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