While most widely known as the family-friendly home console featuring a myriad collection of party games and fitness titles, the Nintendo Wii was also home to some of last generation’s better adult-oriented forays. Many of these titles got swept under the rug due to poor sales and a missing target audience, but some received much deserved praise from the gaming community. Among these forgotten gems is Muramasa: The Demon Blade, an absolutely gorgeous 2D side-scrolling platformer with exploration and RPG elements mixed in. Not one to be forgotten by time, Aksys Games has breathed new life into Vanillaware’s Wii original, giving it a second release on the PlayStation Vita in the form of Muramasa Rebirth.
Taking place during the Genroku period in Japan, Muramasa actually tells the tales of two separate protagonists with interweaving storylines. One campaign follows Momohime, a beautiful young woman whose body is possessed by the spirit of a swordsman named Jinkuro. Jinkuro forces Momohime to aid him in his quest to regain his lost demon blade, forging a bond with the young woman along the way. The second campaign tells the story of a ninja named Kisuke who is stricken with amnesia. Despite not knowing where he came from or what he has done, he finds himself on the run and in search of a demon blade of his own. The two campaigns can be played in either order, or you can choose to switch between the two and work through them at an equal pace. There are multiple endings associated with each character, ensuring plenty of replayability for those hooked on the action.
Whichever campaign you choose to play through, a major element is the forging of new swords. As you progress through the story and level up, you will also collect Sprit and Souls. Both of these work as a sort of currency that Muramasa – the titular weapon smith in the game’s lore – uses to craft new swords for you to equip. Only three swords can be equipped at a time, but there are 108 different blades that can be collected throughout both campaigns, each with their own stats and special abilities. Levelling up your character does not allow for customization via statistical distribution, but being able to choose which blade you equip based on their stats and powers goes a long way in strategically planning your victory in battle.
Combat in Muramasa is relatively straightforward, but it still manages to maintain a complexity that isn’t often seen in what can be broken down to hack-and-slash gameplay. As you traverse throughout the map, random enemy encounters will occur that are then fought in real-time. Much of your time will be spent tapping the square button to attack and using the left stick to move and evade, but that doesn’t mean the combat should be written off as being overly simplistic. With each different sword that you collect comes a new Secret Art – a special ability exclusive to the particular sword that you have equipped. Knowing which Secret Arts are effective against certain enemies and being able to identify when it’s time to switch between your equipped blades are necessary skills for being an effective combatant and staving off death. Combat is fast paced and often frantic, making it a blessing to have controls that are tight enough to keep up with the action.
There are clearly signs of influence that crossed over from Muramasa to Vanillaware’s more recent 2D chef-d'oeuvre Dragon’s Crown, but Muramasa provides a more straightforward single player experience. There is room for exploration here, but most of the time you’ll find yourself progressing from area to area, defeating enemies within, and exiting without spending too much time searching the environment. Many of the areas contain hidden items, but these are easily detectable and are usually placed along the path that you’re already traversing. There is some backtracking required – which lends a bit to the repetitive nature of this game – as you make your way from one end of the map to the other, but if you’ve already seen and collected everything available then it’s simply a matter of running from screen to screen and defeating any enemies that decide to spring up. This two-dimensional travel is redundant, but it’s also quick enough that it doesn’t feel like a chore just to find an unexplored area.
Muramasa is a 2D game in the truest sense. All of the characters are drawn flat and your movement through the environment is strictly two-dimensional, never stepping into the foreground or background. The environments are layered to give the illusion of depth, but there's no way to explore what lies outside of your strict path. The good news is that, despite lacking any real depth, the characters and environments are absolutely gorgeous. Everything in this game boasts a hand drawn look that perfectly fits the time period and theme, resulting in easily one of the most attractive games on the Vita. It’s almost as if this game was designed with the “video games as art” debate in mind. For as attractive as the game looks, the most impressive thing about the display is that, even when the screen is flooded with enemies and a vibrantly pulsating background, there is very little slowdown. At some points the action moves at frighteningly fast speeds, but the framerate does its best to keep pace and never become a hindrance to the gameplay.
For as beautiful as this game is, it's surprising to see that none of the story is told through animated sequences or motion comics. Instead, Muramasa opts for a much plainer but straightforward dialogue-driven plot, unravelling the story through character conversations and a lot of text. Telling the story this way is effective, but much of it feels like it was inserted as a second thought to the gameplay. Suddenly being forced to read through pages of conversation is jarring and slows the action down sometimes at the most inopportune times.
Muramasa Rebirth perfectly blends beauty and brawn, providing an experience that, while artistic in aesthetic, packs an unforgiving punch. Combining 2D platforming, hack and slash action, and RPG elements, this title is sure to appeal to a broad variety of gamers looking for an adventure that is both accessible for long grinds or quick pick up and play bouts. The gameplay may be repetitive for some, but the quick pace helps to alleviate the monotony of the mostly single-button swordplay and constant travel. The two campaigns can be played through in just around seven hours each, making for a shorter quest than many would hope for, but the promise of multiple endings and challenges to complete is sure to entice avid players and have them coming back for more. If you're interested in a well crafted and fulfilling experience beautifully disguised as a hack-and-slash platformer, then this one is for you.