Review: Muramasa: The Demon Blade (Nintendo Wii)

Muramasa: The Demon Blade
Genre: Action/RPG
Developer: Vanilla Ware
Publisher: Ignition Entertainment
Release Date: 09/08/09


A few years ago the team of Vanilla Ware shocked the gaming world by releasing a beautiful 2D action RPG known as Odin Sphere and the 2D RTS Grim Grimoire. While each of these games had different issues that kept them from being amazing games, the one thing they had in common was the fact that they looked fantastic. The fantastic 2D sprites used in both games showed that unique modern games could be created with 2D sprites and still look awe-inspiring.

Now in an age of HD graphics and game engines that can handle a lot of different effects, the question of whether or not 2D games can still hang with 3D games, in terms of play perspective, is coming up more and more. If anything, the last year has proven that they can, and some of the best titles out there, such as ‘Splosion Man, Trials HD, and Shadow Complex, among others, have shown not only is the 2D perspective still relevant, but it can occasionally rival even fully 3D games.

As you might guess I have sort of a 2D bias. Much of the more pleasant video game memories that I have are of 2D games. I’d still rather play a 2D fighter like Guilty Gear than a 3D one like Virtua Fighter. For the creative developer, there are still ways that 2D gaming can be effective as shown in titles like Braid and Shadow Complex, as 2D needn’t just be sprite-based.

However, even with that admission of bias I’d still like to think that I’d be in love with Vanilla Ware games anyway. Odin Sphere was definitely different, and while I might have gotten tired of the planting system, I’ll never be tired of the art style of that game. So it is with ease that, after playing through Muramasa: The Demon Blade, I can say that Vanilla Ware has topped even their previous games when it comes to making a game that is just amazing to behold.

I’ve played many games for the Wii and none come close to how awesome Muramasa: The Demon Blade is graphically. The 2D sprites are works of arts, and the background levels even moreso. Honestly, there were times I was playing this game where I almost dropped the controller with my jaw hanging open in awe of the latest background or level. It is a technical achievement that they were able to pull all of this off without any slowdown or hitches despite large bosses or numerous enemies on the screen at the same time.

Muramasa: The Demon Blade is, without a doubt, the best looking Wii game of all time.

Not only are the character sprites and backgrounds gorgeous, everything is. There is a consistent art style throughout the game that is obviously Asian themed, in much the same way Odin Sphere was Norse themed. There is no point where the art style clashes with everything else. Everything from the forging of weapons to the eating of food carries the mark of the insanely detailed art style. Food is still a central part of the game, and it is amazing how well it is animated in the game. Other games wouldn’t bother providing the graphical details of the creation of a rice ball or hot dish, but this game details even the food dishes to such an insane degree that you can’t help but admire the determination of the animators involved in the game. The art style even extends to the perfect selection of background music and sound in the game. I have to congratulate the localization team on choosing to keep the Japanese dialog; had the dialogue been dubbed, it would’ve lost some of the style.

The animation is incredible. The sprites are wonderful. There is no graphical area of this game that isn’t filled with detail and personality. I’ve never played a Wii game like Muramasa where I’m constantly looking forward to the next area just to what art awaits me. I honestly think the art style in Muramasa rivals 90% of the 3D games out there.

It’s just a shame that the gameplay doesn’t hold up to the incredible graphics.

That isn’t to say the game is bad, it is just that the graphics are so compelling and interesting that you expect the gameplay to be as well. It’s not. It is sort of bland by comparison.

Here is how the game plays out:

There are walking areas. These are areas you walk through. There are glowing blue balls you can collect and items to find, and the area maps are staggered in connected squares like a Castleroid game, though it’s lacking the exploration. So more like Castlevania: Simon’s Quest than Symphony of the Night. There are areas that are locked by glowing scrolls that require specific swords in order to pass through that area. Occasionally you’ll run into non-player characters that might have something to say or sell to you. There are also restaurants to purchase food from.

Cooking can only be done in outside of the battle screen, as well as inventory management. You can only hold up to six items in the quick selection slot at a time, so it’s important to make sure that the space isn’t wasted with an item you don’t have any of at the moment.

Then there is the attack mode. When you pass through an area of the game, at times an alert will pop up and the main character will draw their sword. At this point, enemies will then show up, and then the interactive part of the game starts.

From there the game controls are simple. There are multiple controller options, from the Wii remote and nunchuck to the classic controller or the Gamecube controller. Personally I prefer either the classic or Cube controller since the remote/chuck combo can feel really awkward during the faster paced parts of the game. I’ll be describing the Gamecube controls, because for me, they felt the most natural. The joystick controls movement in all directions, which includes jumping. The A button controls attacking, and pressing it multiple times results in a combo. Holding down the A button blocks. Holding down the A button and moving the joystick in a direction causes a dash attack. The Y button controls special sword abilities and the X button uses the currently selected item. The left trigger swaps swords and the right trigger switches items in the quick item selection menu.

The variety in attack styles come from the different swords that can be acquired throughout the game. There are a 106 swords in all to unlock, and it seems like every couple of minutes you acquire a new one. Every sword has a different ability, like Whirlwind, which turns the character into a whirling ball of fury. Three swords are equipable at one time, and each blade has a name with a meter underneath it at the top of the screen. The more you use the blade or abilities of the blade, the faster this meter drains. If it drains completely, the blade will break. It’s important to keep track of the meter and swap swords at the right time. Swords that aren’t currently in use build the meter back up, and when full and timed correctly, they can unleash a powerful attack when drawn.

From everything written above, it must seem like Muramasa: The Demon Blade is a 2D action-RPG that has a lot of strategy… but it really doesn’t for most of the game. Despite managing different weapons, abilities, meters, items and trying to figure out the best method of attacking a group of enemies, the game mostly ends up being not much more than a button masher. Every battle plays out about the same way: mash the A button while hitting Y for an ability every now and then, swap when needed, repeat until all the enemies are defeated. Scroll to a healing item and hit X when the need arises. Walk around an area, buy items, cook food, then battle the same way again.

The 106 swords don’t really seem like 106 different swords. Many of the swords just seem like more powerful versions of swords already used previously in the game. There is no real strategy to what swords that can be used during the game, as you can only unlock swords and use them when certain levels are reached, and by that time the game has progressed into areas where the enemies are more difficult to kill and have higher health. Since the swords get stronger at about the same pace the enemies do, the game rarely feels like it is getting more challenging, and some sword abilities are just better than others. I personally would’ve rather preferred to have some sort of ability to level of the swords I liked to use instead of being forced to use stronger swords with weaker abilities.

Enemies can attack from off screen. Occasionally some art in the foreground, like a tree, will obscure an enemy. These moments, unfortunately, just serve to remind the player why videogames moved into the 3D perspective.

The only time the combat really feels rewarding is during boss battles. The bosses can range from gigantic monsters to other humans. It’s during some of these one on one battles that you get a better sense of using the abilities of the currently equipped swords properly, as well as the importance of better item management. These can be truly challenging, though they can also sometimes last for quite awhile. I don’t remember any lasting under five minutes. At least these are challenging if you play as Momohime; the bosses you face when playing as Kisuke just sort of sit there.

Some of the game design choices outside of combat are even worse. The sheer amount of pointless backtracking is just absurd. How did this get past playtesting? After you defeat an area boss you often have to go through all the screens you had to go through just to get to the boss, except this time those screens are devoid of enemies. It is just constant walking through empty areas with nothing to do except admire the background art.

The story is split between the two main characters, Momohime and Kisuke, and it’s noticeable during the game. Each story sort of feels like it’s missing parts, because it is. That and, during the game, the plot is only moved forward before and after boss fights. Even then it’s sparse, though what there is perfectly fits the mythological Japanese setting. It’s still a good tale, it just almost feels like garnish for the rest of the game instead of being an important part of it.

While a lot of this might come across as negative, it’s not meant to be. I still enjoy the game, as it is fun to fly around the screen as either character, cutting down enemies and pulling off impressive actions, but it’s more the mindless amusement of a hack and slash style action RPG instead of a game with more strategy. My personal disappointment with this has more to do with my enjoyment of the previous Vanilla Ware games that require more strategy, so much so that it was overwhelming at times. Muramasa is the opposite of that, which makes it infinitely more accessible to more people, but at times it feels like a watered down experience.

Factoring in the about 16 hours that it takes to go through both stories, the different challenges to play through, and the multiple endings, there is a lot of the game to play though. If you are looking for a beautiful game that controls well and will have you slicing and dicing through mythical monsters within moments, then Muramasa:The Demon Blade is the Wii game you are looking for. If you expect a more tactical or RPG style experience, then it may disappoint you. You gain levels and experience, but other than that it doesn’t really resemble an RPG in any notable way.

The Scores

Story: Good
Graphics: Amazing
Audio: Amazing
Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Good
Balance: Good
Originality: Decent
Addictiveness: Above Average
Appeal Factor: Good
Miscellaneous: Great

Final Score: Very Good Game.

Short Attention Span Summary:

Muramasa: The Demon Blade is a visually stunning game, with a great art style that influences everything in the game. The controls work perfectly, but while the battles are stylish and smooth, they aren’t as engaging as you might hope they would be. There’s not much of a challenge except for on the unlockable hard difficulty level. Still, it’s pretty and fun and that’s what’s important.



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