It ends up being one of those games that, while good, has to forever live under the shadow of what it could have been
In a place where resources are limited, the very best games have been the ones to thrive on their art style and excel in creative game design. Muramasa: The Demon Blade surpasses pretty much the entire library of the console when it comes to art and visual glory, but while its gameplay is undeniably good, it falters in some vital elements that prevent the experience to reach the greatness level it could have so easily achieved. It is by no means a bad game, it is a very good one, but the fact that its length is unusually big for a game of its genre – which features very limited gameplay options for developers to explore - ends up revealing some repetitive wrinkles that end up taking a way a little bit of the brilliancy of the package.
In the game, players will either take the control of Momohime or Kisuke. Momohime is a princess whose body is accidentally possessed by the spirit of an evil swordsman – Jinkuro - and, as a consequence, has to run from her castle in order to save her life, which can only be done by aiding the evil spirit on his quest. Kisuke, meanwhile, is an amnesiac ninja who is granted a powerful sword by a deceased swordsman who had a rivalry with Jinkuro. The two plots follow distinct paths through the same big overworld and show some interesting overlapping at some points. Sadly, the plot's decent quality is occasionally marred by translation issues, which sometimes have the characters mouthing sentences that are a little bit too poorly worded for comprehension. Fortunately, though, Muramasa is not exactly a story-driven game, and so the eventual story confusion does not take away from the whole experience.
The two separate adventures clock in at about ten hours each, totaling twenty hours of gameplay if players focus solely on finishing the central story. Even though the characters are different in their sprite, combat works pretty much the same way for both, as they do not possess any significant distinction in their fighting styles. At all times, the characters can equip three different swords, each one having their own special power – triggered by the press of the B-button- and attack stats. During combat, as battle progresses and your blows are blocked, the stamina of the swords will diminish until they break, forcing the character to switch to another sword while the broken automatically heals itself after some time.
Combat is relatively straightforward, with the A-button being responsible for pretty much all actions, from slicing to blocking, the control stick guiding the attacks and the digital directional to the use of items. There are three different difficulty sets that can be switched at any time – the last of which is unlocked upon completion. On the first level, the combat will restrict itself to mindless hack and slash, as the enemies will barely be able to inflict damage on the players, and so will the bosses, but on the hardest levels blocking and dodging becomes vital to survive and battles get much more interesting and skill-demanding. At the end of the battles, players earn experience points depending on what they did during the melees, as extra experience can be acquired by not being damaged or performing other achievements.
When players are not fighting, they will be going through the game's absolutely gorgeous scenarios. The game's meticulously hand-drawn visuals are downright breathtaking. The scenarios are made up of around five layers of incredible colors and art that move independently as the characters walk through the land, giving an incredible sense of depth and grandeur. The whole game looks as if a Japanese painting had suddenly come to life and started moving like a very well-animated and frantic cartoon, and the game's great soundtrack just nicely enhances that feeling.
Still, in the joining of both its fast-paced combats and marvelous art, Muramasa can have its negative aspects summarized in one word: superficial. Sometimes, the game makes it feel like the developers were so set on the combination of fighting and progressing through the environments that they simply decided not to give the game substance. Sure, there might be hundreds of blades to collect, some of which involve forging swords with both Momohime and Kisuke, since their sword trees overlap at some points; and there are even a handful of extra locations to visit, like the challenging monster lairs, where hordes of creatures require players to be at very high levels in order to survive, but the game is still very one-dimensional.
During the journey players will go through a few villages and populated locations that seem to have no purpose of backstory at all, being there to simply change the environment a little bit. Even though the characters level up, there is no such thing as the ability to improve their stats manually, choosing what kind of character you want to control. The slots of equipment that can be attached to the character are also not enough to give any considerable value of customization to your character. And the constant backtracking is an excuse to increase the length of the game in a few hours and gets awfully tiresome as – like all games of the beat'em up genre – the world design itself is not exactly filled with creativity and unexpected moments.
Muramasa: The Demon Blade is a good title, and it is mostly fun for the twenty hours or so that it lasts. However, Vanillaware's interesting attempt to merge the simplicity of a hack and slash affair with the scope of an adventure title and the value of an RPG game ends up being negatively affected by the fact that those elements are not tied together with enough content or value to justify the merger. Muramasa ends up being one of those games that, while very good, has to forever live under the shadow of what it could have been.