Muramasa: The Demon Blade was released in 2009 for the Nintendo Wii, a speedy action game with stunning 2D artwork. At the time, however, many argued that the game’s greatest strength was also its greatest flaw: Vanillaware’s beautiful images were said to be wasted on the Nintendo Wii, a console only capable of Standard Definition output. True or not, these statements were impossible to ignore, and for several years rumors of “Muramasa HD” were circulated around the gaming community. In a way, those rumors have come true, thanks to the Playstation Vita. But is the rebirth of the Demon Blade worth adding to your collection?
Muramasa Rebirth (Playstation Vita)
Publisher: Aksys Games
Release Date: June 25, 2013
Muramasa follows two protagonists’ journeys throughout feudal Japan as they track down the dark powers of the Demon Blades. First (and most prominently featured in promotional material, for perhaps obvious reasons) is the tale of Momohime, a princess of the Narukami clan. She ends up possessed by a vengeful ghost named Jinkuro, the last master of the Oboro sword style, and is forced to go along with his nefarious plans if she has any hope of regaining what she’s lost. The other is the story of Kisuke, a ninja who wakes up accused of betrayal and murder. In typical fashion, he has no memory of any of this, and takes up his sword to discover exactly what is going on. Each are guided on their quests by foxy ladies Kongiku and Yuzuruha, and the spirit of the swordsmith Muramasa himself.
Though Momohime’s story gets all the press, I found Kisuke’s story to be significantly more compelling. Momohime herself is a minor character in her own plot; it’s more the tale of Jinkuro cutting his way through Japan than of the princess, who spends most of her time floating around as a disembodied soul. It honestly seems more like an excuse to have a female playable character. Conversely, while Kisuke’s plot begins with the tired old cliche of amnesia, his attempt at redeeming his name – mostly to his former lover Torahime – has appropriate gravitas and a cathartic conclusion.
That said, objectively the plot is merely passable, not on the same level as Grim Grimoire‘s magical time looping antics or Odin Sphere‘s epic tale of Armageddon. Like Odin Sphere, there are shades of one character’s plot as you go about with the other, mostly as you travel through the same areas, but nothing that sheds more light on the overall progression of events. Also, as one might expect from a tale with ninja and samurai, Japanese mythology and Buddhist lore feature heavily throughout the story. It’s nothing a quick trip to Wikipedia can’t handle, and I’m sure it makes perfect sense to an average Japanese gamer, but things may still be confusing to some.
Gameplay in Muramasa is simple and repetitive. You run through various locales in the simplest Metroidvania ever, and nearly every screen has a chance of spawning an enemy encounter that varies according to the region. In the city you might fight a team of ninjas or angry samurai, but tengu are the main threat out in the mountains. Or, you might get lucky and run into a wild boar or pheasant that can be poached for its valuable meat. Color-coded barriers corral your path, impenetrable except by special swords awarded for defeating story bosses.
Momohime and Kisuke both play the same, seeing as they both use the Oboro sword style. There’s only a basic attack combo and a few other tricks for crouching and midair, but the combat works fairly well. Much of it is based on learning the tells of the enemies, figuring out when it’s safe to attack and when you need to dodge or parry, made immensely easier by Rebirth’s addition of a proper jump button. But parry too much, and your sword will shatter, leaving you defenseless. You carry three at once, so this isn’t too bad (and can very occasionally be advantageous), but true skill in battle is awarded through experience points, which you need to equip stronger swords.
Between fights, the spirit of Muramasa forges swords for our heroes, which come in two flavors: katana, which are fast but weaker, and strong but slow nodachi. In total there are 108 Demon Blades to collect, each with their own powerful, durability-draining special attack, such as a swift rain of blows or a screen-clearing quick draw. But to forge these blades, you need Spirit and Soul. Soul is collected from pickups in the environment and from defeating enemies, while Spirit… well…
Spirit comes from eating. Yes, eating, both at restaurants scattered along the path and at your own campfire. Food provides a variety of effects in Muramasa, ranging from attack boosts to instant revival. But you can’t cook the best dishes in the middle of a fight, keeping you on your toes. Eating also makes you full, preventing you from stuffing your face in the middle of a boss battle just to heal your HP. Simple management of resources is necessary to prevent a miserable death, though the penalty for such is barely more than being shunted back a screen.
The problem with all this is that Muramasa is repetitive to the point of ridiculousness. Odin Sphere, while also repetitive, had five characters with relatively unique playstyles, a robust alchemy system to play with, and a ranking system that demanded skill to get the best items. In Muramasa, you mash attack, then mash attack some more, and maybe use a special attack or a quick draw, at which point you mash attack. The boss fights are the only things that require more than basic skill, so most of the running around between bosses dissolves into mind-numbing tedium. But you need to grind your level on the fodder to equip the good swords to fight the bosses, so the game has the potential to grow boring rather quickly.
As with all Vanillaware games, this is where Muramasa shines brightest. The game is absolutely beautiful. There are tiny details everywhere, from bamboo stalks sliding away after they’re cut to leaves blowing in the breeze. Every screen has a sweeping vista for a background, even the urban and forest levels. The food looks so delicious it’s unfair. Every character moves with grace and fluidity, even the demons and gods with ludicrous proportions. There was some controversy back when Muramasa was first released for Wii, but it’s all in HD on the PS Vita. The colors pop out more on the OLED screen, and everything holds up well when viewed more closely. No other developer does 2D quite like Vanillaware can, and this game really shows that off.
The music, composed by several people but overseen by Hitoshi Sakimoto, is full of the traditional Japanese sounds you would expect from something set in feudal Japan. It fits the mood excellently, with each track seamlessly flowing in and out of a more dynamic version used during battles. The sound effects, while mostly of swords and weapons, mesh perfectly with the action onscreen.
Muramasa‘s original release on the Wii was plagued by an inconsistent, terse, and painfully boring localization. Thankfully, Aksys has gone the extra mile to properly retranslate all of the dialogue for Rebirth, instead of just giving us a straight port. Everyone speaks in archaic Japanese that would fit in perfectly in a period piece or samurai flick, and this is translated excellently, with flowery language carrying the meaning across without being too obtrusive.
It is however important to note that Muramasa Rebirth is not a remake – it is a port. Persona 4 Golden was packed to the gills with new content, so much that the purchase price was completely justified. This is the same game you may have played on the Wii, just portable and with a gussied-up translation. There are supposedly four DLC campaigns planned in the future, each with its own new playable character, but it seems like a wasted opportunity to not include them in the game proper.
Oh Muramasa, I love you and yet I hate you. The game’s repetition is by far its worst quality; so much so that when I first played it on the Wii, I traded it in after only playing one character’s story. Prolonged play turns into a slog as you mindlessly cut down foes and try to reach the next tidbit of story. But the tedium is wrapped up in a beautiful 2D package, the likes of which are unique in the industry. If you know what Vanillaware is all about and want a piece of the repetitive action, melodramatic story, and beautiful artwork, then Muramasa Rebirth is well worth the price of admission. Otherwise, you may want to look elsewhere.