Muramasa: The Demon Blade
It’s hard to say which of Muramasa’s protagonists has it worse. Princess Momohime is possessed by a sociopathic demon spirit. She might look innocent, but there’s a murderous fiend controlling her every move. All Momohime can do is watch helplessly as her body is used to massacre everyone in sight. Meanwhile, Kisuke has amnesia. Not only is the entire basis of his character utterly cliched, but he’s got an army of ninjas trying to assassinate him for his supposed betrayal. Neither one of them is getting out of this unscathed. What makes these intertwining tales interesting is that they go far beyond their generic beginnings. Themes of redemption, self-discovery, and love run throughout both narratives. There’s nothing mind-blowing, but it’s a few steps up from what you might expect from an action game. By playing through both perspectives, you’ll become immersed in what is a surprisingly deep story.
Despite their different backgrounds, the characters’ goals are basically identical: find the most powerful sword in Feudal Japan and slay the source of their problems. Those usually involve the gods of Japanese folklore and corrupt military leaders, with a slew of mythical beasts and ineffectual baddies thrown in for good measure. The crusade takes them across several areas of the country, all of which are interconnected via linear paths. The majority of the adventure involves running from one end of a given section to the other; you just keep moving from one room to next until you reach the next objective or plot point. It’s a simple, 2D side-scrolling affair that offers just enough branching pathways to keep things interesting. The onscreen map even indicates in which direction you’re supposed to go, which leaves little incentive to explore. The time you’ll waste wandering around is the most tedious aspect of the game; once you’ve beaten the boss of the area, you’ll usually have to run back through the entire level to your original starting point. It doesn’t take long, but it still could have been executed better.
The game tries to make up for it with its impressive combat mechanics. Momohime and Kisuke are highly skilled in the ways of the sword, and it shows. Mashing the attack button will unleash a flurry of extensive combos. Depending on how you press the directional controls, you’ll be able to dish out forward slashes, parry oncoming attacks, and reflect projectiles. It’s entirely possible to juggle an enemy into bloody shreds before they have a chance to land a hit. Each sword also comes with a unique magical abilities, like summoning a cyclone or butchering your hapless victims with the speed of a buzzsaw. While such spells spice things up, they also create more of a challenge; the more spells you use, the more your sword gets worn down. If you get a little too trigger-happy with your magic (or block too much, for that matter), your blade will snap like a twig and you’ll be forced to wait until it recharges its power. That can be a huge problem, especially when you’re in the middle of a boss fight and suddenly find yourself swinging only a hilt. You can carry and toggle between three swords, but you’ll still run the risk of breaking them in the harder stages. The trick is learning how to balance the basic combat with the more complicated techniques.
Such depth doesn’t extend to the swords themselves, however. Oh, they look promising – you can acquire and unlock tons of blades, all with their own stats and powers – but it gets repetitive. Despite their differences, your weapons come in only three sizes and weight classes. You’ll get to choose between having light katanas and weaker hits, longer scimitars with slower maneuvers, or something more balanced. The combos you can execute depend on the type of sword you use, which kills the uniqueness of your weapons. The spells, though a nice distraction, often end up being more powerful versions of the same attack. Your sword collection will be huge by the end of the game, but your selection will really boil down to which swords have the highest attack stats. It’s a shame that more effort wasn’t put into designing your arsenal with more variety.
Instead, the development of your weapons revolves around leveling your characters and nabbing pickups. You can’t wield more powerful swords until your characters have gotten strong enough, which means you’re going to spend a fair amount of time slaughtering random baddies. Killing enemies nets you souls, which can be spent towards acquiring a new blade. Once you’ve gotten enough, you can have a new sword forged (conveniently displayed within a large flowchart) and begin the process anew. Since you need certain blades to progress through the story, you won’t be able to rush through the game. It might be a cheap way to prolong the game, but the combat is slick enough to keep things from getting tedious. If the generic ninjas, giant frogs, and trolls get too mundane, you can try the slew of challenging side-bosses hidden throughout the game. But if you’re sick of mercilessly killing everything that moves, a quick trip to a local restaurant or a hot spring offers a nice break from the action.
Or you could just find a nice, secluded spot and just stare at the screen. This game may lack a few things, but style is not one of them. Muramasa is easily the most beautiful game on the Wii. Every inch of the 2D landscape is overflowing with life and detailed animation. You’ll walk though a field of weeds, watching the individual stalks bend with the flow of the breeze. The glare of a setting sun covers a hill with a gorgeous blend of red and orange, casting shadows along the rocky outcroppings. You can watch the churning of the ocean waves, the soft impacts of a monsoon’s raindrops, the leaves falling from a cherry blossom, and the inviting glow of oil lamps strung throughout a town in twilight. If you look closely enough, you can see your characters breathing and blinking, with their clothes animated perfectly to match their movements. It’s made even better with the oriental-themed soundtrack; depending on your location, you’ll be treated to everything from some dramatic, fast-paced instrumentals to soothing melodies. In terms of presentation, few games come close to what Muramasa can do.
It’s just a shame that the rest of the game couldn’t be as good. The story is great, but it’s nowhere near as memorable as those of other games. Momohime and Kisuke make for decent protagonists, even if parts of their adventures seem predictable and cliched. The combat mechanics offer enough techniques and tricks to keep things interesting; the magic system works well to balance out your offensive and defensive strategies. You might spend a lot of time button mashing, but mastering all of the little nuances make battles far more entertaining. Crafting the best swords and progressing through the game requires hours of effort, though the lack of variety limits things a bit. At least the game offers a decent amount of challenge, especially in the optional fights. Regardless of how you approach the game, you’ll be swept away by one of the most impressive and detailed presentations in recent memory. If there was ever a game that deserved to be played, Muramasa is it.