Muramasa ends up being one of those games that, while very good, has to forever live under the shadow of what it could have been
It is no secret that, when compared to other systems of its generation, the Nintendo Wii tremendously lacked power. Still, even with the limited hardware, a number of developers were able to show the machine could pull off absolutely stunning visuals. It is often said that it is in the hardest and most challenging times that man is able to show its true creative prowess, and so, Nintendo’s system became the harsh grounds where daring developers had to turn talent into a major resource to overcome the restrictions of hardware. Many companies accomplished that by crafting downright ingenious gameplay mechanics, while others decided to invest in the artistic value of their games, making the Wii home to some rather creative titles and some of the best art directions ever seen in the history of gaming.
In a place where resources were limited, the very best games were the ones to thrive on their art style and excel in creative game design. Muramasa: The Demon Blade surpasses pretty much the entire library of the console when it comes to art and visual glory, but while its gameplay is undeniably good, it falters when it comes to some vital elements that prevent the experience from reaching the greatness level it could have so easily achieved. It is by no means a bad game, it is a very good one, but the fact that its length is unusually big for a game of its genre (hack and slash) – which features very limited gameplay options for developers to explore – ends up revealing some repetitive wrinkles that end up taking a way a little bit of the brilliancy of the package.
In the game, players will either take the control of Momohime or Kisuke, who roam the world killing demons that have entered the human realm and seeking the truth behind who they are and what their destiny is. Momohime is a princess whose body is accidentally possessed by the spirit of an evil swordsman – Jinkuro – and, as a consequence, has to run from her castle in order to save her life, which can only be done by aiding the evil spirit in his quest. Kisuke, meanwhile, is an amnesiac ninja who is granted a powerful sword by a deceased swordsman who had a rivalry with Jinkuro.
The two plots follow distinct paths through the same big overworld and show some interesting overlapping at some points, which is by far the most pleasant fruit the dual nature of the game bears. Sadly, the plot’s decent quality is occasionally marred by translation issues, which sometimes have the characters mouthing sentences that are a little bit too poorly worded for comprehension. Moreover, the development of the story is occasionally hard to follow due to a profusion of complicated names that pop up every two sentences. Fortunately, though, Muramasa is not exactly a story-driven game, and so the eventual story confusion does not take away much from the whole experience.
The two separate adventures clock in at about ten hours each, totaling twenty hours of gameplay if players focus solely on finishing the central story. Even though the characters are different in their sprites, combat works pretty much the same way for both, as they do not possess any significant distinction in their fighting styles. At all times, Momohime and Kisuke can equip three different swords, each one having its own special power – triggered by the press of the B-button – and attack stats. During combat, as battles progress and blows are blocked, the stamina of the swords diminishes until they break, forcing the character to switch to another sword while the shattered one automatically regenerates after some time.
Combat is relatively straightforward, with the A-button being responsible for pretty much all actions, from slicing to blocking; the control stick for guiding the attacks; and the digital directional for using items. Muramasa features three different difficulty sets that can be switched at any time – the last of which is unlocked upon completion. On the first level, the combat will restrict itself to mindless hack and slash, as enemies will barely be able to inflict damage on players, and neither will the bosses, but on the hardest levels blocking and dodging becomes vital to survive and battles get much more interesting and skill-demanding. At the end of the battles, players earn experience points depending on what they did during the skirmishes, and extra experience can be acquired by not suffering damage or performing other achievements.
When players are not fighting, they will be going through the game’s absolutely gorgeous scenarios. Muramasa’s meticulously hand-drawn visuals are downright breathtaking. The settings are made up of around five layers of incredible colors and art that move independently as the characters walk through the land, giving an incredible sense of depth and grandeur. The whole game looks as if a Japanese painting had suddenly come to life and started moving like a very well-animated and frantic cartoon, and the game’s great soundtrack just nicely enhances that feeling.
Still, in the joining of both its fast-paced combats and marvelous art, Muramasa can have its negative aspects summarized in one word: superficial. Sometimes, the game makes it feel like the developers were so set on the combination of fighting and progressing through the environments that they simply decided not to give the game substance. Sure, there might be hundreds of blades to collect, some of which involve forging swords with both Momohime and Kisuke, since their sword trees overlap at some points; and there are even a handful of extra locations to visit, like the challenging monster lairs, where hordes of creatures require players to be at very high levels in order to survive, but the game is still very one-dimensional.
During the journey players will go through a few villages and populated locations that seem to have no purpose or backstory at all, being there to simply change the environment a little bit. Even though the characters level up, there is no such thing as the ability to improve their stats manually, which stops players from being able to choose what kind of character they want to control. The slots of equipment that can be attached to Momohime and Kisuke are also not enough to give any considerable value of customization to them. And the constant backtracking comes off as an excuse to increase the length of the game in a few hours and gets awfully tiresome – as like all games of the genre – the world design itself is not exactly filled with creativity and unexpected moments.
Muramasa: The Demon Blade is a good title, and it is mostly fun for the twenty hours or so that it lasts. However, Vanillaware’s interesting attempt to merge the simplicity of a hack and slash affair with the scope of an adventure title and the value of an RPG game ends up being negatively affected by the fact that those elements are not tied together with enough content or value to justify the merger. Muramasa ends up being one of those games that, while very good, has to forever live under the shadow of what it could have been.