ESRB Rating: T
Release Date: 9/8/09
Developers tend to have a signature–a type of game they make. Nippon Ichi makes grindy strategy games. Bethesda makes overambitious open world RPGs. Bioware remakes KotOR every few years. It’s not ubiquetous or anything, but when you’re in the biz, you tend to stick to what you’re good at.
Vanillaware’s makes a particular kind of brawler. They take a rich cultural tradition of myth, realize it lovingly in pixel art, and then insert some characters to punch everyone in the face. They did it to Norse myth (which didn’t really need more face-punching), and they’ve hit Japanese myth now with Muramasa: The Demon Blade. Mercifully, Vanillaware seems to have learned something between the two games, sparing Muramasa the ennui that ruined their first brawler.
The Oboro Style
It’s difficult to write about Muramasa without drawing parallels to Odin Sphere, Vanillaware’s last mythic brawler. They share the same 5 hour character arcs, character advancement powered by eating, and even the same dead-simple brawling. The games aren’t completely identical, however, and Muramasa surpasses Odin Sphere on essentially every metric. Inventory management is gone, along with the crafting system. Enemies still produce random drops, but rarely for items you couldn’t find in a store, so you’ll never find yourself farming random drops instead of playing the game.
Where inventory management trimmed, play diversified. Muramasa does lean heavily on button mash brawling, but it also turns the idea on its ear. Holding the attack button makes your character adopt a defensive stance where tilting the stick in any direction executes a dash attack. It’s an unfamiliar single-button approach to brawling, but once you’re comfortable it transforms combat into a stick-and-move tactical struggle. It’s not a new bar for brawlers or anything (or even a new idea), but it extracts some fun from an otherwise dull approach to brawlers. Add to that the game’s relative brevity (say, 10 hours total), and it never quite overstays its welcome.
Muramasa isn’t all streamlined pugilism, and the game’s obsession with swords can drag it down. Character advancement is represented by swords. The demon swordsmith Muramasa wants to craft his masterpiece, and he’s willing to let your characters use it in exchange for the souls and food to power the process. Less floridly, you kill enemies and eat food to purchase each of the game’s 100-ish swords. Swords are a mixed bag. Popping in and out of menus a hundred times for the sake of character advancement sounds like a RPG element, but Muramasa mandates that you fill in every single part of its branching advancement tree to reach the end. So in practice, all the work you put into sword crafting has the same outcome as an automated leveling system with the added bonus of wasting your time. There are a few occasions where you have to complete an optional quest to advance to the lower parts of the tree, but those quests could have been completely optional without impacting character development. Add the menu fiddling to grinding both food and foes, and advancement ends up being so much busywork.
On the other hand, Muramasa‘s sword obsession does pay some dividends. Your character can fight with three swords at a time, switching among them on the fly. Swords break after extended use, which Muramasa uses it to enforce rapid weapon switching by “healing” offline blades automatically. As a bonus incentive, sword switching unleashes a smart-bomb attack that hits all onscreen enemies. Weapon degradation is rarely a fun mechanic, but Muramasa uses it to reward diverse play rather than merely punishing players for favoring a weapon.
Tales of Ise
Muramasa‘s story is delivered by skippable cutscene, and its characters are little more than mules for an amnesia plot. So it’s hard to recommend for the interesting narrative. However the setting and delivery of the tale are so unmistakably Japanese, that it’s a pleasure to watch even a hackneyed narrative. You can’t swing a prayer bead around without hitting six Oni, two kitsune, and a dead lover’s ghost. So it’s a pleasure just to sightsee through the densely detailed world, eat the local cuisine (to level up), meet historic Japanese figures, and kill them.
As with Odin Sphere before it, Muramasa spares no effort or expense when it comes to art. Every character is a jointed colony of hand-drawn sprites, each a piece of exquisite pixel art in its own right. Composited into a world, the art does nothing short of dazzle, even despite the Wii’s limited resolution. You’ll fight samurai against a sea of golden wheat or demon parasols over a stream of fireflies. There’s just so much detail that it can be difficult to absorb. Even the music is loaded with authentic instrumentation, transitioning smoothly in and out of more modern mixes with combat.
Cut to the Chase
Muramasa is a long shot from perfect, but it takes the ideas from Odin Sphere and improves on all of them. It’s pretty, accessible, and utterly Japanese. On the other hand, it’s grindy, overly simple, and drags a bit if you’re a completionist. So it’s a better experience than it is a game. That mechanical limitation will probably hurt brawler fans most, but should make the game easier to adopt for casual players. Muramasa is worth playing for everyone, though–just for the chance to sightsee.
What It Costs: $50
What It’s Worth:
•To The Hardcore: $15 (play)
•To The Genre Fan: $15 (play)
•To The Casual: $20 (buy)
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