sphere were remedied with Vanillaware's newest title, a handful of gameplay problems coupled with a poor localization prevent it from being truly great. The game is also surprisingly short, clocking in at less than twenty hours, and that's for both storylines. Each individually is less than ten, but optional post-game content including alternate endings can increase that quite a bit. Despite its problems, I still heartily recommend Muramasa to any fan of action-RPGs.

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