Unsheathing one of the cursed blades forged by the legendary swordsmith Muramasa often results in nothing but sorrow for the unfortunate wielder. Such is the case for both Kisuke and Momohime, the dual protagonists in Muramasa: the Demon Blade. Fortunately, anyone merely playing Muramasa is in for a much more entertaining experience.
At its core, Muramasa is a 2D hack-and-slash beat-’em-up in the vein of classic games like Final Fight and Golden Axe (with a little “Metroidvania” thrown in), but with some RPG aspects similar to previous Vanillaware offerings (Odin Sphere for the PS2 being the most recent). Most of the action is handled using only a single button, which lets you unleash a surprising variety of lethal attacks in combination with the c-stick/d-pad; other buttons use items, switch blades (and unleash screen-damaging “quick draw” attacks), and execute your blades’ special attacks if they have enough soul power. The game supports all three of the Wii’s control options; I opted for the Classic Controller due to Jump being mapped to up instead of its own button (plus it’s a 2D game anyway, so why do I need analog?). Whatever option you choose, and whichever of the two initial difficulty settings you attempt (you can switch any time) you’ll be brandishing katanas and hewing scores of ninjas and mythological beasts like you’ve been possessed by a demon swordsman in no time.
After all, that’s pretty much what happens to each of the characters in the game’s two narratives. You’re free to play either one of the two stories to their completion or switch between them at your leisure, but the two plotlines are not connected in any way save for the involvement of the spirit of Muramasa himself. The other character might make a cameo in whichever story you’re currently playing, but that’s the extent of the overlap; even the boss battles are separate. Since both plots borrow heavily from medieval Japanese folklore and kabuki traditions, the original Japanese dialogue is retained and subtitled (and in many cases abbreviated) in English. While that’s not really a problem, the fact that both stories seem to drop you in the middle of events will leave you confused as to what’s going on for a few acts. Just roll with it, and eventually the narrative will unfold.
The main selling point of Muramasa isn’t the plot anyway; it only takes one look at the game’s gorgeous visuals to see where the lion’s share of the effort went. Several locals are inspired by classic Japanese wood paintings, showing that plot points and enemies weren’t the only elements of the game borrowed from Japan’s rich history. As good as the game looks in still images, it is even more breathtaking in action. Muramasa is more than just a pretty face, fortunately, but that face is indeed very pretty.
It’s not perfect, however. The biggest problem with the gameplay is the intensive backtracking that must be done, which can get quite tedious. There are some other minor issues, like the repetitive animations when eating/cooking food, but the backtracking is by far the most complained-about. Once you beat a story (the first time… there are multiple endings for both characters) you can warp from save point to save point within that story, and there’s an item that can warp you back to the most recent shrine you visited, but there’s still a lot of walking and jumping to do in between. Of the ~22 hours it took me to finish both stories, I shudder to think how much was just moving from one empty screen to another.
But overall, these are minor quibbles in what is an otherwise smooth game experience. The Vanillaware team has a passion for 2D gameplay and it shows. There’s also some replay value in post-game challenges, multiple endings, and an ultra-challenging new difficulty level for the hardest of hardcore. I wouldn’t recommend Muramasa to everyone, as it takes some time to get into, but anyone who would enjoy some old-school action should definitely pick it up.
ESRB: T for Alchohol Reference, Fantasy Violence, and Suggestive Themes. The sake flows freely (Momohime is especially fond of it), you harvest souls of fallen enemies to forge new blades, and there are health-rejuvenating hot springs that your character visits wearing nothing but briefs (or a modesty towel, in Momo’s case).
Plays like: Arcadey beat-’em-ups; Castle Crashers is a rare recent example
Pros: Amazing visuals, crisp controls
Cons: Gameplay is somewhat repetitive, especially the backtracking