Many people fall into the trap of continually buying games that are a safe bet. These are games that have huge name recognition, or are recommended by friends and family. I admit that even though I often read about all the interesting games available for systems like the Wii and DS, I still tended to follow that “safe bet” behavior. Fortunately I decided to try something different and take a chance with a game I was not familiar with. After reading online reviews, I decided to finally buy and play Muramasa: The Demon Blade, a 2D action game developed by Vanillaware. I have to say I’m happy I did so, since I really did end up enjoying the game.
First I’d like to start with a brief overview of the game mechanics itself in order to give some context to this review. Feel free to skip this paragraph if you already understand how the game is played. Muramasa: the Demon Blade is primarily a 2D game with both RPG and action elements. The player traverses through a 2D side-scrolling world full of fields, forests, towns, etc. where the player can jump, double-jump, glide, talk to various people, and buy various items and accessories. In non-town areas, the player may enter random battles. These are fast-paced, action-filled battles that involve jumping, dodging, parrying and attacking in various ways with your sword. Completing a battle gives you experience that will level up your character. In addition, your character acquires souls and spirits, which in conjunction with your character’s stats, allow the player to forge new swords.
There are two types of swords, blades and long blades, each of which has its own set of standard moves. Apart from that, each sword acquired or forged has its own unique special attack. In addition to normal enemy battles, there are boss battles, where the enemy is smarter, stronger, and has a large visible HP bar. The two stories in this game, one of a princess named Momohime and another of a man named Kisuke, both contain these gameplay elements. Both characters play almost exactly the same, but they each have different stories, bosses, and swords.
First I want to start talking about the gameplay, which consists of Muramasa’s frenetic battles. After the initial tutorial that goes through all the fighting mechanics, you encounter enemies periodically and must fight them in order to continue. Fortunately the game gives you a bountiful arsenal of moves from the beginning to defeat your enemies. Your characters are able to slash at enemies in different directions, slice through enemies, break through an enemy’s guard, and juggle enemies in midair among other things. Unfortunately, apart from your growing choices of special attacks, this is the same set of moves you’ll have at the end of the game as well. This is where I think how you approach the game can make or break it for you. Since your set of attacks isn’t growing much over time, I feel the game stays fresh if you periodically try to fight in new ways. Otherwise, you may end up fighting in the exact same way every time, which can make the game boring.
I took that approach and thus found the game a lot of fun. I learned how to juggle enemies, hit back projectiles, and use the battlefield’s real estate to separate enemies. You’ll be amazed at how fast and nimble both fighters can be with Blades, and how devastating they can be with Long Blades. Blades tend to focus more on weaker strikes and fast attacks. On the other hand, Long Blades are slightly stronger, allow for longer air combos, but need to be properly used in order to avoid getting hit during slower attacks. I tended to favor Blades over Long Blades, but I found it fun learning how to manage both blade types, as you tend to fight quite differently with each. I definitely was happy after battles where I smartly fended off multiple enemies with the skills available.
However, I personally felt that the easiest difficulty in the game (Muso) was far too easy. Without somewhat smarter AI and larger amounts of damage, I never felt like actually mastering the battle system. With the Muso difficulty, I felt that I could just button mash and achieve the same result as deftly avoiding the enemies. I started feeling like this in about the 2nd Act of my 1st character’s playthrough, so I decided to increase the difficulty to Shura. This increased difficulty definitely forced me to learn how to play the game properly. This made it so much more fun because I truly felt rewarded for finishing a battle. One good thing is that you can switch difficulty on the fly in the start menu, so feel free to experiment with both difficulties. I personally recommend trying Muso until you get used to the controls and then play Shura for the rest of the game. There’s no real penalty for dying (apart from having to restart a boss battle from the beginning), so dying in a harder difficulty isn’t too frustrating.
There are several different types of battle situations in the game. Most normal battles force you to defeat every enemy in a smaller fixed space. At other times, you’re allowed to roam the entire area to fight enemies, but you are allowed to go the next area before defeating the enemies. There could have been more variety here, but I didn’t find it too limiting. Next, there are essentially challenge stages, where you may have to fight like 100 Ninjas without dying, or fight multiple bosses at once, etc. These test the limits of your skill as well as extend gameplay time and replay value of this game. Finally, boss battles are rather impressive in this game. While also being tied to the story, the bosses are very creatively designed. Each boss has various attack patterns that can even involve the environment, like the surrounding rocks or platforms. These boss battles are definitely some of the best battles in the game, and it’s great that you get an entirely different and unique set of bosses for each of the two characters.
Outside of the battles, the gameplay is fairly limited, as your character only can use a subset of his or her battle moves, and can’t use the sword in non-battle situations. It mostly consists of running, jumping up branches and hills, and finding hidden sparkling items. This part of the gameplay isn’t too exciting, but this is often when you truly absorb the visuals and the music. I really wish though that all battle moves could be used outside of battle, because it’d allow you to practice attacks as well as move more quickly.
The game has a very detailed map for each area, a bit like that of Metroid or Castlevania, that can be used in order to traverse Muramasa’s world. The game makes sure that you know where you’re going, as there is a flag marker telling you which direction to go in. Until after you beat the story at least once, running is usually the fastest way of going across the land, except for the occasional boat or human-held carriage in specific locations.
Next, I want to talk about the presentation of this game. As you can see in the screenshots, Muramasa: The Demon Blade uses beautiful hand-drawn art for the animated backgrounds, objects, characters and enemies throughout the game. Not only does the background scroll as you run from one end of the screen to the other, you can also see further down into the background if you double jump. An example is being able to see the frozen stream at the bottom of a frozen ravine in the picture above. NPCs tend to turn around to face you when they talk to you. Sometimes your character will even take a quick glance at the screen as if he or she is looking at you. This impeccable attention to even the smallest detail in order to make beautiful, immersive, hand-drawn environments is what makes the visuals so impressive in this game.
The music and sound effects are no slouch either. Even though the game is set during Japan’s feudal rule several hundred years ago, the soundtrack uses a wide variety of Japanese and western instruments. The music truly ranges from some powerful atmospheric music to some intense energetic music in order to suit the area or situation of that part of the game. Muramasa has a wonderful set of songs to accompany the visuals throughout the game. While traveling, one tune will be playing, but as soon as you enter a battle, a similar battle version of the same song will play for the duration of the battle. This music transition between the two themes is very smooth, and is a nice touch to hear while playing. Not every song is great, but quite a few of them are. I definitely started humming a lot of these tunes even when I was not playing the game. The game’s sound effects seem suitable, and the game’s voice acting seems pretty good, although it’s in Japanese. The game provides subtitles while preserving the original voices.
Finally, we have Muramasa: the Demon Blade’s story. While both the stories of Momohime and Kisuke have very interesting initial set-ups, I can’t say the stories are the game’s strongest point. Each story is set in Japan’s feudal era, and deals with mystical creatures like foxes that can transform. Each story took me about 10-20 hours to complete. The stories themselves, however, turn out to be fairly simple. I feel that the stories suffer since it seems some of the words were lost in translation. I can definitely hear things being said by the Japanese voices that don’t seem to be present at all in the English subtitles. Both stories each have multiple endings to find and see, which depend on meeting conditions towards the end of the story. Fortunately all of these can be achieved in one save file.
Muramasa: The Demon Blade is a game whose amazing presentation values clearly show at first glance. Fortunately I also feel the gameplay behind this game is also quite good, although it could potentially get repetitive for certain players. I feel peoples’ enjoyment of Muramasa’s gameplay can depend on whether they approach it in a more exploratory fashion or not. Finally, the story isn’t its strongest point, but the story and its characters are decent, and will probably be more suitable to those interested in Japanese culture. I definitely hope people try out this game, and support 3rd parties making games for the Wii like Vanillaware. This game is definitely worth getting if you like 2D action games, especially considering the cheap prices it’s recently selling at.