Not nearly as sharp as it looks
HIGH The hand-drawn artwork is incredible eye-candy.
LOW Feels empty and barren; a rough sketch of a bigger game.
WTF Did the developers honestly think that style trumps substance?
First things first—I need to say up front that I am a huge fan of Vanillaware's art team. Their visual designs are appealing, their artistry is clear to see, and the attention to detail given to every aspect of their presentation puts them near the top of the 2D game scene, hands down. They've done outstanding work in previous efforts, and Muramasa is no different. In fact, it may be their best work overall, and that's saying something. If games were critiqued solely on looks, Muramasa would be practically flawless.
However, it's a fact that it takes more than graphics to make a game. It can't be disputed. Although I have nothing but admiration for the intricate illustrations making up the face of Muramasa: The Demon Blade, I'm sad to report that I found nearly every other aspect of the title to be lackluster and incomplete to a ridiculous degree.
Although this 2D side-scrolling hack-n-slash game presents two characters (one a possessed princess, the other an amnesiac ninja) they're merely palette swaps for each other with no discernible difference in function. An argument might be made that each was worth including since they have different storylines, except that the plots are blurted out via impromptu dialogue snatches with little context and even less significance. There is no serious attempt made to give depth to the characters or their situations, and to say that the storytelling borders on nonsensical is being generous.
With nothing to sink dramatic teeth into, it falls to the graphics and gameplay to carry Muramasa's burden. The visuals certainly do their part, but there is precious little play to talk about.
To be fair, the mechanics of swordfighting are more elegant than they appear at first glance. By assigning attacks to one button and mapping different abilities to the D-pad, it's possible to have either character flashing back and forth across the screen in a deadly dance of upslashes, air dashes, or defensive rolls. Once the system is understood, it functions quite well and has a certain energy to the rhythm of orchestrating movement. Unfortunately, Vanillaware gives players little reason to take advantage of it.
Basically, every world in Muramasa is a series of empty squares laid out in linear fashion—and when I say "empty squares," that's exactly what I mean. The player starts at one end and crosses each zone until they reach a boss or some other event at the far end of the line. There are no puzzles, no platforming, no tricks or any interesting events... the player is simply pushing through from one side to the other and fighting a couple of quickie battles along the way. It's mind-numbingly boring, and I have a hard time believing that the developers have never had exposure to any of the countless titles prior to Muramasa which feature levels that actually progress, change, or develop in some way.
Adding insult to injury, these areas are recycled side-by-side, and there are an absurd number of them to cross. It's extremely common to pass through four or six identical areas, one right after the other with no difference between them and nothing noteworthy happening. Not only does this bring on an intense and constant sense of déjà vu, the sporadic ambushes from enemies are over in a matter of moments. The majority of the player's time with Muramasa is spent mowing down speed bumps while traveling between small segments with a bit of spark.
I will admit that when the end of each desolate, repetitive area is eventually reached, the boss battles are fairly interesting. Since their life bars tend to be quite long, the extended battles have a fair bit of kick, and a modicum of strategy is called for. That said, there are only a handful of them sprinkled throughout the game, and asking players to put up with the tedium of endlessly crossing these areas just for brief snatches of substance takes a lot of gall.
In a cursory attempt to add depth to this wading pool, Muramasa does feature a sword-development tree where a large number of blades can be unlocked by collecting the requisite points and leveling up to a required degree, but it's of little interest. Each sword feels like the last, with little effect on the generic combat or how it plays out. I felt no motivation whatsoever to earn the next blade, and the feature was produced in such straightforward fashion that it feels like it's there more out of obligation than because it actually enhances the game. At no point was there ever any "gee whiz" factor of getting a new piece of kit, and if the entire sword concept was removed, nothing significant would be lost.
In every way save the graphics, I found Muramasa: The Demon Blade to be a failure. It certainly appears to be an attractive package at first glance (doubly so on the Wii given its comparatively weak library) but the entire experience felt repetitive, shallow, and unfinished... a half-formed idea needing more meat on its bones rather than a completed project capable of commanding respect. To be brutally frank, the game failed to keep my attention for even the first hour, and the next two I put in were exactly like the first. I love the art—really, really do, but graphics alone can't carry a game. Besides its looks, Muramasa doesn't have a leg to stand on.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Wii. Approximately 3.5 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains alcohol reference, fantasy violence, and suggestive themes. The violence consists of the characters slashing at enemy ninja and demons, and the suggestive themes are a few quasi-risque reveals of female characters. None of this will corrupt any youth as far as I'm concerned, although stuff of this sort is best left to the teens (and above.)
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You won't have any problems. All dialogue is subtitled and there are no important audio cues necessary for play. Totally accessible.