With all the chaos and excitement during events like the Tokyo Game Show and the Electronic Entertainment Expo, it's easy to miss a game that isn't backed by a huge publisher taking up a hefty chunk of the show floor. Muramasa: The Demon Blade, however, has always been able to stand out on its own, with its gorgeous hand-painted visuals and stunning action-packed gameplay. Developer VanillaWare (makers of Odin Sphere and GrimGrimoire) brings a fast-paced, action role-playing game to the Nintendo Wii, with the freedom to explore an intricate network of 2D levels and enough customization to keep you busy for hours. A representative from publisher Ignition Entertainment came by our office to give us some more time with this Wii exclusive, and we're happy to say that it's as fun as it looks.
There are two storylines to play through in Muramasa, both based on famous Kabuki plays. The game is set in feudal Japan, and you can follow the rogue-ninja Kisuke or play as Momohime, the tragic princess who has been possessed by an evil samurai. The two characters will make their way across Japan's charming countryside, but the experience is different depending on which character you play as. There will be some overlap in terms of bosses and levels, but we were told that for the most part you'll explore unique locations and fight character-specific bosses.
Kisuke's quest is to defeat this evil shogun, while collecting demon blades in the process. There are 108, but unless you're willing to explore every nook and cranny of Japan and learn how to forge swords, it's going to be difficult to collect all the blades in one play-through. Our demo began with Kisuke, and we watched as he hacked and slashed his way across beautiful landscapes until he came face-to-face with three giant centipedes. Boss battles are epic showdowns that require some quick thinking and sharp reflexes. He leapt gracefully from one rooftop to another, flying through the air while armed with three deadly blades. As much fun as it was to watch the game unfold, we were eager to play it for ourselves.
The mechanics in Muramasa are very simple, but that doesn't mean the game is easy. It's important to be fast and aggressive because enemies deal quite a bit of damage. The good thing is that you don't have to spend too much time figuring out what to do, because you're just using the A and B buttons to perform regular and special attacks and the analog stick to move around and jump. The game will support the Classic Controller as well as the GameCube controller, and there are no Wii motion controls anywhere to be found in Muramasa. You level as you vanquish a wide variety of enemies, many of which come in waves. After each fight, your performance is rated, and extra experience points can be earned depending on how you did. The game won't penalize you for button-mashing your way to victory, but with a bit more finesse, you could be rewarded with more XP and even special items.
What you do have to keep in mind is your sword health. It's easy to forget, and once your sword breaks, you'll make a mental note to pay more attention next time. Your sword will heal in time, but when it snaps, it takes much longer for it to be useful again. Using special attacks, blocking, and just everyday wear and tear cause your sword to lose health until you switch to another blade, giving it time to regenerate. There are items and souls to collect that will speed up the process, but if you pace yourself and swap swords when necessary, then you should be in good shape. It's tricky once you're dealing with bosses, because you can rack up some crazy hit combos, but it's crucial to keep an eye on your sword meter at the top of the screen and quickly switch up when your blade is about to break. Switching swords is a matter of holding the C button--which pauses the action--and picking the blade you want. Each sword has its own special attack, and you can only carry up to three at a time. There's a lot of customization if you want to get into sword forging and cooking, but if you want to just plow through the game, you can do that as well.
We were able to jump to Act 4 of Momohime's story to get a feel for the game, running through the snowy mountains to eventually face a bizarre hog that can transform itself into a giant green monster. Without giving away too many details of the boss battle, it's mainly a matter of figuring out how it moves and then unleashing your special attack anytime you have an opening--without breaking your blade. The action is fast, but by holding the A button and dashing across the screen, you'll slice through clusters of enemies with little effort. Using the GameCube controller might be the best option for tighter controls, especially when jumping, but the Wii Remote setup wasn't bad either. Healing items can be assigned to the D pad, so you can easily swap through items and use them.
A crude, hand-drawn map will help you keep track of where you need to go. It's possible to have to do some backtracking, but the areas themselves aren't that big if you're just running from one end to the next. You'll come across save points and towns, where you can stop and do a bit of shopping and eating. Keep an eye out for monkeys, because they'll take you to a hot spring where you can regain all of your health. In addition to being able to check out Momohime in a towel, there are some funny conversations that take place there, so it's worth making a stop.
There's some incentive to go through the game on a higher difficulty setting because there are hidden bosses available only in normal mode and a third difficulty setting to unlock once you beat the game in this mode. Depending on the player, it can take 12 to 15 hours to play through the quest to find and craft everything. For the purists out there, the Japanese voices are included and everything is subtitled, which is fitting because of the time period and storyline. With all the commotion onscreen, we didn't get a chance to listen to Hitoshi Sakimoto's score very carefully, but from the sections that we did pay attention to, the music seemed to capture the essence of the game perfectly.
We really enjoyed our time with the game, and it's obvious that Muramasa stands out because of the care that went into re-creating feudal Japan. Also, watching your character beat up enemy shogun in a flurry of sword slashes never gets old. If you're looking for an action adventure game that will take you on a journey through a fascinating era of Japanese history, then have your sword ready when Muramasa: The Demon Blade is released on September 8 in the US... though European gamers will have to wait until November to get their hands on the game when it's published in the region by Rising Star, it looks likely to be worth the wait.