Muramasa: The Demon Blade Preview

Beautiful and bloody Ken-jutsu.

Video game graphics of high-profile titles can generally be described as realistic, sick, hardcore, modern, gritty, rock-tastic, and asset-laden. So it takes a bold risk to deviate from that pattern, either by a seasoned developer like Capcom in the making of Okami, or a relatively unknown developer like Marvelous in the making of Muramasa: The Demon Blade. It’s efforts like this that remind us that graphics can be gorgeous. Wandering about the edgy, ergonomic booths at E3, I spotted billboard-sized projection screens airing trailers with technically detailed characters with technically detailed faces in technically detailed environments. I was impressed to say the least but remained peculiarly unmoved.

[image1]Then in the corner of my eye, a row of modest-sized displays at the Ignition Entertainment booth slowly came into view, serenely drawing me in with its spectacular sights: green-yellow gradients layered upon gentle rolling hills, a patchwork of sunstruck rice fields and baked grass glistening beneath the summer sky. The scenery moves from an eerie forest with fern foliage, bulky trees, rocky plateaus, and a pale blue light casting its shadow from the horizon, through to a cemetery lit by a toxic green moon and whose ground is so thick with gravestones that it seems to be covered by slates of dead grass. And that’s all in just the first level. And before I knew who the hell the main characters were.

Set during the Genroka Era in ancient Japanese history, the story surrounds the emergence of cursed Demon Blades that, as all things evil, give their wielders incredible power… along with death, chaos, and all-around hell. In the midst of the war are two heroes who find themselves on an involuntary adventure: Kisuke, a fugitive ninja who has (wouldn’t-you-know-it) amnesia, forgetting the heinous crime he has committed and for which his enemies are chasing him; and Mohohime, a princess who has been accidentally possessed by the spirit of an evil swordsman who wants to capture her groom and son of the Shogun family, Yokinojo.

While Kisuke and Mohohime seem to have completely separate storylines – though Kisuke goes from western Edo to eastern Kyo and Mohohime goes in the opposite direction – they will occassionally traverse through the same environments and encounter the same enemies. If it hasn’t been already made clear that Muramasa is incredibly Japanese, the heroes must dispose of rival ninja, ronin samurai, oni (Japanese demons), and other vile spirits from Japanese folklore. It even channels shades of Okami with brushwork details – deathblows that release waves of circular ink-like waves and an end-of-battle status screen, skinned in thin black strokes, which shows any rewards you receive for performing well, like having a high hit combo and a low complete time.

[image2]Getting these bonuses isn’t too difficult, given the fluid and precise controls for moving your character swiftly around the screen. You can use either the Wii-motion controls or the classic Gamecube controller, but this is one rare instance where the simple Wii-mote and Nunchuk – without any motion-sensing (we’ll see if this remains so) – suits a game perfectly. You’ll dash from left to right, jump and double jump around enemies, slice high and low, block, counter, evade, and release special sword-specific energy attacks with ease. Any expectations for an action-packed side-scrolling hack-‘n’-slash will be fully satisfied.

Both heroes wield three different katanas, out of 108 possible swords to collect and forge, with each of them having its own life essence suitably named Soul. If a sword’s Soul is fully drained, through energy attacks or defense, it breaks and its attack power becomes akin to that of a butter knife. Thankfully, sheathing it for a limited time will recover the sword’s power, and when it’s fully charged, unsheathing it in a quick draw will unleash a powerful screen-clearing slice of death. Between the different types of swords, Tachi katanas are swifter but deal less damage while Odachi katanas are hefty blades that dish out the heavy damage at the usual slow pace. But since you carry three swords at a time, you can switch freely between them without having to worry about the action ever stopping because of broken swords.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you won’t get hit because you will, and there will be moments when you’re being owned in a Ninja Gaiden-lite kind of way. Still, there are enough health items and enough badass moves in your arsenal that you can, if you’re good, remain unscathed. In fact, if the Japanese release of Muramasa lines up with the upcoming American realease, in addition to the RPG-oriented Unmatched mode and the action-oriented Carnage Mode, the unlockable Insane Death Mode will turn perfection into creed: 1 hit point and that’s it.

[image3]Maintaining the tension between battles is an orchestral soundtrack teeming with long notes and neutral chord progressions that lend both a soft and dynamic tone. In keeping with the Japanese theme, it incorporates traditional instruments – the occasional zither, wooden clapper, hand drum, and bamboo flute – mixed in with metal power chords and rock synth during boss battles. There’s no specific melody that you can latch onto, but it supports the underlying aesthetic (of "Hazy Muramasa", which is the English translation of its Japanese title Oboromuramasa) by providing a soundscape that transitions from one point of musical interest to the next effortlessly.

Murasama: The Demon Blade looks to be a modern take on the side-scrolling fightfests that filled arcades and the fourth generation of consoles. As if drawn by restorers of ancient Japanese portraits and landscapes, its visuals were impressive enough for us to give it the vote for Best Graphics at E3 2009 (…it was totally robbed). Hopefully, Murasama will not be sidelined to the racks of obscurity, because it has the potential to be one of the best titles in the Wii’s holiday lineup and, heck, maybe even the best Wii title this year. Look for it to slash and dash on September 8th.