I never had the time or inclination to play Vanillaware’s Odin Sphere. It sure looked pretty, but when it came out, I wasn’t in the right mindspace to play through a lengthy RPG. Of course, when I finally came to my senses, the game had vanished off shelves, and was fetching too high a premium for my taste. When early information about Vanillaware’s next game, Muramasa: The Demon Blade, started making the rounds, I put it high atop my priority list. This was a game I would not let pass me by. I wasn’t sure what I was going to get when I put Muramasa into my Wii. The trailers certainly made it appear to be a very polished action RPG/platformer, but looks can be deceiving, particularly when you’re blinded by how pretty all the colors are. Luckily, the gameplay and story were as easy to appreciate as the wonderful art direction. In other words, Muramasa: The Demon Blade is probably the best third-party game on the Wii this year.
There are two distinct narratives at the heart of Muramasa. One is the story of Momohime, who shares her body with Jinkuro, the spirit of the man who tried to kill her fiancé, and the quest to learn the ultimate sword technique, which will give him the ability to use a Muramasa without being consumed by the demon power inside the blade. The other story belongs to Kisuke, a ninja who’s forgotten his past, and is trying to find out just who he is while fending off his former employers. Neither story is incredibly deep, but both tales provide the right amount of mystery and adventure to keep you playing to find out what happens next. There is only the tiniest bit of overlap between the two characters so you don’t have to worry about missing crucial plot elements by not playing through both stories. Each character’s journey should take you about seven hours to complete, not counting the optional challenge rooms, and you can switch back and forth between the two on one save file at will. My only issue with the stories is the way in which they are told. Most of the game is spent traveling from city to city trying to get to the next person relevant to your character’s tale. During these travels, almost no exposition is used as the game uses somewhat lengthy diatribes before and after each boss battle to convey what’s happening. When you do finally get to one of these scenes, it’s done well, but I just wish the developers would have spread out the narration a bit more.
Since the story is sparsely told, the crux of Muramasa lies in the hack-and-slash gameplay. The easy-to-learn controls not only make the game a breeze to get into, they also allow you to spend your time focusing on the action, animations, and backgrounds, instead of worrying about whether or not you hit the right button combination for that lethal combo. By simply pressing the A button repeatedly, your character will unleash a fury of slashes with their currently equipped blade. Pressing and holding the A button will block and load up a powerful attack, depending on when you release it. Tapping the B button unleashes your sword’s special attack, and tapping the C button allows you to switch between the three blades you’re allowed to have equipped at any one time. Flicking Up on the analog stick makes your character jump, and while it may sound awkward, the action is anything but. After a few minutes, the controls will feel incredibly seamless, and you’ll be thanking Vanillaware for not including any useless waggle. Sidescrolling veterans may balk at the ease with which you are able to combat opponents, but they’re missing the point. It’s not casual for casual’s sake; it’s about putting the focus on the elements that truly make Muramasa stand apart from other action-platformers. At points you may find the fights a bit repetitive, but the pacing of the game keeps your attention, and keeps the action from getting stale. Random encounters happen nearly every ten minutes, and you’re almost guaranteed a boss fight every hour. It’s easy to confuse consistency with boring patterns, but once you get into the flow of the game, you’ll be pleased with how Muramasa delivers its content.
Additionally, the game is kept fresh by the slightest RPG elements. Characters level by collecting the souls of their defeated enemies, as well as finding other souls randomly scattered across the landscape. You’ll also be able to forge new swords based on the amount of souls you’ve acquired, and how much spirit you have. Spirit is earned by eating food. It sounds strange, I know, but the more you eat, the better the weapon you’ll be able to create. And believe me, there’s plenty of food to eat. Whether you’re learning recipes for rice balls or sweet potatoes, or dining at one of the many eateries across the world, the different types of cuisine are impressive. Even better is the premise of actually having to control your character eating the food. Don’t worry; it’s nothing crazy. All you have to do is hit A a few times to fully digest the meal. It beats simply selecting an item from a menu, and seeing it magically affect your stats. Is it necessary? No, but it doesn’t detract from the game one bit.
Once you’ve got enough spirit and souls, you can head to the Forge option in the menu to create a new blade. Each of the playable characters has over 50 different swords to create or obtain, which fit into two types: blade and long blade. There’s a branching bracket system involved, so certain blades can only be unlocked by forging the correct weapons on the proper path. Aside from spirit and soul, there are level requirements to make many of the swords, but you level so often in the game it’s never an obstacle. The long blades tend to have slower attacks and better durability, while the regular blades unleash furious strikes very quickly, but aren’t suited very well for defense. Since you’re able to carry three with you at any given time, you’ve got a lot of options on how to play the game. You do also earn accessories that give you statistical bonuses like belts, masks, or clothes, but you’re only ever given one accessory slot, and they don’t affect the way your character looks on screen. The RPG elements aren’t very deep, I know, but the game’s focus isn’t level grinding, nor is it about finding that rare item. Muramasa is about taking a simple hack-and-slash concept, and ratcheting up the presentation to create a delightful combination of violence and beauty.
Merely talking about how gorgeous Muramasa looks doesn’t do it any justice. The phrase, “You’ve got to see it to believe it,” rings especially true on this unique looking title. Vanillaware has really outdone itself on the design work for this game. Both Momohime and Kisuke are incredibly detailed, and excellently animated. The simple style change from the true Momohime to the possessed version works terrifically, and the way the shy and reserved princess gives the player an embarrassed look when entering a hot spring is priceless. Kisuke has an interesting look as well. The disgraced ninja wears the skulls of six of his former allies whom he had to murder in order to complete a mission as a solemn reminder of the error of his ways. His grace and speed are showcased perfectly when jumping around a level fighting, and the way in which his body language changes helps characterize the stoic warrior. I could easily watch someone play this game for hours without getting bored- it’s that good looking.
Enemies and allies share just as much detail as the main characters, with the outrageous bosses hogging most of the spotlight. As you progress deeper into the game, you’ll find that the bosses become more elaborate and animated, causing the battles against foes like Raijin or Torahime are just as fun to watch as they are to actually play. The longer you play the more you’ll notice many of the standard enemies are just palette swaps with different weapons, but since I never get tired of seeing resurrected shogun warriors with flaming skulls for heads, no matter what color their armor is, this didn’t bother me too much. Backgrounds are just as intricately detailed as the characters that populate them, but most of your time is spent running across them in an effort to make it to the next area quickly, so you might not get much out of that picturesque sunset in the background. NPCs like merchants or restaurant owners aren’t nearly as polished as the story specific characters you interact with, but they still manage capture your eye.
The game boasts an engaging soundtrack, which hits all the right notes at all the right times. It’s not quite as catchy as some of the more recent J-Pop infused RPGs I’ve been playing, but the classic orchestration immerses you even deeper into the already rich tapestry of stimulation occurring onscreen. The voice work, entirely in Japanese with English subtitles, is spot-on as well. Subtle differences in the way Momohime talks whether she’s currently in control of her body or not, or the way inflections in Kisuke’s tone reveal his true character, show just how committed Vanillaware was to producing a memorable title. I don’t always like a game to be in its original language, but here it makes sense. Muramasa takes place in an era where I can’t imagine the characters speaking in English, and since the story isn’t over-written like many games today, I had no issue in reading the text at the bottom of my screen.
It’s not often I find myself drawn to games on the Wii, but a game as stunning as Muramasa: The Demon Blade can simply not be overlooked. Whether you’re captivated by the outstanding visual assault on your eyes, or the back to basics gameplay enriched by the slightest hint of RPG undertones, there’s no denying the power Vanillaware’s latest game wields. If a picture is worth a thousand words, something as eye-openingly breathtaking as Muramasa is priceless. There’s no two ways about it, Muramasa: The Demon Blade is the most rewarding game to hit the Wii this year.