Man, you remember the Wii? I’m pretty sure I’ve said this before, but for all the flak the Wii got for “having no games”, it sure had a hell of a lot of good games. In a lot of ways, I feel the Wii got everything that the indie games market is covering now, before indie games even had a hope of making it. In the face of the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 pushing HD graphics and high processing power, but correspondingly high development costs, the Wii offered a more modest rate of performance at a much cheaper, and correspondingly less risky, development price. Games didn’t port well to and from the Wii and you didn’t see it’s larger install base buying as many games as the other consoles, so it didn’t see that many AAA releases. But established companies shooting out more experimental and creative secondary-level games? That it had in droves. And lots of them were really good. At this point, my Wii library is pretty comparible in size to that of its competitors, and I find myself really glad for that.
Case in point, there’s Muramasa: the Demon Blade. Oozing art style, combat that’s at the same time buttery smooth and awkward, a game that’s not trying to make the huge statement of its AAA counterparts and is just there to be fun. That last part is really representative of the Wii’s output for me. How did it play out in this case? Let’s find out!
Muramasa is made by Vanillaware, who at this point were notable for Odin Sphere and later because well-known for their beat-em-up Dragon’s Crown. It’s a side-scrolling action game where you play as one of two characters roaming around beautifully drawn depictions of the various areas of feudal Japan, as you slay your enemies, collect the Demon Blades, and…. do things to get stuff done. There’s a plot, but frankly, it really doesn’t matter.
And yeah, it being Vanillaware, the art is the most prominent part of this piece. And it is great. Everything is lavishly hand-drawn, incorporating real-world art techniques from feudal Japan in a way that makes things look completely fitting to the setting even as they’re stunningly gorgeous. Most of it looks even better in motion. Being hand-painted, animations are a little limited, and some of them do look a little janky, but for the most part, they really breathe life into these characters and locales.
The bosses are probably visually the best part. If you’ve been playing video games for a while, chances are you’ve probably been pretty well exposed to lots of classical Japanese culture and mythology. Muramasa draws from that well pretty heavily, but doesn’t just add art to it, it’s often dropping some really interesting twists on the classical mythology as well. Inugami goes from classical mythology of being a dog poltergeist to the version here of being a blasted scary being with rows of teeth that never end. Raijin keeps all they fierceness and aggression he’s had in classical mythology, but he’s in the form of a muscular battle woman here. I found it interesting, seeing the unusual takes on familiar features all over the place.
And I know I’m talking a lot about the art here, but really, the biggest thing I enjoy about the visual design is that it seems that the art team really loved what they’re doing here. It can lead to a bit of an overfocus on certain things, such as food, sexy women, and grotesque creatures, that may not be to everyone’s tastes but the artists were obviously fascinated by them, but overall, the love for their creation just pours out of the visual aspects at every point.
Gameplay-wise, Muramasa is combat heavy. Very combat heavy. You’ll traverse forests and towns and whatnot, occasionally you’ll stop to talk to people, but you’ll probably be spending the vast, vast majority of your time in fights. You’ll cut through hundreds, if not thousands, of ninja, samurai, demons, etc. in your time there. So if the game is going to be good, the combat better be top notch.
And really, when everything is working right, it is. The game has a control scheme rather unlike most standard 2d Action games, so there’s an adjustment period that, given how short the game is, you might not even be done with by the time you reach the end. Basically, they tried to fit as many functions as they could between the stick and the A button. A is both attack and defense. Tap it, and you’ll launch your strikes. Hold it, and you’ll defend. To Muramasa’s credit, in almost every game you see where tapping and holding a button do different things, there’s usually a delay after you tap it before they actually do the thing. That’s not really noticeable here. Tap it, and they attack pretty immediately. Hold it, and your guard comes up. It’s really easy to balance both your attacks and defense with the same button. Use the stick to move a direction while you’re guarding, and you’ll launch another move. Up gives you a pop-up, forward and back have you flying upward in that direction sword out, angled down is a thrust attack, and straight down sees you charge up a helm-splitter attack that often breaks your opponent’s guard. If you attack or guard with the right timing a projectile, you’ll deflect it, and if you attack at the exact moment just after you got hit, you’ll regain all the health you just lost and begin your own offensive. The stick on its own handles practically all parts of your movement. Jumping, dodge-rolling, ducking, etc. Outside of that, you have two buttons for on-the-fly item use, and two buttons dedicated to managing your swords.
And outside of the basic controls, I’d say it’s the sword management that really serves to distinguish Muramasa from other 2d action games. You can have three blades equipped at any time, and can switch between them freely in the middle of battle. If you wait long enough between them, you’ll perform a heavy screen clearing attack when you switch. There are two types of swords, blades and long blades, which largely function the same but blades are swift whereas long blades are slow but hit heavily. Each sword has its own special attack, which is fueled by its individual meter. That same meter also reduces when you use that sword to guard. When it’s depleted, the sword breaks, and is practically useless until you leave it in its sheath long enough for the demon magic in the blade to repair it. So that same meter gauges both your offensive and defensive capacities, and you have to use it wisely to see any type of success.
Both characters play exactly the same, save for that they get access to different swords and thus different special abilities. Overall, when the system works well, it works really, really well. Juggling your opponents for crazy combos, flying all the way across the screen to get away from their counteroffensive, slipping behind the next big bad guy and laying into him all in the space of a second, it all feels really, really good. The problem I had was when being put on the defensive, I was never comfortable enough with having to do all my movement with just the stick. For one, the difference between straight down and angled down is subtle enough that I would often dodge roll when I meant to duck and vice versa. And I never got comfortable with using up to jump, and I often found myself taking hits that would have been avoided if there was a jump button available. I feel that’s more due to my personal comfort with the unusual control scheme rather than a flaw on the developer’s part, however, and one that will probably be lessened in my eventual replay. If you play a lot of fighting games, I’d imagine you’d have an easier time getting accustomed.
And again, I have to reiterate. When it’s good, it’s really, really good. It feels amazing to be facing a horde of ninjas and rapid fire cutting through them all without a scratch. It feels so great to be facing off against a boss and finding yourself a flurry of slices, striking all areas at will and dancing away from their attacks. If you get good at the controls, it will give you a thrill in battle like little else.
Outside of combat, you’re usually doing some mild platforming. It’s relatively easy to get through, there’s no bottomless pits or anything, and usually it’s a pretty straight run from one area to another. There’s a few extra goodies to pick up if you’re of a mind to search, and you’ll sometimes find other features like monkeys who will take you to healing hot springs, but those are all noted on the map when they’re nearby, so you don’t have to do a heck of a lot of scouring.
The plot is… eh. I wouldn’t pay it much mind. There’s two major problems with it. The first is that on both stories, it seems to come in at a point where almost everything is already done, and you’re just there to cap it off. In Momohime’s story, you play as a traditional Japanese noblewoman whose arranged samurai fiance was attacked by a legendary, but dying, ronin. He was wielding a blade that would transfer his soul into his target, but Momohime intervened, and his soul wound up in her instead. In Kisuke’s story, you play as an amnesiac who’s being targeted by a ninja clan that claim that he betrayed them. As you progress through both, you get a bit more information on what happened to lead them to that point, and there’s a big backdrop of some war or other and different factions in Japan doing things, but it always seems to feel like most of the story is already done, that there’s more backstory than there actually is plot in this game. That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, Dark Souls did that exact thing very well, but here, it feels like it leads to a lot more “tell, don’t show” moments that don’t really work well.
The second major problem with the plot is just that there’s not a whole lot of meat to it. You’ll get one short scene and the chance to talk to plot relevant people before and after every boss fight, and that’s it. It doesn’t have a lot of presence, there’s not a lot of content, and it’s not integrated into most of the game at all. I can’t say it’s a bad plot, in all, it’s just so minimal that you could be forgiven for instantly forgetting it once you look at something else.
The game’s pretty grindy, as well. Everything looks lovely. Absolutely everything does. And I hope you love it too, because whether it’s an enemy or a background, you will be seeing it again and again and again. The game’s maps stretch pretty far, but they use a lot of cut and paste in building them, so you’ll be repeating yourself a lot. A lot of your objectives are to just walk through several levels until you get to a location until something happens. The game uses random encounters, and as I said, is very combat heavy, but there’s only so many enemies and enemy formations, so you’ll be seeing those over and over again as well. It’s not a long game by any means, so it didn’t feel to me like it was there to pad it out, and it helps that the combat, which is most of what you’re doing, is very fast-paced and really strong, but you’re going to be going through the same areas and fights many times over. If you play normally, you’ll get everything you need to unlock all the swords you need for your character naturally for the first ending, but to get the final ending, you need to unlock all the swords, and that will take it’s own grinding as well.
But, like I said, I had a really fantastic time with Muramasa. It’s gorgeous, it’s exciting, and it’s very, very different from most of what you saw of it’s time. And not just because I beat it on the difficulty the game called “only for the brave.” Although flattery will raise you game’s ranking on the Aether Scale of Quality. Keep that in mind, developers.