Muramasa: The Demon Blade comes at a time when hardcore titles on the Nintendo Wii are far and few between. It was initially released in Japan earlier this year as Oboromuramasa, and quickly became one of the year's hotly anticipated games for the Nintendo Wii. However, while Vanillaware, the developer, are still relatively unknown, they were behind the critically acclaimed Odin Sphere and GrimGrimoire and they certainly have the pedigree to create a spectacular game - is this the case with Muramasa: The Demon Blade?
The story is actually segmented into two separate affairs, although there are slight cross-overs. One story focuses on Kisuke, a renegade ninja who is being chased for a crime he's unaware he committed, while the other focuses on Monohime, a young girl who has her soul possessed by swordsman, Jinkuro Izuna.
The story in each instance is divulged in small cutscenes at the end of each act, which means there isn't a massive amount of room for development. This is a shame as it stops it from becoming overly engrossing and the material was easily good enough to allow for further expansion. It would have also been nice to see more integration between the two stories, as this too could have made the experience much richer.
While the game does lack a compelling story, this can easily be ignored due to the compelling gameplay. Muramasa: The Demon Blade is all about swordplay and it revolves specifically around the usage of katanas. Each character carries around three katanas, and there are two types: Odachi and Tachi. They do handle differently, but the moves are effectively the same, and since the combat is basically controlled by a single button it's not too daunting. Because of the simplified combat it's can be tempting to just mash the button and hope for the best. This will only get players so far though, as in a rather genius move, the developers decided to make the block button the same as attack. This means that the majority of enemy attacks are actually parried purely by attacking and while it is extremely satisfying, it does come at a cost. Every attack that's deflected causes wear to the sword, and after a sword has withstood a certain amount of damage, it will break.
Carrying three swords is the key here though, as the Muramasa swords have special qualities. If they are placed in their sheath, they will repair over time and this adds a whole strategic element to the gameplay. While keeping track of the fast paced action on screen, players need to also be aware of the state of their swords, as while broken swords can still be used, they do negligible damage and can't be used to defend. While it may seem as though the combat is quite limiting due to the small selection of moves, that doesn't stop it from being extremely satisfying and addictive and it can't really offer more.There is also a huge quantity of swords available to use, and they each have their own signature move. Some of them can be acquired through progression of the story, but the majority of the weapons can be manufactured in the Forge. This works essentially like a tree, and as well as requiring prerequisite weapons to be made, players must also acquire a certain amount of spirit and souls. Spirit can be acquired, oddly enough, by eating food, while souls are mainly collected from killing enemies. The food element is certainly interesting and it's quite scary how much time and effort has been put into all of the different animations for eating the various foods. It's certainly a novel concept though and teaches players about different types of Japanese food.
However, swords can only be equipped if a player has a certain combination of strength and vitality, which is where the role-playing elements come in. Players level up after dispatching foes, and following every battle there is a brief summary. The game's role-playing elements are quite shallow though, so players shouldn't expect a hugely deep leveling system, with lots of stats.
The gameplay isn't without its faults though, and some poor design can lead to frustrations, mainly with navigation. The map screen doesn't have a zoom feature, so trying to plan a course isn't the easiest task. It can also be rather boring after a boss fight to walk through countless screens just to get back to somewhere that's civilised. It would have been much easier to just place players back at the start of the "dungeon". The controls, while relatively simple, also don't seem very suited to the Wii. It's much easier to play by using a Classic Controller or Gamecube Controller, and it definitely makes the game much more enjoyable.
Visually, the game looks stunning. Some of the backgrounds are truly breathtaking, and while the game is in 2D, this doesn't detract from the experience at all. Animations are all extremely fluid and the art-style simply makes the game look beautiful. The music, composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto, also deserves a special mention for two reasons. The composition is of a very high standard, as expected by someone of Sakimoto's stature, but the most impressive element is how the music switches styles when a player is in a battle. The base of the song stays exactly the same, but it instantly becomes developed while remaining entirely in-sync. It helps to keep players involved with the experience and means there are no gaps and pauses in the musical interlude between battles. Loading screens are also extremely sparse throughout the game, but one thing that might detract some gamers is the lack of any english voice work. It's all done in Japanese, with English subtitles.
There is also a decent amount of replayablity within the game, as on top of there effectively being two campaigns, there are also multiple endings to be experienced with each campaign. Those who enjoy collecting will also find it fun to try and collect all of the different swords that are on offer. Upon completing the game, an extra difficulty mode is also unlocked, where the player never has more than 1hp, which could definitely challenge even the most skilled players.
Muramasa: The Demon Blade shows that beat 'em ups still have a place in the video games industry, and with its beautiful presentation, any serious gamer with a Nintendo Wii should own this title. While it's not without its faults, the positives far outweigh the negatives.