Acing the Tameshigiri.
In the world of folks unceremoniously known as “gamers”, there’s nothing worse than those gamers who chronically clamor for innovation, exclaim their boredom with all the gritty, photo-realistic first-person shooters, the solid but conservative action-adventure titles, and annualized, money-grubbing franchises, but then are inexplicably afraid of change and anything that they deem weird. They are the complainers that complain about the solution to their complaints. Even if I shove the gorgeously-designed boxart of Muramasa: The Demon Blade in their faces while bellowing how this is exactly the action title they have been looking for, they will pout and say that it looks too Japanese. Hopefully, those gamers don’t include you.
[image1]With the gaming landscape inundated with the pursuit for technical graphical excellence – higher polygon counts, smoother character models, and enhanced animations – Murasama defies the norm with artistic graphical excellence by offering the best 2D graphics that I’ve ever seen. That it is on the Wii is a miracle. A visual blend of wrinkled Buddha sprites, Okami-inspired brushstrokes, and vivid animé-styled Japanese artwork, the hand-drawn characters and environments have clearly evolved from Vanillaware’s Odin Sphere, interpreting the historical scenery of Japan’s Genroku era with a masterful understanding of color palettes and hues:
A white cat, on an awning layered with wine-colored shingles, purring by an open window in a sensual, seductively lit, aristocratic district. Dragonflies fluttering over a field of swaying golden hay lining a dirt road, trampled and parched, stretching across undulating, unsettled plains. Kisuke, the amnesiac ninja whose wild hair matches his untamed temperament, dashing in the air with his blade three times in a zigzag of death, tossing enemy ninjas aside like tattered leaves in the wind. Momohime, a princess who has been erroneously possessed by the soul of the infamous male swordsman Jinkuro, unleashing the special art of her lightning sword against square-shaped demonic runts, who hop and bop along a forest trail backlit by a hazy indigo glow. A fox lady whose sugar dumplings are almost falling out of her kimono… yeah…
Better yet, the soundtrack organically transitions from casual foot-sprinting music to stimulating fight tracks, seamlessly incorporating classical Japanese instruments and electronic backbeats. In fact, it’s so seamless that you probably won’t realize the music changes unless you concentrate. If that weren’t enough, nothing more could be asked of the Japanese voice-acting with English subtitles - it's an otaku's wet dream, really.
Both Kisuke and Momohime traverse the same paths, though Kisuke goes from west to east and Momohime goes in the opposite direction, but their motivations differ and their storylines rarely intersect, except for several amusing hot spring cut-scenes. Given that Muramasa is primarily a side-scrolling hack-‘n’-slash action title with light RPG elements, the plot is intentionally wispy and briskly paced in bite-sized chunks, without becoming overly verbose, conceptual, or melodramatic.
[image2]Both action-oriented narratives revolve around collecting
amulets maidens crests chaos emeralds demon blades of a specific rainbow color, each guarded by a tenacious, typically gargantuan boss with an obnoxiously extended life bar, to break the barrier of the same color. This type of strict linear progression might annoy players who are more accustomed to open-world exploration, but it’s also a throwback to the classic days, a sense of nostalgia Murasama aims for.
As such, combat emphasizes nimble, swift, and effortless attacks that flow off the blade and spring from evasive maneuvers. Every move and parry centers about the ‘A’ button which unfortunately caters to button-mashers, making the easy Muso difficulty that much easier, and jumping by pressing up with the Nunchuk’s analog stick is touchy since any slight upper diagonal movement registers as a jump.
However, the harder Shusa difficulty requires parries to be more precise and thus requires more items, though it doesn’t yield better items or more experience points. If you have a Gamecube or Classic controller, the D-pad makes the jumping controls practically perfect. Completing the game also unlocks the near-impossible 1-hit point difficulty level, and tough enemy lairs are spread throughout each path, so anyone who wants more of a challenge can find it at their fingertips.
Demon blades, forged by the spirit of the legendary blacksmith Muramasa, are divided into two categories – the quicker Tachi swords and the bulkier ÅŒdachi swords – with each having a unique art that can be unleashed at the cost of the blade’s Soul Power. Spirit gained by eating food and souls gained by defeating enemies and finding them littered about the environment - both of which are plentiful by the endgame - can be converted into one of the many blades (108, to be exact) arranged in a complex
Sphere Grid tree diagram.
[image3]But even if you acquire blades with incredible special arts, effects, and attack power, their Soul Power gauge is limited, and if you block too often without evading, the blade will "break" for a limited amount of time. Switching out to a new blade will allow the other dormant blades to recover their strength, but if all three blades are broken, you will have to rely on your dodging ability, which can be like trying to block a steel katana with a paper fan (and you're not Mulan). Thankfully every once in a while, you can perform a powerful, screen-clearing quick draw attack that completely obliterates everything in sight (especially wooly eyeballs… *shudder*). Unfortunately, aside from blade-specific special arts, you won’t learn any new moves in your arsenal: Ability progression is almost non-existent.
All the while, you will collect recipes for food, eat cute and jiggly restaurant dishes, gather items that will restore your health or blade’s Soul Power, and earn experience points towards leveling up, bonus points if you perform well in battle. Regrettably, that’s just about the only benefit to the egregious amount of backtracking that you'll have to do. Half of it is voluntary backtracking to peddlers and enemy lairs, but the other half is forced through quests, bringing unneeded attention to the somewhat repetitive environments and enemies. If there was a better method of transportation beyond the restrictive kago (palanquins), Bronze Mirror (which returns you to the last shrine you save at), and being able to teleport between shrines only after a play-through with one of the characters, it would have condensed the amount of sigh-inducing travel.
Muramasa: The Demon Blade invokes one of those trying times as a critic: On overall design merit, it deserves a B+, but on heart, it deserves an A-. It’s understandable to see reviewers complain about the lack of depth, the backtracking, and the rather simple hack-’n’-slash combat (especially those who play the game for multiple hours non-stop because it's their job), but all of these gripes are mitigated by the addictive and effective combat, the focus on action, the multiple endings, and a new standard of aural and graphical presentation for 2D games and video game artistry in general. But perhaps its best unrecognized feature is that it actually got a hardcore “gamer” like me to stop playing my Xbox 360 and pick up the Wii for the first time in months, possibly years, not just because it was my assignment, but because I wanted to. And I’m not sure I can give better praise than that.