Muramasa: The Demon Hype

By Ishaan . September 27, 2009 . 3:00pm

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Twenty-two hours into it, the biggest compliment I can give Muramasa: The Demon Blade is that it’s a game I know I’ll keep coming back to, even after I’ve beaten it. Of those 25 hours, I’ve spent about 22 on Momohime’s route (completed) and the remaining on Kisuke’s.

 

Muramasa, like a lot of games before it, has been hyped to hell and back. One reason of course is that it is symbolic of everything those of us who grew up with videogames love about the medium. It harkens back to the days of 2D sidescrollers on retail media — almost unheard of this generation — and is developed by Vanillaware, a company that has embraced and continually evolved 2D artwork ever since its first game, Princess Crown on the Sega Saturn. Given how rarely new Vanillaware games are released, it isn’t surprising that nearly each one has received the full attention of the company’s fans.

 

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As crucial as hype is to a game’s success, sometimes, it can also have the exact opposite effect. Too much hype for instance — a phenomenon that is all too common these days, unfortunately — can raise expectations so high, they go well beyond what the developers ever committed to in the first place. Expectations for MadWorld, for example, skyrocketed after the many showings of decapitations, dismemberments and disembowelment. When MadWorld released, what we got was a "pretty good" game. Sure, it was style over substance as many critics pointed out, but I don’t recall PlatinumGames ever claiming that this wasn’t their vision in the first place. MadWorld was always meant to be a spectacle, not the second coming of Ceiling Cat. So, where does Muramasa stand post release?

 

Is it everything Vanillaware and Marvelous made it out to be? Personally, I’d have to say, yeah, more or less.

 

http://www.siliconera.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/kamitani.jpgI’m hooked and it’s always painful when I have to tear myself away from the game.  Something that bears mentioning is that Vanillaware founder George Kamitani has never once resorted to the kind of PR fluff you tend to hear from so many developers today. Every interview with him that I’ve come across, even going back to the Odin Sphere days, indicates that Kamitani-san is not only humble, but that he understands the importance of keeping expectations leveled and communicating very clearly what his vision is well before the company projects go gold.

 

Muramasa definitely delivers on everything that the Vanillaware folks ever promised (including Momohime not wearing any pantsu). It’s a fast-paced game with light RPG elements. The combat is some of the most fun I’ve had with a 2D game in a long time. It’s simple but it never feels shallow. In fact, its simplicity is one of the game’s strongest points. I really appreciate the fact that Muramasa gives you a short list of moves and requires that you master each and every single one. By the time you’ve done that, it’ll encourage you to start mixing in the special moves unique to every blade with your attacks and experimenting by stringing different moves together to see what you can do. The learning curve is near perfect. Battles never feel unfair but they never fail to pose a challenge either, even late in the game when you’ve got the hang of pulling off 60-hit combos.

 

You’d think that a smaller moveset would limit your fun but that isn’t the case at all. The sheer number of blades is staggering and considering that each one has a special move that can be chained together with a regular attack or a special move from another blade — or both, depending on if you choose your blades wisely — you’ll find that there’s more than enough variety to keep you happy throughout the course of the game.

 

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Muramasa also keeps things interesting by giving you an incredible variety of enemies to fight. While enemy sprites are often re-used with different colour pallets, they have completely different moves. For instance, the shinobi early on in the game have swords and throw shuriken-like objects at you. Later on, you’ll encounter variations of these that throw bombs at you, carry chain-sickles, breathe fire and even fly around on kites. And they’ll be joined by flying tengu, evil spirits, samurai, ogres, imps and a whole lot more. Needless to say, the same strategy rarely works against two different enemy types. There’s a great balance between smart use of assets and giving the player enough variety.

 

And balance is what the game does best. There isn’t too much or too little of anything, you name it. Items, swords, enemies, areas, accessories, difficulty, grinding for levels. Every single enemy encounter feels meaningful and poses a challenge. In my own experience, there were encounters that felt like they lasted for all of 5 seconds but actually took 15-20 seconds to beat. Muramasa can make you spend hours with it this way without you ever realizing, and as the game progresses, you feel yourself getting better at it. Why don’t more 2D games do this? It’s amazing that in two years, Vanillaware never once let on that the game would feel this satisfying.

 

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I’ll admit, initially, I wasn’t all that impressed by the artwork when I started to play. I was a little scared that I’d spoilt the game for myself through all the videos and screenshots and media coverage that predated its release. Thankfully, that turned out not to be the case at all, since Muramasa is designed in a way that, the longer you play, the more impressed you’ll find yourself with the art and music.

 

Early levels consist of lots of mundane (beautiful but mundane) looking fields and inter-town byroads set against a night time backdrop. A couple hours in, you start to think maybe you’ve seen all the game has to offer. But then, you come across the bright city backdrops of Edo or the bamboo fields in Izu, both of which have been beautifully and painstakingly lit. It feels incredible the first time you walk across the screen and watch the lighting on your character gradually change from a bright yellow to a dim pink, as you enter what is obviously a room meant for the services of a geisha. Even dawn, dusk, fog, weather effects…Muramasa does it all.

 

But the surprises don’t stop there. The art gets even more detailed when you get to, say, the castle in Mino. Not only does running along the castle’s rooftop, fighting off enemy ambushes look and feel great, it’s just a prelude to the castle interior itself, where the entire background shifts and changes perspective while you run and jump. It’s like Mode-7, only 10x more impressive. There are about six or seven layers of background and foreground art combined on every screen to make up these environments. The amount of detail is staggering, considering every single asset is hand-drawn and soundtrack plays a great part in emphasizing the aesthetic.

 

The different layers make traversal and exploration of the environments a real joy, too. There are cliffs or forests where you have to weave in and out of the different layers of the environment simply to get from one end of the screen to the other. This is the kind of experience that was never clearly communicated by any videos of the game and it makes even running through relatively empty sections of terrain and collecting souls for your blades interesting.

 

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The complex layering of art applies to enemies, too. Some of the bosses are huge and feature an incredible range of movement. You’d never once suspect there were multiple layers being used to create their animations. It all looks seamless and perfect. Jagged edges are almost non-existent and there isn’t a trace of pixelation anywhere. I suspect there’s more to the art than meets the eye, since the backgrounds and character sprites are clearly being rendered in different ways. Whatever Vanillaware has done, it looks gorgeous. To top it all, the soundtrack and voice work are both enjoyable to listen to and compliment the rest of the game very nicely.

 

Muramasa feels incredibly refreshing in that it not only lives up to the expectations I had of it; it surpasses them. Sure, there are certain elements I would’ve liked to see Vanillaware expand upon, but in its current state, Muramasa could very well be the best console game MMV’s Yoshifumi Hashimoto has produced. It just goes to show how important it is to keep expectations for your game in line right from day one. I’ve watched every single trailer, poured over every screenshot of the game ever released to the public and I’m still amazed by the surprises it throws at me every few minutes.

 

The only real complaint I have is Entalize’s subpar treatment of the dialogue. The dramatics of the NPCs are completely lost as the subtitles are overly simplified and entire portions of dialogue are left untranslated. You’d expect better from a professional localization company, especially when MMV and Ignition made such a big deal out of the game’s setting. Still, it’s not enough to ruin the overall experience because narrative isn’t exactly Muramasa’s strongest point. NPC dialogue is, for the most part, unrelated to the plot and the only time the story really progresses is before and after every major boss fight.

 

But that’s OK because too much story in a game can keep you from coming back to it once you’ve seen everything in that regard. Games like Super Metroid are infinitely replayable because they emphasize fun and exploration without forcing a story down your throat and Muramasa feels the same. It both surprises and rewards you often, and every single moment I’ve spent with it has been a true pleasure.


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  • AllenSmithee

    … I need a Wii, thanks a lot.

    :D

    this convinced me 100%

  • Ereek

    It’s a bit sad about how Ignition treated the dialogue, especially after the rumors of why they have it over XSEED came to light.

  • Code

    rar, I really wish I could love Muramasa fully, but I just didn’t find a lot of aspects as satisfying as I’d have hoped. I mean I adore the visual style of the game, and the boss fights were epic and top notch, but nearly everything else was just too dry for my tastes. Things like the RPG Mechanics felt shallow to me, and the world felt just a little too empty and linear to. Although the post-game I think actually enjoyed more, with all gates open it sort of at least catered to my sense of exploration, finding secrets in places I couldn’t access before. rar, it wasn’t a bad game for me, just I wanted to something to sink my teeth into, but Muramasa, just didn’t deliver T_T”

  • EvilAkito

    Muramasa is the best game I’ve played all year. It controls very nicely, and the combat, while simple, is very smooth and never gets boring in spite of all the repetition. Pretty much everything I hated about Odin Sphere is absent in this game. Hopefully I’ll have more time to play it this week!

  • overlord_laharl

    A perfect game for me need Story + Gameplay. They do an improvement with the gameplay but the narrative is preety bad. I know it’s about genre, because sidescrolling 2D games don’t need that and bla bla bla, but in Vanillaware games I was hoping the two thing, as for me this game have an score in my reviews mmh: 9/10 D:

    Hoping their next game have the narrative like Odin Sphere + the gameplay of Muramasa and that’s will be one of my best game.

    I don’t take hype review too seriously.

    PD: Did someone play Grim Grimoire? it is a preety game, but It was too short…

  • pedrron

    I’m not that far into the game but from what I’ve played so far has not disappointed at all. I too thought the combat was going to get old real quick but somehow it’s still really fresh. The enemies/backgrounds are colorful, the controls are tight, the bosses are cool. The only gripe is the translation, feels like it was translated by a bunch of teens? But like someone before mentioned, you don’t play for the story as much as the action. Other than that I would recommend this game to anyone that owns a Wii. And if you don’t have one yet, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR!? Its $199.99 and Amazon is offering a $25 gift card w/ purchase right now. DO IT!

  • http://www.younganimal.com/berserk Mr_Qoo

    This game is easily a top notch, top of the line, must play game for Wii owners. My only gripe was that (being that I alternated chapters, mind you) Momohime’s early game swords were top tier but her end game swords were pretty much garbage ‘special’-wise. Kiske was the exact opposite, starting out not so great and becoming an unstoppable force that could cycle specials without blinking an eye. Still a great game and I’m glad it keeps me coming back over and over.

  • maxchain

    Oh, man! I wish I had known the panties question was answered sooner! Now I can finally sleep again.

  • Tatsu

    It surprises me quite a bit to read an article like this. I’ve played through Muramasa. Being a big fan of “old-school,” 2D platformers, I disagree with this almost point-for-point. Rather than an article on “Did it live up to its hype?” I feel Muramasa is better suited for an article titled “How to design a game with a lot of appeal and potential that is ruined by myopic focus on visuals.”

    The game looks fantastic, but my main issue is that its aesthetics are the main focus; very little work was put into properly balancing visuals with mechanics. The core combat system, difficulty curve, level design, and everything else are compromised for the sake of looking pretty.

    If I had to pinpoint the biggest flaw in the combat system, I’d say it’s the inability to tell when you’re in danger. The game features very exciting, fast-paced battles where the entire screen is filled with busyness. You’d better be mashing the attack button, or you won’t be able to deflect the projectiles coming from off-screen. It’s difficult to react to each enemy’s attack in time or even detect them — especially when using a slow sword — so enemies will often get in what feels like a cheap shot. Just a couple of these cheap shots can kill you. It’s clear that the designers saw this as a problem, since the game provides two “solutions” to the unfairness of battle. First, there’s no penalty to dying. You go back one screen and receive full health. This trivializes health items and keeps the game from truly feeling tense at any point in time. The second solution is the laughable easier difficulty setting (which can be toggled at any time) that simply makes your character auto-block. This allows you to win battles no matter what you do, and its inclusion ensures that a player will never be forced to deal with any type of challenge.

    When I play, I imagine that every development decision was made for the sake of visual appeal. “Does the attack look cool? Great — keep it in, don’t worry about anything else.” “Man, I spent so much time making this pretty background. We need to make sure the player has to pass by this point 4 or 5 times.”

    In the end, while the game looks beautiful, it does not feel nearly as tight as any number of 8-bit or 16-bit classics in all other areas of design. Would-be players should know that the art alone is where this game gets its worth.

    • Asura

      No offense Tatsu, but having had beaten the game on Shigurui (1 hit death) multiple times, it just feels like you are not playing this game well. None of the problems you mention EVER came into my mind after the 2nd boss when I got somewhat used to the combat style, and I have no idea what the heck you mean by unfair. if you screwed yourself over by getting in the middle of multiple ninjas all attacking you at once with no way out, that’s your fault, and you should indeed die for it, and learn how to play better next time.

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