A lot of Muramasa: The Demon Blade's pre-release hype hinged on its art; while you could get a good impression of the beauty of the game, it isn’t until you have it in motion on your own screen that it hits you. Vanillaware has delivered a visual and aural feast in its portrayal of feudal Japan; Muramasa is truly a painting in motion. Sun beams glistening through the forest and over mountain tops coupled with serene music will make you stop dead in your tracks to soak it all in. Not only is it one of the best-looking games this gen on any platform, the game belongs among a select group of titles whose true potential is held back by the Wii’s HD inadequacies.
In short, it’s beautiful. And it’s a blast. With two playable characters each with their own story, you’ll traverse Japan slashing up all sorts of samurai, beasts, giant bosses and folklore critters while cooking and forging blades. Throw in some Metroid-style map exploration and it’ll take you a good while to fully explore all of what the island has to offer.
Possessed by the spirit of fallen samurai Jinkuro Izuna, Momohime is forced to flee her comfy life as Princess of Narukami and complete Jinkuro’s quest for the titular Muramasas, blades that, once removed from their sheaths, require blood be drawn before they can be returned to their scabbard. The other story follows Kisuke, an amnesiac fugitive on a quest to find out why his former samurai clan wants him dead. The tales are interesting and occasionally the two characters cross paths, but their climaxes are fairly underwhelming and you can’t shake the feeling of “that’s it?” after eight or so hours of sticking with them. You’re also required to do a lot of backtracking throughout, which feels needless at times and artificially extends the game. Quick travel is available upon completion for explorers, but it’d be nice to have that available in the main game.
Combat is pretty simple and hinges largely on and moving in any direction; you can bust out all sorts of slashes, combos, blocks and Crouching Tiger-style acrobatics in doing so. There are a few other moves, such as whatever special attack each of the 108 blades has or unsheathing a blade for a full-screen strike, but it ultimately all amounts to a lot of button-mashing.
Each blade has a “soul” meter that acts as a health bar for it, which is depleted by blocking and using its special attack. If this meter depletes, the blade will break and must be sheathed to repair itself. Many of the special attacks are tiered and/or similar to other ones, so 108 “unique” attacks is a bit of a stretch. Fortunately, combat stays fun throughout the game and is always a pleasure to watch unfold, but it doesn’t require a lot of skill.
Muramasa does nothing to take advantage of the Wii’s signature motion controls, which is likely for the better. No needless waggle has been shoehorned in, you won’t tire your wrist from slashing oni. A Classic Controller or GameCube pad work great, and you can also use a ‘mote + nunchuck combo. Jumping is done by pressing up on or , which can take some getting used to.
In addition to killing things dead, Kisuke and Momohime will be doing a lot of blade forging and cooking. There are two types, blades and long blades, that follow typical fighting properties: blades are quicker but with a shorter range, long blades are slower but tend to cause higher damage and can reach further. Blade forging is presented in a branching layout, requiring you to have certain ones in order to forge others, and you’ll need souls and spirit to craft new weaponry. Souls are scattered throughout the map and are left behind by fallen foes, with spirit gained through cooking and eating.
Cooking is an oddly hands-on thing; pick a recipe you have the ingredients for and press at certain intervals to make/eat your dish. If you don’t, food will go unprepared or uneaten. Some food is eaten right away while others can be stored in your inventory and used to recover health. Every time you eat something, a fullness gauge pops up and must deplete in order to eat again; there’s no stuffing yourself with six rice balls at a time in battle and be practically invincible. Some food also comes with special properties, like attack boosts or minimizing enemy encounters.
There are two styles of game to choose from, muso and shura, which essentially equate to difficulty levels. Muso is easier, allowing you to block more often and plow through normal enemies relatively unscathed without a lot of planning and you’ll level up quicker. Shura forces you to be more methodical in your attacks, as your blades will break easier and blocking isn’t as efficient. You can switch between these two in-game if you’re looking to fiddle with the challenge.
Muramasa: The Demon Blade and games of its ilk are increasingly rare beasts. With its striking hand-painted art direction, fun combat and exploration, it’s the type of game that brings solace to those who lament the death of 2D on consoles. While it may have some niggles with backtracking, lame endings and button-mashing combat that hold it back, overall the game is as engrossing as they come and certainly one worth investing a chunk of time into.