Muramasa: The Demon Blade is an art lesson disguised as an action game. If most of my schooling was this enjoyable and simple, I’d probably be more cultured.
The Nintendo Wii has become something of the local art house for video games, as designers compensate for the system’s lack of obnoxious graphic horsepower by putting out titles with a unique visual spin. Before Muramasa came MadWorld and No More Heroes, a pair of games that stood out as much for their creative look as much as the gameplay. Okami also earned a lot of praise for its artsy vibe.
Muramasa bobs and floats along the same artistic river, making the player feel as if they are performing within the confines of Japanese paintings rather than the standard levels one would see in most action games. Adding to the mystique is the fact that Muramasa functions as a classic side-scroller, which makes it instantly accessible to practically anyone who plays it. This approach also enables the player to immerse himself or herself in other elements, such as story.
You have your pick of two different quests, each featuring a specific protagonist. One hero is Kisuke, a skilled and sullen young ninja. The other features Momohime, a young princess with bouncy hair who finds herself possessed by the spirit of a fighting demon named Jinkuro. Both quests focus on the mythos of the Demon Blades, swords that carry mystic powers and abilities. On your journey, you face everything from evil monks to the demons of Hell itself (I once had to slice my way out of the stomach of a demon that swallowed Momohime whole).
For me, the highlights of the gameplay remain a simple combat system as well as the subtle bleeding in of role-playing elements. You can carry up to three swords at a time, and can freely switch among all of them. This is important, since each sword can break if you block too many strong attacks or use too much of a blade’s respective magic mojo. But since the swords are magic, they actually “heal” on their own. Combos and attacks are handled with variations of jamming the A button or holding it at certain times while flicking the Nunchuk directional stick in different directions.
As far as the role-playing elements, you have the ability to have the spirit of Muramasa (legendary swordmaker, like Hattori Hanzo of Kill Bill fame, but dead) create a library of unique blades depending on your experience level and strength. Also, every battle functions as its own event, complete with a stats screen at the end detailing experience points gained.
The game’s atmosphere gives off the feel of an anime series, with hints of innuendo (there are some very curvy females spirits floating around) and humor underlying the lush color and big-eyed cuteness of some of the characters. The dialogue tends to elicit a smile or two in some situations, such as a towel-covered Momohime chastising Kisuke for occupying the same hot spring. “Are you stalking me?” she asks.
The only major gripe I have with this game is that I spend a little too much time backtracking and running from one end of Japan to the other for my objectives. Yes, the art is lovely to see, but not if I’ve seen it for the 20th time running back to a province I already visited. This is addressed, however, a bit later in the game, when you run into guys who can take you to other provinces faster. The spectre of repetitiveness also harasses the experience, as you get stuck in the cycle of explore-find boss-get sword for most of the game. It’s almost unavoidable in side-scrolling action games, but it doesn’t mean I like fighting the same group of regenerating creatures all the time.
Despite that, I found Muramasa to be a feast for the eyes and a chance to digest Japanese art in motion. As the player, you get exposed to interpretations of demon lore, spiritual visions, legendary creatures and concepts of souls and higher planes of existence. While it might not be an epic classic, you could do far worse when it comes to getting a little culture in your life.
Muramasa: The Demon Blade
Vanillaware / Ignition
Rated T for Teen