Honestly, I have very little reason to use my Nintendo Wii these days. There is just nothing on the console that I would enjoy, outside of the occasional Virtual Console title or Wii Ware release. So imagine my surprise when someone gave the okay for Vanillaware's Oboro Muramasa to be released in America. Retitled Muramasa: The Demon Blade for the West, I have been waiting for this title to be released since the first game play footage was dropped. My jaw hit the floor at this 2-D beauty, and all the youtube, and trailer footage in the world was not enough to satisfy me. Nor did it do this game justice. To say that you have to see this game to believe it wouldn't even scratch the surface at describing how this game looks. But the real burning question is how does it all play? After all, the footage shown made this game out to be a successor to Odin Sphere, which to me would have been just fine since Vanillaware does a fine job at the 2-D beat-em-up side-scroller genre. Thankfully the game play is a bit more solid than Odin Sphere in spite of a few kinks and questionable design decisions.
First let's get some of the problem bits out of the way, there aren't many, but as a whole they do drag the experience down. The first big thing is the lack of variety in enemies fought. About eighty percent of your battles are going to be against ninjas, and for the most part they all share the same tactics. They are simply fodder that gets in your way, and add more time to game with their fights. The fighting isn't the problem, it's the high encounter rate. Especially when I have an item that says it “greatly” reduces the enemy encounter rate yet the minute I put them on I get in to three fights on the next three sections of the map, something feels fishy here. Thankfully by the time this starts to get really old you have items at your disposal that will allow you to warp around the world map. Another let down is the variety behind the weapons. There are only two types at your disposal, long blades, and normal blades. A third variety of say, short ninja blades with just a different set of attacks would have helped the combat be a little bit more versatile, because there is no difference between the two main characters.
The last negative I had for the game is in the form of difficulty. When you start the game you are given two difficulty modes, Muso and Shura. While one would think that you could just swap in Easy and Hard respectively, it's not quite as simple as that. There are a variety of changes that happen when you switch between the two. The biggest thing being how vulnerable you are to attacks. For example, you block by holding the A button. In Muso mode, this applies no matter what else you are doing, you are in a state of perpetual block, and most attacks won't hurt you. Then there is Shura mode, where even when you are defending, the game seems to have choice opportunities where it can still hit you, and this is never really clearly defined, so you're better of constantly attempting to dodge everything. Now this also can be interpreted on how you play the game and what tactics you use, for example, there are secret arts for each sword and they have frames of invincibility on purpose, how you use these frames is also a factor when trying to play in Shura mode. I don't even want to think about the hidden difficulty mode and what kind of masochistic tendencies you have if you want to try it. Overall even in Muso mode the game still holds a bit of a challenge, but by the time you get to the end of the game you hold in your hand a variety of equipment that quite honestly, breaks the game, regardless of difficulty. By the time I finished the game, none of my swords could be broken, and I was doing insane amounts of damage, and the bosses were a little bit of a let down.
Now you might be wondering, with that much text dedicated to the negatives, what is good about the game? Seriously, it's everything else that this game has to offer. Gameplay, story, graphics, music, these aspects of the game are so strong that I can easily look past the negative aspects that bothered me. I also had a great deal of fun with the game, now granted everyone's mileage may vary, but for what it's worth I haven't enjoyed a Wii title since the first No More Heroes.
Muramasa: The Demon Blade is perhaps the greatest looking 2-D title to ever exist. I was willing to give that honor to Odin Sphere back in 2007, and now nearly two and half years later, Muramasa easily trumps the visuals of Vanillaware's previous effort. I didn't at all think this was possible, yet somehow the Wii is able to pump out some 2-D prowess that I can only verbally praise so much. The character details, from their movements down to their breathing is immaculate, even then food, yes the food looks spectacular, you can just feel an intense amount of love went in to making this game and making it look as beautiful as it does. I really think the star here in the visuals is the world of Muramasa itself. The visual representation of ancient Japan is really quite astonishing and just when you think you've seen something really impressive you reach a major city and see that there is just so much more that this game has to show you, from snow capped mountains to dense and lush forests, to war-torn battlefields, to the gates of Hell and Heaven and back again. And then the boss fights happen and your jaw hits the floor again. These bosses are massive in size, yet I feel like saying massive is an understatement. They are also incredible to look at, but don't stare too long or you're going to going to be stamped out of existence. Honestly, I cannot talk the graphics up enough, if anything buy this game for the lesson in art you're going to receive, your teacher is George Kamitani and he commands and arrests your attention with his unique art style.
If you happen to have seen trailers of Muramasa and thought the music sounded familiar, then you have a trained ear for the music of Hitoshi Sakimoto who has been responsible for music from Odin Sphere, Grim Grimoire, Final Fantasy XII, Valkyria Chronicles, and a few other, you know, small unheard of titles. His compositions for Muramasa definitely have the sounds of the ancient Japan, and they are really quite incredible considering the orchestral sounds he's known for typically have a more European sound to them. Surprisingly there is no English voice track in the game, it is entirely in Japanese, so if you're not big on reading this might be a negative for you, but remember that this is a Japanese game first and foremost. However that being said, it doesn't excuse a localization that seems rather basic in getting its story across. I would have happily read more text if it would have made the game make more sense or just give me more story.
What is there for a story is pretty solid. You have two characters, a male ninja named Kisuke, and a princess named Momohime. Kisuke has lost his memory, and is believed to be dead after a betrayel, yet is alive much to the surprise of the ninja who are hunting him down. His story will reveal his past and ultimately determine the fate of those he loves. Momohime's story is equally compelling and slightly less clichéd. Her body has been possessed by an evil swordsman whose blade was intended for her lover's life. She intervened and was pierced by his blade, and in the process became the victim of a soul transfer ritual, which has allowed the evil swordsman to control her. Both characters are searching for the demon blades, one hundred and eight blades created by the great sword-smith Senji Muramasa. The story plays out in typical RPG fashion, you battle your way to a boss battle, slight exposition of story, boss fight, more story, lather, rinse, repeat. This happens for eight chapters, and overall, you'll spend about thirty hours to completely finish the game for both characters, get all their endings and find all of the blades.
Now the biggest linchpin to this entire game falls on the battle system. This really is where the game will be a must buy or a pass for you, the dear reader. Combat can happen pretty much anywhere, aside from zones where other NPCs reside, anywhere else is fair game for you to be attacked. Once attacked your character will go in to their attack mode. From here, combat is a matter of timing button presses of the A button and combining that with directions on the nunchuck remote. All movement is on the nunchuck, even jumping, which takes a few moments to get used to. I must say I am also exceedingly happy that there is no waggle to be found in this game.
Now lets say for example you chose Muso mode for difficulty. Basically your holding down the A button allows you to deflect attacks and perform special attacks that are meant to destroy enemy blades, or launch your opponent in the air, it all depends on the direction you're moving the nunchuck analog stick. It's a system that is incredibly easy to pick up, but to get insane combo strings, it's going to take a lot of work. It's going to take even more work if you switch over to Shura mode, where basically if you are moving, you're free game to suffer from an attack, whether you are holding the A button or in the middle of an attack. Again this is where the strategy of using your secret arts and quick draw attacks comes in to play and also makes the use of items a much more strategic affair. The only major downside to all of this is how the two characters play exactly the same. In Odin Sphere, each character was fairly different and had different abilities, but in Muramasa you're stuck with the same characters and weapons, with just a palette swap and story being the only difference.
Muramasa: The Demon Blade is a title that is going to be hotly contested as either a bland piece of garbage, with a shallow battle system and pretty graphics holding the rickety beast together. Or you're going to have people like me who found it an absolute blast to play. I seriously could not put this game down, and when it was over I wanted more, and thankfully there was another fifteen hours of gameplay after getting my first ending. I found the graphics to be breathtaking and they exceeded my already lofty expectations set forth by trailers. To me the price of admission was well worth it for the game, but I'm also in a very vocal minority of Nintendo Wii owners. I own pretty much every game that is geared towards a “core” gamer, and this title was right up my alley. I must say, do whatever you have to to get this game in your hands, something minor to note, Marvelous Entertainment only did one pressing of this game in Japan, and now it is very difficult to find, so make sure at the very least you attempt to experience this game, if not just for the visual 2-D perfection that Vanillaware has lovingly crafted. I implore you do not miss Muramasa: The Demon Blade, you'd be missing out on one of the greatest titles for Wii, ever.
Muramasa: The Demon Blade is already destined to garner a cult following, and I feel it deserves better. This title should be embraced by all Wii owners, don't let this one pass you by