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Musashi: Samurai Legend

I have to admit I’m not the biggest fan of manga and anime, though I do appreciate the skill of it, so when faced with lines like the above (which I was before even the game’s title screen) I tend to roll my eyes a little. Despite some imaginative touches like cities built on the backs of flying whales, Square Enix’s Musashi sticks to clichéd story formulas and characters. This wouldn’t be a problem if the gameplay managed to overshadow it, but unfortunately the hack and slash mechanics and familiar RPG elements are as generic as the story itself. That’s not to say the game is worthless, as it is a competently made and somewhat enjoyable ride with striking visuals, but if you aren’t a die-hard fan of the genre or anime then this won’t change your mind on either counts.

Yeah, yeah, Blitz Attack…

The villain here is an evil corporation (is there any other kind in games?) which threatens a race of people called the Mystics. This race is apparently very good at drawing power from a special ore called nebulite, and it just so happens that this power is what evil corporation Gandrake Enterprises uses to run its industrial reign…. OF EVIL. They want to snatch the Mystics and use them to take over the world. Luckily one particularly resourceful member of the community, Princess Mycella, has the foresight to summon ultimate swordsman Musashi to save the world and, of course, fulfil his destiny.

From the opening anime sequence, which is a bit jumpy animation-wise but is suitably exciting and aggressive, it looks like you’re in store for a lot of fast paced action and meaty combat. A while into the game, however, it becomes clear that while Musashi the character’s destiny may be dramatic and adventurous, Musashi the game’s destiny is simply to vaguely resemble all other action-RPGs and be very easy. Things start slowly with a laborious training level hosted by one of the most irritating video game cats ever, but even once you progress beyond that the action barely ever gets any more intense. In the age-old tradition of rubbish AI, enemies will wait patiently for their turn (though they do bob up and down menacingly in the distance, as if they are having an asthma attack) as you battle their cohorts, and few of them attack fast enough to make blocking them at all challenging.

It’s a shame that the game’s combat is paced so leisurely because the controls and range of attacks at your disposal are certainly decent, and the enemies at least LOOK like they would pose a challenge. You go into fights able to use two weapons: a regular katana and a series of larger blades that you access throughout the game. You’ll be using these a lot as the game has perhaps the most outrageously frequent enemy respawning I’ve seen, with foes re-appearing just seconds after being killed. This lazy technique can get particularly irritating when you are backtracking (also too common) across levels, though at least the enemies are dumb enough that you can run through large groups of them without any of them even noticing.

This looks like a serious “Tching!” moment.

While the combat here can be enjoyable in short doses, it is too slow and easy to hold your interest throughout the long slogs you’ll be faced with. The big selling point of the game, and its only really original point, is Musashi’s ability to ‘focus’ on another enemies and gain their abilities. While the extra combat moves are a welcome addition, and there’s certainly a wide range of them, it is a gimmick undone once again by the game’s sheer ease. The fact is you don’t need most of these extra abilities as the majority of enemies are defeated with just a couple of your strongest moves. It’s a nice idea, however, and wondering which new abilities you’ll gain from enemies staves off boredom for a fair while. There are some bright spots within the game’s action sections, such as using teenage girls (!) as a weapon. At various times you will have to rescue maidens in order to gain new swords (of fire, water etc), so you’ll spend a while literally carrying them around, swiping them at enemies! It doesn’t really build on the regular combat’s depth, but I found it consistently funny.

In between the fights there is some regular RPG-ing around the city of Antheum (that’s the one on the whale’s back) setting up various side quests, stocking up on items and chatting to residents. This is as pleasant as it usually is in these games, providing a welcome break from the monotonous fighting, wandering around to the tune of soothing synth music and advancing the plot. The only problem is that the plot is BORING and the dialogue is excruciatingly bad (“You must prove yourself, unripe melon”). Also, this abides by several tedious RPG traditions such as the plot being progressed through extensive conversations with ALL the characters EVERY time you do anything. One thing I liked about these sections was that as you progress through the game, rescuing Mystics, the town will become more bustling and packed each time you visit. While this often leads to even more poorly written dialogue, it’s a nice idea and one that gives a tangible sense of progress and achievement, as well as a little incentive to continue.

Another amiable, but not terribly well realised addition are the ‘racing’ sequences which see you on a motorcycle and occasionally other vehicles as you drive to the finish line, avoiding and slashing at passing enemies. While the variety is definitely welcome, these sections can get to be even less exciting than regular combat, they are certainly easier anyway. Luckily these parts don’t appear too regularly, so the feature never outstays its welcome. The only part of the game that offers much challenge are the boss battles, which are somewhat predictable but still a lot of fun, and they’re all well designed enough to seem suitably intimidating. They also offer a better chance to use your extra abilities than the regular combat, so while exploiting boss’ week spots sometimes isn’t as challenging as you’d hope, it is at least a more varied experience than the drudgery of slashing through dozens of identical enemies.

Railways you say. Okay then.

The only thing that will get in your way during boss battles is a somewhat wayward camera, which is otherwise easily controlled. Moving it around in larger areas, though, causes the framerate to drop to a snail’s pace, as does the large number of enemies. This is my only graphics-related problem with Musashi which otherwise has impeccable presentation. The ‘manga-shading’ technique used on the characters is basically just cel-shading with more dramatic black outlines, but it is attractive and distinctive nonetheless. The characters themselves are mostly well designed (though it would have been nice to see a few more types of enemies), not least Musashi himself with his big zig-zaggy hair which takes up a large amount of the screen at any given time. The environments can sometimes be a little fuzzy, but are well-detailed and surprisingly atmospheric and varied for a game that is obviously ‘for the kiddies’. With that target audience in mind the game is also searingly colourful, though never to the point of brashness, and even environments such as the woods at night time have a friendly and vibrant storybook quality to them.

The music fits in with the young hearted-but-sophisticated style of the visuals. It hints at the childish plinkiness you’d expect but never really descends into it. There are the usual Eastern influences that you’d find in almost all Japanese game music, but this never becomes overkill either. The battle music can be quite rousing and bombastic, while at the other end of the scale the music can also be laid back and pleasant (as it is in the main city). It always enhances the atmosphere of a level and never overwhelms it. While the clanging metal sound effects are certainly fitting, the voice acting is less successful. Most of it is ill-fitting and just plain awful, so it’s lucky that it is only used sporadically, with the main weight of conversations being represented by silent text.

For its type Musashi is a reasonably short game, taking about fifteen hours to finish, with little incentive to replay other than being offered a harder difficulty level (which, from what I played, makes the combat lengthier rather than harder). I never came across anything that had me particularly stuck, with only incredibly basic platforming and puzzle solving occasionally rearing its head outside of combat and town-wandering.

Yes I have the biggest sword. Bring it on.

If you considered this as a kind of starter action-RPG for younger players then it would probably seem more acceptable, but Square were making more challenging, accessibly complex games in this genre years ago. Even Kingdom Hearts, arguably aimed at an even younger audience than this, offered more meat. While it is certainly pretty, Musashi is a major disappointment in most areas and never really feels like it’s gotten off the ground. Even if you feel you must own a game in which you hack at enemies with terrified women, I’d give it a rental first.

5 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in November 2003.

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