Japan, the Genroku era. As a power struggle unfolds over possession of the legendary Demon Blades, two warriors come to the forefront: Kisuke, a ninja with no memory of his past, and Momohime, a girl possessed by the spirit of murderous swordsman Jinkuro. As both go in pursuit of the power of the Demon Blades, they find themselves pursued by forces both human and supernatural.
Having been won over by the superb Odin Sphere (which I will review in the near future), I was eager to get my hands on more Vanillaware titles, with Muramasa being the obvious next choice. The third entry in an ever-increasing library of action RPGs with sumptuous artwork, Muramasa is an enjoyable experience, if lacking in the longevity of its predecessor.
Wielding the Demon Blades
Muramasa lets you play through the stories of just two characters – Momohime, as possessed by Jinkuro, and Kisuke at one of two difficulty levels (a third difficulty level, in which a single hit spells death, can be unlocked later). Both characters play much the same and visit many of the same areas, but playing through both stories is required to gain access to all Demon Blades and possible game endings.
Muramasa is a largely linear experience which has you running from screen to screen across feudal Japan, fighting enemies along the way. Although there are occasionally branching points where you can find a hidden item or fight optional battles, for the most part, the game is an on-the-rails experience, with special coloured barriers preventing you from going anywhere the game would rather you didn’t explore yet.
Combat revolves entirely around the use of the titular Demon Blades, a set of katanas with unique powers. Only a few of these are granted to you through story progression; the rest must be forged by the spirit of Muramasa himself. Blades come in two types – standard length blades and slower long reach blades – and each has a special attack that can be activated by expending some of the blade’s energy. Even though the game assures you that each special attack is unique, this is only superficially true, with many of them bearing more than a passing similarity to each other. They also vary in usefulness; where some attacks will let you carve through the oncoming enemy hordes, others are so specific in their targeting that most of the time you’ll only connect with thin air.
At any one time, your character can equip three distinct Demon Blades, and the reason for this is that blades can, and will, break often, forcing you to swap them over. Blades break when their energy is depleted, and special attacks, parrying and countering will all use up energy. Fortunately, the breakage isn’t permanent – stick a blade back in its sheath, and it will slowly repair – but broken blades do so little damage that you’ll want to switch to a fresh one when this happens. In fact, you can switch blades any time you like, and provided you haven’t just switched already, it will even activate a special Quick Draw attack which damages all the enemies on screen.
With the power of the Demon Blades in your hand, Muramasa certainly isn’t as challenging as Odin Sphere, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a lot of fun. Although I’m not a massive fan of using the Wiimote for ‘proper’ gaming, it does work well in this instance (and if you really hate it, you can use a classic or Gamecube controller), enabling you to fly across the screen devastating all the enemies in your wake.
Taking its inspiration from the “EXP from food” system of Odin Sphere, Muramasa has a dual levelling up system involving both “Spirit” and “Soul”. Spirit is gained from cooking and eating tasty meals and snacks (which also restore your HP), whilst Souls are accumulated either by finding them in the field or through defeating enemies. In order to forge and wield the more powerful Demon Blades, you’ll need to keep pace on both scores.
A supernatural fantasy set in feudal Japan, Muramasa’s story is not a bad one, but it does suffer a lot from its presentation. Most of the time you’ll be running around Japan with little connection to the greater plot, which only really unfolds in cutscenes before and after the end-of-chapter boss battles. There’s a definite disconnect between player and story, to the extent that you start to feel like you must be missing out on scenes somehow.
As with any Vanillaware title, Muramasa is a feast for the eyes. With luscious settings, intricate character designs and an overall attention to detail, the game really comes alive – even watching a character devour a plate of riceballs becomes a visual treat. Background music only adds to the ambience; although perhaps not as suitable for standalone listening as the Odin Sphere soundtrack, it’s perfectly suited to evoke the era that the game is set in.
It may be a lot shorter and simpler than its big sister Odin Sphere, but Muramasa is still a fun game to play, and one that upholds everything that makes Vanillaware titles fun. With a Playstation Vita remake about to hit the English-speaking world, there has never been a better time to give this title a chance.