Pros: Dazzling visuals, engaging swordplay.
Cons: Repetitive gameplay, slight stories.
I remember long drives with my family when I was a boy. My mother was fond of pointing out the scenery, insisting to my sister and me that we must admire the dry, tall grasses swaying on the northern California hills as we drove from Sacramento to San Francisco. For me though, it was just a constant succession of boring hills and boring trees.
I don’t know what I would have thought of the scenery of VanillaWare’s action game Muramasa: The Demon Blade back then. But as an adult, I love the old fashioned side scroller’s beautiful bamboo forests and rushing rivers. I am captivated by dragonflies flitting through fields of tall grasses and waves crashing on pristine beaches. I love traveling over the roofs of ancient Chinese buildings. I love the gorgeous pink-orange sunsets and am entranced when the rains come, pouring down in slanted sheets of water. Muramasa is a game for lovers of scenery.
Set in 17th century Japan, Muramasa contains two stories, one starring Momohime, a young woman whose body has been possessed by a malevolent soul, and Kisuke, an amnesiac soldier. The game puts little energy into a coherent storyline, particularly in the case of Momohime’s story, which feels like it starts in the middle, leaving players with no clear idea of who these people are or what they want.
Gameplay: Fight, Fight and Fight Some More
Gameplay primarily consists of battling attackers with a collection of soul-eating swords. Game mechanics are smooth and effective; you can jump-attack, run-attack, block and perform special moves. At times your sword will break, but you always have two backups that heal when sheathed. You draw a fresh sword in a flurry of slashes that damages all your opponents at once.
All of these is done by pressing buttons; the developers apparently had no interest in the motion-sensing capabilities of the Wii remote.
The game has mild role playing elements. Your avatar gains strength during battles that allows him or her to wield more powerful swords. These can be gained either when vanquishing a powerful enemy in one of the game’s overlong boss battles or by forging swords, which involves choosing one from a menu tree that allows you to create deadlier swords as you progress.
Swordplay is fun, and it is enjoyable to see the various special powers of your new swords, which might let you spin around like a chainsaw blade or send out enemy-seeking fireballs, but it is also becomes repetitive. There is a good variety of monsters, samurai and ghosts to fight, all of which are fun except the ghosts, which just annoyed me by disappearing every time I tried to stab them.
Verdict: Very, very pretty.
When I first saw a demo of Muramasa I instantly recognized the look as that of Odin Sphere, a 2007 Playstation 2 game also developed by Vanillaware. While Odin Sphere had a more satisfactory story, Muramasa has somewhat more intricate gameplay and avoids the frame rate issues that plagued the earlier game whenever a lot was happening on screen.
Muramasa is fun and pretty, but it is still just a matter of doing the same thing over and over before scenic backdrops, and that combined with the lack of a compelling story made playing the game feel rather aimless.
Of course, playing video games is an inherently pointless activity, but the best games make you feel as though what you are doing somehow matters. Ultimately, Muramasa is a scenic tour that I enjoyed far more than those road trips with my parents. But while I suffered through those scenic childhood outings anxiously waiting to reach a destination, with Muramasa the scenery is great, but I just never felt like I was going anywhere at all.