Wii owners who want a hardcore gaming experience and hardcore gamers who are looking for an old school, 2D action platformer have been in the same boat for a few years now. Both of them crave something to fill a niche that most companies don’t see a market for. There is hope though, as developer Vanillaware continues to create games that defy market trends such as Odin Sphere and GrimGrimoire for PlayStation 2, and their latest offering, Muramasa: The Demon Blade for Wii.
Muramasa resembles Odin Sphere in so many ways that it could have been a sequel; from its focus on combat and exploration to its 2D, hand drawn art style. However, the setting for Muramasa is a drastic departure from the tale of the Norse mythos, instead opting for Japanese mythology and culture for its plot and setting. Players will choose between Kisuke and Momohime, guiding them through multiple levels as the story overlaps and unfolds.
Kisuke is a young ninja suffering from memory loss and being chased for a crime that he allegedly committed. His story will take him across the main island of Japan in search of answers and his past and will set him on a course to cross paths with Momohime. The Princess of Narukami, Momohime has been possessed by the soul of a swordsman and is forced to go along with him as he travels around in search of something. As you jump between characters the story unfolds in a series of dialogue boxes and cut scenes which take place before and after each boss. The story isn’t anything inspiring or memorable, but the gameplay is the real lure here, and it more than makes up for the shortcomings of the narrative.
Vanillaware smartly offers several controller options – Wii Remote and Nunchuck, Classic Controller, and GameCube controller – so players should be able to find a choice that suits their style of play. All three of the controller options are suitable, but I opted for the Wii Remote and Nunchuck, which worked out well. Vanillaware takes simple controls and manages to craft a deep and rewarding combat system around them. Muramasa starts off with a simple tutorial that walks you through the controls, explaining all of the possible attacks, and then allows the player to experiment with linking them together. All of Kisuke’s and Momohime’s abilities are available from the start of the game, so there’s nothing to unlock or discover. While the combat is rewarding for those who will work to discover its intricacies, it’s also possible to simply mash your way through the levels. Vanillaware has given players another choice here with the Shura (Hard) mode. If combat seems too easy, players can select this option which will require them to use every available ounce of skill in order to survive the coming onslaught.
Combat in Muramasa revolves around the sword and Kisuke and Momohime will have plenty of choices here. Each character starts off with three swords which fall into one of two categories. Blades are short swords with quick animations that can string attacks but typically have a low power. Long Blades, on the other hand, are larger, slower swords with higher attack power and greater range. Up to three swords can be equipped at one time, allowing players to chooses weapons that match their play style. Each sword also has a Secret Art attached to it which can be used to unleash a special attack, some of which are offensive in nature while others are more defensive. Constant use of one blade will wear down its durability, or “Soul Gauge”, requiring the player to either use an item to replenish it or switch to one of their other swords.
Muramasa also offers light RPG elements with Kisuke and Momohime gaining levels as they defeat foes. As their level increases their stats also increase, eventually allowing them to wield new swords, which will either be earned from boss battles or can be forged by meeting certain requirements. There are a total of 108 swords to wield so completists will have their work cut out for them if they want to collect them all. Forging new blades requires the use of Souls and Spirit. Souls are collected from killing enemies or picking them up, as they are often scattered around the levels, while on the other hand, Spirit can only be collected from cooking and consuming meals.
Both Kisuke and Momohime are apparently very skilled cooks and finding recipes will allow them to prepare meals that replenish their health as well as give them the Spirit they need to forge some of the more powerful blades. Spirit can also be gained from ordering a meal from one of the many restaurants that can be found in the levels. Because of these light RPG touches grinding becomes an integral part of gameplay, since you’ll eventually come across bosses that you won’t be prepared to handle without a few extra levels or better equipment. However, these grinding sessions tend to go by quickly and the game looks so beautiful that it hardly seems like a bother.
The art direction of Muramasa is perhaps one of its strongest aspects and also one of its hardest to convey in words. The beautiful hand drawn art and smooth animations are a sight to behold. The character design of the heroes, enemies, and bit players are well done and pleasant to look at while at the same time being interesting and often humorous. There’s a wide selection of levels to explore and while there is a fair amount of art spread throughout them, in time you will start to see some level design elements and art assets reused. However, it’s not enough that you ever grow tired of it.
In the end, Muramasa: The Demon Blade may not meet every expectation of every person who picks it up. Some will rent this title for a weekend and plow through it, while others will add it to their collection and return to it time and time again. But regardless of which group you fall into, you’ll definitely enjoy what time you spend with it.
Things We Liked: Hand drawn art. 2D gameplay. Simple yet deep combat.
Things We Disliked: Both characters essentially play the same.
Target Audience: As stated in the first paragraph – Wii owners looking for a hardcore gaming experience and hardcore gamers looking for old school action.