Mar 31, 2015

Muramasa: The Demon Blade, Hand-Drawn Pandemonium

Prepare to be spirited away into a pixel world of scheming Shogunate Lords, wandering samurai warriors, ninja clans, frenzied Demons and various scornful Gods, all warring over powerful swords known as Demon Blades.

Muramasa: The Demon Blade is an action-adventure hack-n-slash game, with a sheath full of Japanese mythology and lore. Every piece of scenery in this digitized wonderland was crafted with precise and vivid strokes: farmland hills burst from the screen with bold colours, dark bamboo forests hide secrets of their foggy caves, temples stand tall and unbowed, rivers of water teem with life, and trees sway with dreamlike movement.

It's very clear that the background artists were inspired by the 17th century impressionist masters, Hokusai and Hiroshige. Tokatsu, Eight Views of Hell, is a reference to the naming conventions used by both artists to indicate which “View” or place in Japan they were painting. And there's the more creative use of Hokusai's most famous piece of work The Great Wave at Kanagawa, which places your character directly on the boat – fighting a Kraken. Marvelous!
There are two selectable characters: Kisuke – an amnesiac fugitive aided by a foxy spirit. And Momohime – a princess possessed by a cunning spirit of a swordsman known as Izuna Jinkuro. It does not matter which character you pick first, their paths intersect and funnel into several climatic endings. Luckily, both protagonists share the same controller scheme; by learning one, you'll acclimatize yourself to both.

The D-pad is used for movement: jumping, ducking, rolling and running. The buttons are mapped to attack, special techniques and item use. Holding down the attack button blocks, in this stance, combining the directional D-pad inputs activates blazing fast aerial strikes, upward slashes and powerful defense breakers. However, the true rulers of the battlefield are the Demon blades you forge. Depending on the equipped blade, you may command tornadoes, spiritual energy orbs, or execute various enemy grinding attacks.

Your repertoire of demon slaying tools will increase with each level-up and defeated foe. Each enemy has a distinctive look and attack patterns, that require a planned approach to fighting: some bosses need to be climbed to reach their exposed mantra, others have protective barriers, or are susceptible to more damage by deflecting their attacks. I don’t want to give away too much, but the spectacle of fighting a raging dragon within a thunderstorm will be imprinted on your psyche long after you shut off the game.
You'll even do a bit of cooking! Collecting recipes and using gathered ingredients, gives you a chance to make provisions. When not in combat mode, you can start a fire and throw a bunch of ingredients into a pot and boil/grill actual usable items that heal or give extra properties. It is refreshing to see such a simple approach for item procurement. Your character may even become too full if he/she eats a big meal, which will prevent them from using healing items for a set amount of time

The game has an easy learning curve, many save spots, and you can revive at the same screen you were downed. Or you can always level up your character, and seek out stat enhancing items to equip. There's also a nifty map system that overlays onto the screen to show you the level's layout and reveal points of interest.

Muramasa's soundtrack is very enjoyable too. The music has an unpredictable almost theatrical feel that surprises the listener by shifting in tone and speed. And features a unique blend of traditional Japanese music – lutes, flutes, violins, bells, precise rhythmic drum beats – and more modern, off the cuff, instrumentation: pulsating bass, rockin' guitars and bombastic electronic keyboard licks.

Because of the insane amount of time it takes to create moving hand-drawn artwork, the backgrounds are often reused in each of the various levels, along with many of the foes. You'll spend a lot of time running from left to right and vice versa. Stopping only for story tidbits, and to cook much needed rations. I also noticed some wonky balancing in the difficulty setting, most evident while playing as Momohime.

Unlike the backgrounds the characters are drawn in a style known as Chibi. And all in-game dialogue is in Japanese. If this is not your forte, this title may not be for you. Your loss. On a more dramatic note, getting the true ending will be a battle of determination, requiring the forging of all 108 Demon Blades. This means a lot of grinding and soul collecting (souls being the mojo of forging). I recommend using the Classic Controller!
Those subtle flaws are overwritten by the game's smooth 2D animation, edgy design and perfect control. I would expect nothing less from the folks that made Odin Sphere and Dragon's Crown. Video games crafted with love and finesse such as this one are on the endangered species list. Make sure to snag them if you come across one. You will not regret it.

Last strike to the gusto, Classic games like Muramasa will increase in value – this has been proven with the resurgence of interest in retro video games – simply because interactive artworks need patrons to enjoy them.

Muramasa: The Demon Blade gets four promiscuous Kitsune spirits out of five. 

play it proud
 Developer: Vanillaware
Publisher: Ignition
Platform: Wii, PS Vita 
Released: 2009/2013 (Vita)
Genre: Action-Adventure, Hack-n-slash

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