Developer Vanillaware has become known for their vibrant art style and affection for old-school design. Muramasa: The Demon Blade is the latest from the same guys that brought us GrimGrimoire and Odin Sphere, and it looks to match the same level of care of both of those titles. With their latest effort we get the same attention to detail in the visuals department with plenty of action and a nonsensical story to round out the package. Like MadWorld and several others before it Muramasa is not your typical Wii game, in fact it doesn’t even bother offering any type of motion controls, but what it does bring to the table is a gorgeous adventure that every Wii owner who appreciates classic gameplay should own.
The core narrative is split between two characters, and you have the option to play as either right from the beginning. You can pick either Momohime or Kisuke, and for the most part their stories are nearly identical. The main differences as you progress through are the swords they collect and the bosses they encounter. Momohime’s story revolves around her being possessed by one of the most powerful swordsmen ever, while Kisuke follows the archetypal amnesia plotline. Either way you go most of the plot is confusing at times and downright incomprehensible at others, but it never interferes with the action.
Either way you choose the go the game does a nice job of creating a compelling argument to experience both characters; even if the core concept is the same. Much like titles such as Metroid and the more recent Shadow Complex, Muramasa uses barriers to block off certain areas of the game from the player in the beginning. Instead of keys or bombs you will collect various swords that can open up these barriers, thus making the world more accessible. Collecting blades becomes an addiction, at least until you get towards the end of the game and realize that a lot of them are really just color swaps. The concept is familiar, but still addictive, and makes playing through the game as much fun as it is beautiful.
Beautiful is hardly the word I would choose to describe Muramasa’s visuals. The game is absolutely stunning, and like fellow Japanese developer Arc System Works, Vanillaware has a knack for animation and detail. Every level is vibrant and interesting, each character has been painstakingly animated to expel life at every seam, and the animations are simply breathtaking. The best part about it though is that the further you traverse into the game, the more impressive the visuals become. Bosses become more grandiose and levels take on whole new levels of fantastical. My only gripe is that being restricted to Nintendo’s hardware means that we do not get true HD, therefore the lush and brilliant animations are somewhat restricted by the output resolution.
This is in no way a stab at either the developer or the hardware, just simple facts. This game is leaps and bounds above the crawling spectacle that was Odin Sphere trying to run on the PS2, but it still feels like there could be so much more. Vanillaware has taken great pride in their work, and it shows in every single frame of animation, which is also why I don’t blame them for sticking to their gun and creating the best game possible for such a small development house. Regardless, the game looks phenomenal, and if you cannot appreciate its beauty I believe there is little that will impress you when it comes to 2D animation.
The combat in Muramasa is deviously complicated, but easily accessible. Nearly every attack is performed with just one button, but depending on context situations and various maneuvers it can get relatively complex. As I mentioned there is no motion control in the game, which means I highly recommend using the Gamecube or Classic Controller for this outing. The combat can be played in two different styles: button mash or more precise, and each one lends itself to a different experience. If you don’t want to have to learn timing and precision just choose the easy route and combos will happen without much effort, but for those craving complexity the other option will deliver. The jumping will take some getting used to because of a minor input lag, but it is nothing you cannot adjust to after twenty minutes of play.
The big catch to the gameplay is the collection of swords. Each sword contains its own life meter, and as you strike enemies it slowly depletes. Run it down far enough and it breaks during combat. You can carry up to three swords for on-the-fly combat at a time, and tapping a button not only switches weapons, it also delivers a visually pleasing move that knocks down any weak enemy on the screen. You can keep your sword in play by collecting souls of fallen enemies, and some swords work better on certain enemies than others. With over 100 swords to collect in the game it becomes an addiction, but once you get closer to the end of the game and things start feeling forced, it loses some of its appeal.
There is no mistaking that this game is a visual showcase. Every little detail really brings forward the passion the development team poured into the game. It is also worth noting that the entire voice over work is the original Japanese track. This will obviously please the aficionados, but anyone hoping for an English dub will be disappointed. The music is fitting and sets the mood for the game very well, while the sound effects are simply passable. The presentation really is remarkable though, if you can stop long enough to appreciate everything it is throwing at you.
Muramasa: The Demon Blade is another example of a developer that truly takes pride in what they do. The sheer visual enjoyment you can take away from this experience is endless, making this one of the best looking game this generation. The combat may grow tiresome over the 6-8 hour journey through single-player, but if you take it in small doses it is much easier to digest. If you own a Wii you owe it to yourself to experience this work of beauty. Whether you rent it, check it out at a friend’s house, or simply take the plunge and pick it up, this is one title everyone should experience.