Giant Bomb Review

21 Comments

Muramasa: The Demon Blade Review

4
  • Wii

Vanillaware's lush and layered visuals and the game's razor-sharp combat elevate Muramasa well beyond your average brawler.


 There's an incredibly strong sense of style at work here.
Since the ascension of polygons as the de facto method of rendering video games, I've often wondered: what if the switch from 2D to 3D had never happened? What would games look like today if all the time, money, and effort spent developing polygonal technology had instead been poured into the 2D sprites that had served us all so well through the 8- and 16-bit eras? (I've also fantasized about a world where FMV games are the dominant format, but that's not really relevant here.) Japanese developer Vanillaware's existence seems predicated on trying to realize that vision, and its latest, Muramasa: The Demon Blade, is an absolute visual triumph. Even if it didn't also offer a distinctive take on the dynamics of the traditional 2D brawler, Muramasa is such an incredible pleasure to see in motion that it could easily skate by in its good looks alone.

Much like how Vanillaware's PlayStation 2 action RPG Odin Sphere mined Norse mythology for its story and setting, Muramasa delves into the weird and mystical past of feudal Japan, a world populated with shoguns, evil monks, samurai, and ninja, as well as talking foxes, evil spirits, ethereal swordmakers, and demon gods. It's a surreal world where political intrigue and cultural hierarchies extend to the realm of the supernatural, and Hell is literally within walking distance.

There are two main quests in Muramasa, and each tells a different character's story. There's Momohimo, a young noble girl whose ill-fated plans for marriage are crushed completely when her body gets taken over by the spirit of a powerful and unpleasant swordsman named Jinkuro, who needs Momohimo's body to complete his sword-based plans. The other story concerns a disgraced young ninja named Kisuke who suffers from amnesia on a quest to find a special sword. Though they intertwine at a few key spots, the stories are largely independent from each other, and generally well-told, without smothering the player in overwrought melodrama or hammer-subtle broad comedy. Both plots definitely benefit from the florid use of Japanese mythology, and the (presumably cost-saving) decision to retain the original Japanese voice work also adds to the sense of verisimilitude. I'm not all that familiar with Japanese mythology, but this is all just bizarre enough to feel totally accurate.

 The importance of having the right sword for the situation cannot be stressed enough.
All of this serves as a wonderfully colorful backdrop for you to murder all manner of corporeal and supernatural fools on. There's a simple elegance to the way Muramasa handles. This is, essentially, a three-button game--one to attack and block, one to unleash a sword-specific special attack, and one to switch between swords--with all movement assigned to the analog stick. It's pretty button-mashy throughout, but to mistake its simplicity for ease would be foolish. On the harder of the two difficulties, it's not long before careful management of your swords and health items are key to survival, particularly during the ridiculously detailed, screen-filling boss battles. What variety of action that Muramasa does offer largely comes from the various swords you'll handle over the course of the game. The name Muramasa is actually that of a pan-dimensional swordmaker who lends you his talents in exchange for the souls of your fallen enemies. Though you can only have three swords equipped at a time, there are over a hundred swords to be unlocked. There are two general categories of swords, and it's a speed versus power thing, though there are a number of unique special attacks to consider as well. There's a certain amount of mixing and matching of features being done to achieve that high sword count, but having the right swords at the ready can make all the difference in certain situations.

Though it features certain RPG affectations--such as experience levels, equipment upgrades, and a non-linear world map--Muramasa is essentially a brawler, albeit one with a somewhat unusual format. The basic flow of the game has you traveling from one location to another, with your progress regularly interrupted by some kind of ambush, be it by samurai, ninja, ghost, demon, or a swarm of hairy eyeballs. With a few exceptions, the battle sequences are contained events, once you must deal with before you can continue on your journey. It creates an interesting rhythm of tension-and-release--you'll fight furiously for 30 seconds, then sprint your way through a few beautifully rendered backdrops before squaring off with another gang of villains.

 It's difficult to articulate just how breathtaking this looks in motion.
Muramasa would be an interesting little curiosity if Japanese mythology and genre-blending were all it had to offer, but it's the game's hand-drawn art style that truly makes it something special. Owing much to both traditional Japanese watercolors and modern anime, Vanillaware has conjured up a visual style that is distinctly and throughly Japanese. The character animations are fluid, and all the environments, from rolling countrysides to dense, paper-walled cities, is rendered with incredible detail. The game also has a bit of an infatuation with the pseudo-3D effect of parallax scrolling. It's not uncommon to see up to ten distinct layers on a single screen, a move that goes well beyond simply trying to create a false sense of depth and becomes a prominent stylistic choice. The game's not shy about modern technology either, as there's plenty of lighting and particle effects subtly integrated into the picture. If there's one complaint I have about the visuals in Muramasa, it's that the Wii can't present them at a higher resolution. It looks great, but at 720p, it could've looked even better.

For all it's got going for it, though, Muramasa's problem is that it simply overstays its welcome. This is a good 14-hour game, and the gameplay cannot support that kind of play time. I found myself wishing that the game was about half the length it is, which would've left me satisfied, rather than fully exhausted. Playtime notwithstanding, Muramasa is a pretty special experience. There's a lot of craft in this game, and it manages to celebrate past glories while still feeling fresh and original.
21 Comments
Posted by DanielJW

I love giddy Ryan! 
  
Awesome review, I'll definitely be grabbing this one.

Posted by ArclightBorealis

I enjoyed the game, and I wanted to see what Ryan thought of it. Giddy Ryan is a good sign.

Posted by Hailinel

Ryan:  The female character's name is Momohime, not Momohimo.  Otherwise, excellent review, sir.

Posted by PolyesterPimp

I Lub this game. Easy recommendation for any Wii owner. Glad to hear you got further into it than your quick look.

Posted by Red

One of the few Wii games I'm interested in. *Fingers crossed for 360/PS3 port*

Posted by Rasgueado

It's comments like the last line in the review that make me wonder if the method of "play for review" becomes a significant factor. If you're not set out to play the entire game in one or two sittings, but instead break it up over the course of a month, would the gameplay still wear itself out? I remember Brad mentioned he had Splosion Man fatigue by the end, but I played it in 6 level chunks, and had a great time the whole way through.  
 
I can't say for myself in this case. I don't have this game yet. 

Online
Edited by MrKlorox

Do you think you would have given it 5/5 if it were 720p? I know that is a factor within the community.

Posted by JJOR64

Maybe I should pick this game up.  I haven't gotten a Wii game since April-ish.

Posted by Darkstar614
@Hailinel said:
" Ryan:  The female character's name is Momohime, not Momohimo.  Otherwise, excellent review, sir. "
yeah get with it Ryan! j/k
 
excellent review.
Posted by Kohe321

Awesome review Ryan! I'll probably buy this now.

Posted by Arjuna

All modesty aside, I consider myself well-read; but "  verisimilitude"?!  I had to dictionary.com that one, hehehe.  Somethin' new everyday, eh? 
 
Hey, while I'm on the subject, here's some typos I think I've noticed:  paragraph 5:   "once you must deal with", I think should read "ones you must deal with", and "distinctly and throughly Japanese", where I think it should be spelled "thoroughly". 
 
As a contemporary poet once wrote:  "Activision smugly boasting of rape" 
 
...hehehehe

Posted by JuanHino

I was waiting for this review before I took the jump. Guess I'll be picking this game up next time I have some dispossible income. 
 
Thanks Ryan.

Edited by Ravenlock

Good review. I like the game a whole lot, but your complaint about the length is valid (though I think I'll keep playing through to the end, it's just so damned pretty). The combat system really is pretty well designed given how simple they kept the mechanics - which is a good thing, in my book. As for the wish for it to be in a higher resolution, though, I don't think on the 360 or PS3 this game stood a chance in hell of even getting made (or if it did, it'd be as a much-scaled-back downloadable title), so I'd say we should be happy that the Wii's dev environment at least allows this sort of experiment to exist.
 
Regardless, thanks for giving the game a fair shake. It deserves attention, if not unreserved praise.

Posted by Curufinwe

I will get this at Christmas when I have more time to spare.

Posted by atomic_dumpling

In the age of ridiculously short games (see ODST, Mirror's Edge), there is no such thing as too long a playtime.

Edited by AgentJ
@Hailinel said: 

" Ryan:  The female character's name is Momohime, not Momohimo.  Otherwise, excellent review, sir. "

 I was going to say exactly this
 
@Red said:
" One of the few Wii games I'm interested in. *Fingers crossed for 360/PS3 port* "
You know you'll wait for a port, then two years down the road you'll have forgotten about the game and it won't have gone anywhere
Posted by RHCPfan24

Looks pretty good, actually it looks beautiful. Nice review, Ryan.

Posted by Venatio

I wish that this was on the PS3 or 360, then it would look even more amazing

Posted by Knives

Will buy after price cut.

Posted by Media_Master

Art alone is worth a purchase.

Posted by NorseDudeTR
What the fuck's wrong with the world? You don't hate on ZMF's style, the dude is the most cathartic, rage filled specimen ever to have opinions on games, and should be saluted for it. WHAT SAY YOU AMERICA, AND FOR THAT MATTER, THE REST OF THE WORLD! (wow. That shit's contagious.)