The Art of War
Vanillaware may not be a household name to many people. They're the development studio behind the relatively successful Odin Sphere for the Playstation 2. Like Odin Sphere, their next game is also oozing with style and is aesthetically pleasing. This game is Muramasa: The Demon Blade for the Wii. Based on ancient Japanese folklore and filled to the brim with style and substance, is Muramasa: The Demon Blade a cut above the rest?
It is the age of demons, magical spirits, and feudal flair in Japan. Muramasa tells the tales of two separate people, Momohime, a princess possessed by an ancient demon, and Kisuke, a ninja on his own who is riddled with amnesia. Each of their stories progresses through eight acts, and after completing both characters' stories, a final chapter is unlocked that wraps everything up. Each character starts out on different ends of the world map with different bosses to battle and beat. The stories are not handled very well as it can be quite difficult to follow each one due to lazy storytelling and a lack of context during scenes. What voice acting included is all Japanese giving the game a distinctive foreign film feel. The localization doesn't translate the dialogue word-for-word. Instead, the localization gives a gist of what each character says. Every character and NPC in the game gets spoken dialogue showing no corners were cut on this aspect.
The basic flow of Muramasa has whichever character you choose running from one room to the next, occasionally entering a random encounter. This is where an exclamation point flashes on the screen and summons a multitude of enemies for your character to slice and dice. After a room is cleared of enemies, bonus experience points from striking first to not taking any damage are awarded after battle. The rooms themselves don't have much in the way of actual platforming. Many of these rooms are large, empty, and repeat themselves often throughout the course of the game. This can get quite repetitive running through the same rooms over and over. Occasionally, a hidden item will be located in a room signaled by an orange marking on the map. When found, the item will be placed in your character's collection of goodies.
Muramasa has a Metroid-style of progression. Instead of accessing new areas with new abilities, you access new areas by acquiring new blades. Blades earned from bosses destroy specially-colored barriers blocking your character's progress. There's a hundred or so different swords in all to collect, each with special abilities, and these are acquired through various different means. You can forge a profusion of new blades once your spirit and vitality are high enough, you can acquire swords from bosses, or you can collect them from enemy-infested lairs. These lairs, too, have barriers that only certain blades will open.
If you get lost running around the similar-looking rooms, you can use your map to know where to go. An arrow on the map, which can be placed near the middle of the screen for easy access, will point in which direction you need to go. Unfortunately, there's plenty of times where you'll be scampering through areas all over again, backtracking. There's times where you'll be repeating ten, twenty, thirty rooms just to reach where you need to go. Sometimes you won't even get any battles while doing so making the process all the more tedious.
Speaking of battles, Muramasa is an action-RPG at its very core. Battles consist of Monohime or Kisuke slicing up enemies that appear on screen. The action in this action-RPG is very fast, fluid, and fun. Scoring and chaining combos is almost effortless, and depending on the difficulty you're playing on (either Muso [normal] or Shura [hard]), you can evade and block attacks with ease. The challenge level of the game can be changed at any time. In battle and over time, your blade will weaken in strength as it is used to block attacks. If it takes too much damage, it will break in two and need to have time to itself to repair. Thankfully, you can equip three swords at once and exchange them on the fly, sometimes even damaging all enemies on screen in the process. As battles end, the experience you acquire make lengths to increase your level, giving you more strength, defense, and life flame (or hit points).
There's a decent amount of enemies in Muramasa. Sure, you'll more likely get your fill of ninja and tengu, but there's plenty of variety in the enemy design. Many times you'll face off against six or more enemies at once. A boss battle concludes every act, and this is definitely where the design shines. Many bosses will take up large portions of the screen with some taking up the majority. Boss battles are the most difficult and rewarding part of Muramasa. Each boss has multiple life bars that slowly empty as they're damaged. If a battle is too tough and you lose, your only penalty is the chance to retry or to start back right from outside the boss battle. Ample save points, many located right before a boss, are widely available making long periods without saving a non-factor most of the time.
Muramasa's biggest draw may not be its actual gameplay but its presentation. Rest assured, Muramasa is a gorgeous game with beautiful, colorful, crisp visuals and plenty of eye candy to ogle. Backgrounds use various tricks such as paralax and a fish-eyed view to add extra dimension to areas. Models are highly detailed and superbly animated from small characters like Momohine to large characters such as many of the bosses you'll battle. Everything in the presentation package has been tailored with the greatest of effort even down to your character eating a savory dish of food to regain spirit. It's like food pornography! Meanwhile, the soundtrack is in part by Hitoshi Sakimoto who is best known for his work on games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story, and it's excellent in helping give the game that ancient Japanese ambiance.
Muramasa: The Demon Blade may be breathtaking game to behold, but its gameplay can only be masked so much by the beauty of the visuals. There's a lot of needless backtracking and repetition involved. The game can sometimes feel like a chore running through recycled areas again and again. There's also little in the way of exploration. These problems aside, Muramasa is a very capable action-RPG with tons of style and plenty of "oooh, pretty" moments. As it stands, Muramasa: The Demon Blade gets a modest recommendation as a good, but not great game.
[SuperPhillip Says: 7.75/10]