In 10 Seconds…
A side-scrolling action RPG that graces the Wii’s anaemic third-party catalogue with some much-needed Metroidvania flair, while sharing some of its predecessors’ flaws.
In 2007 Vanillaware released Odin Sphere, a beautifully-animated PS2 slash-em-up that ultimately struggled to make itself heard over the console’s final death rattles. Unperturbed, the studio returns to grace the Wii with Muramasa: The Demon Blade – in every sense a spiritual successor to Odin Sphere that brings the same frenetic, enemy-juggling combat mechanics to a next-gen console. The previous instalment’s Norse mythology is replaced with a supernatural version of feudal Japan, populated by evil monks and conversational foxes.
Who you are in this strange world is decided by your character choice: boy or girl, Kisuke or Momohime. Based on your decision at this Resident Evil-style crossroads you then follow the inter-connecting paths of either the young ninja expelled from a clan he can not remember being part of or the princess cursed by the spirit of an evil sword-master hell-bent on acquiring the demon blade. Both stories involve seeking the aid of a cast of strange other-worldly characters as you pursue the same unholy grail. It’s a wonderfully realised world, full of idiosyncrasies and character quirks that make it exactly the kind of place where you would want to spend time slashing things up.
The previous instalment’s Norse mythology is replaced with a supernatural version of feudal Japan, populated by strange and other-worldly characters. Players can choose to play as Kisuke, is young ninja expelled from a clan he can not remember being part of, or Momohime, a princess cursed by the spirit of an evil sword-master. They are both aided by a cast of quirky characters on a quest to acquire a demon blade. Muramasa provides a wonderfully realised world, full of idiosyncrasies and character quirks that make it exactly the kind of place where you would want to spend time slashing things up.
And slash things up you do. Ninjas, spirits, giant centipedes – the enemies run the whole gamut of katana fodder, and the game is never more satisfying than when you are franticly parrying on all corners of the screen, slicing your foes into glorious Technicolor sashimi. You can opt for nunchuk, classic controller and even Gamecube control, and while you will find yourself reaching for classic simply to escape the thumb-lock of analogue-stick jumping (Vanillaware, apparently, has not learnt from Super Smash Brothers’ mistakes) even then the familiar cramp of d-pad sidescrollers will inevitably set in.
It’s to the game’s credit, then, that physical pain is often not enough of a deterrent to continue a play session. Increases in onscreen hordes offer the mixed blessings of greater potential for both combos and possible slowdown, but while the latter occasionally irritates, the former brings with it a wide variety of attack types that add desperately needed depth to the hack-and-slash mechanics.
Sadly, the success of the robust set of attacks winds up providing only some of the extended gameplay appeal that the role-playing elements should have brought. While the potential for customisation is undeniably there in clearly defined skill-trees and levelling up weapons, your choices in specialisation will rarely have much effect on the tactics you turn to when the shurikens start flying. Greater replay value is provided by a playthrough of the second character’s narrative, and the more difficult ‘Shura’ and ‘Shigurai’ modes which ramp up an already chaotic game into absolute mayhem.
Muramasa’s unique selling point is an aesthetic which takes the pain-staking character art of DS titles such as Advance Wars and Disgaea and realises them as fully-animated characters in a detailed 2D world. Muramasa is arguably the most attractive of the recent slew of 2D revisionist platformers, and commendable as one of the few Wii games which can withstand comparison to the other platforms without condescension. Blades spark, characters blur and enemies explode into fantastic light displays, encouraging you to mash those few buttons for even more impressive visual displays.
In quieter moments the game is still a joy to behold as swaying leaves and floating fireflies evoke an atmosphere that will remain with you long after you finally succumb to controller-related hand injuries. Appealing level design is especially welcome as the game’s retro idolisation stretches further than torturous controls to include copious amounts of backtracking, so it’s therefore essential to the game’s playability that those neatly-detailed pagodas are still pleasant to observe even as you pass them for the 9th time.
An unassuming and authentically-Japanese score accompanies the story, which soothes in quiet moments just as proficiently as it excites in the heat of battle. Meanwhile, the weight of the story is carried by the many breaks in the action where two characters share expository text dialogues. The words are accompanied by some form of gibberish which may have become annoying if I’d had to deal with it in large doses.
Muramasa ‘s endless barrage of strange enemies and elaborate sword-and-skill combinations don’t add up to much more than window-dressing around a rather simple game. While it may feel shallow for players with no interest in old-school side-scrolling beat-em-ups, fans of the genre will enjoy the excellent art design and potentially the sheer surrealism of the game.
As it stands, the game is peerless. Whether there is good reason that other games aren’t trying a similar approach may depend on your appetite for depth and patience for repetition, but those who have some interest in trying this odd little wonder for themselves would be well recommended to do so.
Single-player – 8.4
Originality – 8.9
Story – 8
Value – 8.5
Visuals – 9.4
Audio – 8.5
Casual – 7.5
A simple 2D slash-em-up with fantastic visuals.
Greater variety of play styles through customisation.
Backtracking that serves exploration, not nostalgia.
A jump button.