A Sharp Demon’s Edge
I wish we saw more in the way of 2D action games. Much as I love the DMC action formula, aped and reinterpreted by everything from Ninja Gaiden to God of War , there’s a certain purity to combat on a single plane. It holds true in fighting games and, as Muramasa Rebirth proves, in broader action titles as well.
To call Muramasa an action title, though, is a bit disingenuous. While the gameplay is very much that of a standard hack-and-slash platformer, there are wrinkles, both little and large, in the fabric of the game that define it as something other. Something a bit grander.
Taking control of either Kisuke, a traitorous and amnesiac ninja who has displayed sudden proficiency in a deadly, lost sword art, or Momohime, a princess whose body has been co-opted by the spirit of a vengeful and powerful swordsman, one plays through an expansive, eight-hour plot that takes them to nearly all of feudal Japan. Along the way, one battles with ninja, samurai, monks, and various demons and spirits ripped straight from Japanese folklore.
That Momohime and Kisuke have completely unique storylines is a Vanillaware hallmark; Odin Sphere has five characters, each of whom told their own story before linking together for the finale. In much the same way, Muramasa’s protagonists only rarely cross paths, and their storylines only converge at their climax under specific circumstances (there are multiple endings, most of which never explore this connection).
The plot in Muramasa Rebirth is strong enough to drive the action, especially thanks to the new English translation, which injects a wealth of personality where, in the original Wii version, much of the dialogue comes across as slightly obtuse and overly literal. The translation is accompanied by sharpened versions of the same, lush visuals that define the game’s original release.
In fact, the visuals are perhaps Muramasa’s greatest draw. Smoothly animated and highly detailed, they are extremely expressive and intricate, lending a real sense of character to the world and its inhabitants. It’s a bit unfortunate that many of the backgrounds are repeated fairly frequently, which is especially noticeable since the game demands so much in the way of backtracking (pacing can be a bit of an issue), but that does nothing to detract from the obvious quality of what is on display.
The action sometimes suffers from a similar issue, wherein it becomes notably tedious. Though the core mechanics are designed to make the combat fast and dynamic, with Kisuke or Momohime dashing about the screen in a surprisingly precise flurry, there are only a handful of distinct enemy types, re-skinned throughout the game to provide a greater challenge as you level up and forge increasingly powerful swords with which to dispatch them.
Forging those blades is the other major form of advancement in the game. While each character can only equip one accessory, most of which either provide a direct statistical benefit (there are only two stats: strength and vitality, but they dictate what swords one can use) or help negate a status effect of some kind, they have three separate swords equipped at all times. These come in either “sword” or “long blade” forms, the latter of which tend to be significantly stronger, but are far slower to wield. Given the speed of combat, they’re best reserved for powerful, individual enemies. Why three swords, though?
Because you can switch between them on the fly, and you will. Each sword has a special technique, which activates with the press of a button. These are generally attacks of various stripes that may prove useful, but activating them also consumes the sword’s Soul gauge, which is also emptied by blocking. Should the gauge empty completely, the sword will break and must be sheathed to recharge, at which point it will be whole once more. Because of this, battles, especially protracted ones, tend to involve frequent swapping between blades. This is doubly true on the game’s Chaos difficulty setting, in which enemies are more damaging and defense is less automated.
It isn’t all fighting bad guys and advancing the plot, though. While there isn’t anything in the way of formal side quests, the game does contain sealed battle rooms that pit the player against challenging bosses or seemingly endless waves of foes in pursuit of useful trinkets and, of course, experience (experience is granted during combat, but it’s also granted at the end, based on how well one performs). There is a cooking mechanic, as well. It involves finding recipes and ingredients and can be used to produce either individual dishes that must be consumed immediately (but typically afford the player powerful temporary benefits) or food items that can be used for health in mid-battle. Eating fills the Fullness gauge, which must empty before one can eat again (limiting how often one can refill one’s health) and, in addition to health, provides one with spirit, one of the two resources used in crafting blades.
In addition to what you cook yourself, there are shops one can happen upon that offer treats or meals with similar effects. There are also traveling salesmen one can encounter who offer ingredients, items to be used both in and out of combat, accessories to equip, additional recipes, and maps of new territories (particularly useful for avoiding much of the tedium of backtracking).
With a focus on spirits, the afterlife, and the violence endemic to feudal society, Muramasa has a dark undercurrent coursing through it that runs contrary to the beauty of many of the visuals on display. Townsfolk are designed with a simple and jovial appearance, and the player is often dashing through idyllic countrysides or quaint little towns. Even the frozen wastes of Mount Fuji’s peak are striking in their austerity.
Muramasa , though, is also a game of dark caves and vengeful ghosts, of demonic ninja and undead warriors. While some of the lesser demons are almost comical in their appearance, others are intimidating by virtue of size alone. The most unsettling, though, are the grotesque fusions of man and monstrosity, such as the defiled monks who tower over the player, with a single eye surrounded by blue-tinted flesh.
The bosses, in fact, are where George Kamitani’s designs truly shine. They move in intricate and often unsettling ways, dwarfing the player’s character, filling the screen with deadly attacks that one can scarcely avoid. Their battles tend to be the most enjoyable, with the exception of a few where the patterns they use are so simple as to make them an exercise in dull repetition rather than an actual challenge. Repetition isn’t the worst the combat has to offer, though; more problematic are those situations in which the platforms on a given screen interfere with one’s ability to attack the enemy cleanly. A would-be air combo can be interrupted by an errant ledge, which breaks the otherwise smooth flow of the combat.
Any complaints I have, though, are fairly minor (save the tedium of backtracking). Muramasa Rebirth is a wonderfully enhanced version of an already terrific game that melds old-school action sensibilities with more modern complexities and a storyline that manages to feel notably mature.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.5 Graphics
Kamitani’s artwork is stunning, but there is a more-than-healthy amount of repetition in here. 5.0 Control
Not only are the controls already smooth and responsive, but Rebirth allows for them to be remapped in wonderful and logical ways. 4.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The sounds of combat are satisfying, and the music sets the stage fairly well. Voice acting is all in Japanese, and it does an admirable job at conveying emotion. 4.0 Play Value
Two characters, each with hours of dedicated gameplay? The promise of additional downloadable content? Muramasa should keep you satisfied for a while. 4.8 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend|
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid||2.5 – 2.9 = Average||3.5 – 3.9 = Good||4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy|
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor||3.0 – 3.4 = Fair||4.0 – 4.4 = Great||5.0 = The Best|