There’s been some debate about viewing video games as art, but here’s a game that should put that argument to rest. Muramasa: The Demon Blade is quite possibly the most beautiful game to appear on any platform, ever. It’s not just the detail in the characters and the animated backgrounds, but the style. The design sensibility is unique, echoing more old Japanese paintings or shadow puppets than modern anime which suits the medieval Japanese setting right down to its core.
From a gameplay perspective Muramasa feels like an old beat-em-up game with players taking their avatar on a journey through Tokugawa Japan. There’s random encounters with demons, ninjas and enemy samurai and boss fights with awesomely detailed monsters and human foes. Just writing it off as a “button masher” does the game a great disservice however as the action sequences are tied together in two stories that feel like they’ve been taken directly from Japanese mythology.
The stories concern two characters: Momohime and Kisuke, both of whom are questing for an Oboromuramasa or Demon Blade. Momohime is possessed by the soul of a treacherous sword master named Jinkuro who seeks a Demon Blade forged in Hell that will allow him to transfer his soul to a new body. Kisuke is a ninja who has lost his memory and seeks to find a Demon Blade possessed by a vengeful god which will bring ruin upon the land if it falls into the possession of the Shogun, Tokugawa.
The narratives are strong and ably conveyed thanks to quality subtitles that capture the meaning of the Japanese audio without being a mere literal translation of it. Given the large amount of dialogue and cast of characters it’s very much like watching a Japanese film; so it’s fitting it has a cinematic score to match. This does mean that players expecting some casual fun will probably not enjoy this game as much because there’s no hand-holding in the storytelling: you do need to pay attention in order to follow what’s happening and every boss fight is preceded by mandatory conversations with bystanders and enemies alike.
Muramasa is steeped in Japanese culture and mythology; so much so that in the past it would probably have stayed in Japan unless subjected to extensive editing. Whilst a knowledge of Japanese history, culture and religion will make it easier to follow what’s happening, mostly you just need to be open to the experience. You’ll fight classic Japanese demons like kappas and tengu, journey through Hell to combat demon lords and venture to the steps of Heaven to take on the gods themselves. Japanese religion and spirituality are referenced throughout and the story endings are faithful to Buddhist ideals of redemption and enlightenment.
Food plays a prominent role as well – which is rather novel in any game, much less a hack-and-slash affair like this one. Venturing into the many cafes, inns and restaurants provides not only a health boost for our weary heroes, but a break from the action as you press the A button to enact the eating of the lushly animated food placed before you. In the course of the game you’ll acquire recipes and ingredients used to cook meals between battles which are similarly rendered in loving detail – so much so that you may fancy a trip to a Japanese restaurant afterwards!
Food is not only used to restore health but provides temporary game benefits like reducing random enemy encounters or boosting attack strength, so having a tofu hot pot is as much a strategic decision as a necessity. You can also prepare food items to consume in the midst of combat like onigiri (rice triangles), roasted yams, fish or squid. There are other health boosts available in the form of food and beverage items you acquire like peaches or sake, or traditional medicines like pellets made from bear or tiger gall bladders.
Acquiring and learning to use the titular Muramasa blades is a key aspect of the game. There are 100 blades in all which are forged with the souls you collect from defeated foes (and those just lying about for you to find in wild areas) or awarded following boss fights; with the latter being key to breaking barriers to access new areas in order to advance the story.
There are two types of Muramasa: long blades which do more damage with each blow but have slower attacks and regular blades which lend themselves to building massive combos of consecutive attacks, but do less damage with each slice. Each blade has a powerful Secret Art which is triggered with a press of the B button. Using Secret Arts and parrying enemy attacks will reduce the soul metre on your sword – which you need to be mindful of lest your sword be broken.
Whilst sheathed your sword’s soul gradually regenerates as it “drinks the blood of the slain,” and you can carry three swords at any one time to aid you in balancing your attacks. If your sword does break it can still be used to attack, but it cannot parry or block attacks; nor can the Secret Arts be used.
Whilst you can just try pressing A repeatedly and get through the game playing the Muso or “normal” mode, switching to Shura or “hard” mode will provide a more satisfying experience once you familiarise yourself with the range of combat moves available. Your ability to parry and block attacks is reduced in Shura with the focus on technique and learning how to effectively use the Secret Arts. You can switch between Muso and Shura play modes at any time if you feel the going is a bit easy or proving too challenging.
Each story can be played through in less than 10 hours. Some secondary characters are common to both stories and the two main characters meet face-to-face at the hot springs (yet another place players can take a break whilst their characters recharge their health and soul), but their stories don’t really intersect that much and their boss battles and conclusions are different.
Once you complete both stories you can choose to continue both characters’ tales (a single save game contains data for both stories) prior to their final boss encounter in order to unlock any remaining swords, fight the other character’s bosses and find hidden bonus objects. You’ll also get the ability to warp between the shrines which act as save points, staffed by the bewitching fox spirits that act as guides on your journey.
Muramasa: The Demon Blade is a gem of a game which probably won’t enjoy a large audience due to the nature and content of its stories. From a gameplay perspective it’s great fun, but in order to fully appreciate it you’ll need an interest in Japanese culture and history. Vanillaware have positioned themselves as one of the premier Wii developers thanks to the exquisite detail and solid gameplay contained within. All due thanks to Rising Star for bringing this game to the UK whilst maintaining the quality of presentation and the integrity of the story.