Muramasa Rebirth is an odd game. At first, I didn’t quite understand why it felt obliged to be a brawler-meets-RPG hybrid. Things felt disconnected. It’s a very fast game, so some of things that felt more RPG-like seemed almost unnecessary. Sure, the safe areas where you could buy items and eat meticulously animated soba and dango were interesting, but when the rest of the game is about running around, tearing through tons of ninjas and demons as quickly as possible, things like weapon-forging trees and fullness gauges that prevent you from spamming healing items seem a tad extraneous.
It would be one thing if you gained different attacks as you leveled up, but your standard moveset doesn’t change at all throughout the course of the game. You can do dashing rising slashes (which can be chained together to knock enemies further into the air), sliding slashes, air and ground combos, launchers, a somewhat impractical front-flipping slash, and an aerial plunge. All of this is mapped to the Square button, which, should you hold it, is also your block button. On top of that, you’ve got the ability to do a screen-filling sword drawing attack by swapping swords with Triangle after one breaks, or after waiting for a while. No matter which sword you use, no matter how much you level up, you’ve always got those abilities. The speed and animation of certain attacks change whether you use long swords or normal katanas, but your basic moveset is always the same.
Adding a bit more variety is the fact that each sword has its own specific Secret Art, which can vary from a screen-spanning dash to a phantom projection of your character that slashes away at your enemies from behind to an exploding projectile. Since you can have three swords equipped at any given time, you’ve basically got three special attacks in addition to your standard moveset. You can’t completely abuse these though, since each Secret Art you use will drain a bit of your sword’s energy, which is also drained by blocking attacks. Should that energy be depleted, your sword will break, and you’ll have to wait for it to repair itself. Thus, you have to balance blocking and Secret Arts to make sure you don’t find yourself running away from your enemies with three broken swords until they magically reforge themselves.
Because you have all of this at your disposal from the very start, cutting through standard enemies is pretty simple. Sure, they have attacks that can take off a quarter to half your health bar in a single hit, but Momohime and Kisuke are basically murder artists. Block and roll well enough and stay on the offensive and you’ll feel almost invincible as you run from area to area across Muramasa’s fictionalized take on Genroku-era Japan, leaving hundreds of corpses in your wake.
However, all of that changes when you face a boss.
In Mega Man-esque fashion, each boss is preceded by a gate and a short story sequence in which you have to talk to everyone to move onto the boss. It’s one of the few elements that feels like an RPG in the game, but I like the way it sets the stage for the boss. You go from running freely through fields to walking slowly through a corridor talking to everyone and the bosses are worth the change in atmosphere, both from a visual and difficulty standpoint.
Bosses are where Muramasa puts your skills to the test. You need to know when to dodge, when to block, when to retreat, when to use the invincibility provided by the Secret Arts. You typically learn this through pain. Lots well-animated pain. Especially because enemy patterns will shift as you take down their health, often leading to attacks that will kill you in one or two hits. This is why Muramasa Rebirth’s checkpointing system is so lovely.
As frustrating as some of my poorer attempts were, Muramasa was actually quite respectful of my time. Should you die on a boss, the game will bring you back to life directly in front of the door to the boss with your used healing items restored, and you won’t even need to go through the pre-boss conversation scenes again.
This sort of checkpointing is basically Muramasa Rebirth telling you that it’s okay to experiment and fail. You’re not necessarily meant to beat each boss the first time you fight them. Doing so feels good, but failure is only a momentary thing. The game puts you right back at the beginning of the fight practically as soon as your character’s body hits the floor, so you don’t have time to be annoyed. You can make any changes you need to, perhaps adjusting which healing items to bring maybe switching accessories to something that neutralizes the boss’s tendency to set you on fire. It’s a nice approach to the old-school “learn through repeated failure” design mentality.
I appreciated this generous checkpointing even more when I took on the various Caves of Evil littered across the map. These are essentially the game’s challenge rooms, complete with recommended levels for taking them on and special accessories earned for completing them.
They’re rather brutal, but they also got me to appreciate the game’s blend of genres a bit more. I was ridiculously overleveled for one of the first Caves of Evil I tried. The recommended level was 9 and I was somewhere in the early 20s. I thought it’d be easy. I was promised a few waves of monks, but I figured that as long as I equipped my best swords, I’d have no problem. In traditional RPG style, as long as I had the level advantage, it’d be a piece of cake, right?
Guess how many of these tengu are in a pre-attack animation!
The sheer number of enemies onscreen coupled with the fact that they were all meticulously hand-painted and overlapping made figuring out what the hell I was supposed to do a bit of a challenge. That was only compounded by the fact that my attacks wouldn’t typically knock them out of their attack animations, so while I’d try to scoop up a bunch of monks for air combos, I’d occasionally get knocked from the sky and volleyballed between a few enemies until I died. Next time, I tried cooking something before the fight to give myself a bit more attack power, only to realize that cooking is kind of a gamble. While death will restore the items you used in combat, you don’t get the materials you cooked with back again, nor do you get the stat boost. That said, cooking certain meals would result in me getting quite a bit further through the challenge room, so it was a gamble worth taking.
Even with the stat bonuses however, I still found myself getting killed. Again and again and again. After one particularly crushing defeat, instead of snapping my Vita in half (thanks again, quick checkpoints!), I took a moment to rethink my strategy. For the most part, my blocking and rolling were on point, but I kept getting hit when I was in the middle of dashing through the crowd of monks. I then realized that I had a few swords with Secret Arts that would be very good for crowd control, specifically one that released a tornado that moved forward hitting everything in its path multiple times. This could actually knock the monks out of their attack animations and would group them all together for an easy launch if I stayed close to the tornado. All of a sudden I was playing smarter. Instead of using my most-recently forged swords, I started thinking about challenge rooms and bosses from a more puzzle-like perspective. If I could get specific Secret Arts that solved my problems, I could tolerate lower attack power.
Although at first it seemed like Muramasa’s RPG and brawler aspects were completely separate, I liked that I had to use a combination of both intelligence and reflex to get through. Pattern recognition and the ability to put together combos could only get me so far, and grinding and Secret Art abuse were no good on their own. To play get through the tougher challenges successfully, I had to combine both playstyles, and doing so felt great.
Food for Thought:
1. While I haven’t spend a huge amount of time with the Wii version, I preferred the way the Vita version controlled. Having a dedicated jump button is nice, and being able to reassign the dodge roll from down and a direction on the analog stick to R made the analog stick feel less overworked in general.
2. On top of that, I liked the new localization for the most part, but every so often a character would use a phrase like “muff-diving” that felt kind of jarring, given the game’s setting. However, those occasions were pretty rare.