Muramasa: Demon Blade is fluid, beautiful, and lets you slice your way through feudal Japan as a male or female ninja in two separate storylines. 14-year-old me would have done terrible, terrible things to get his hands on this picturesque side scroller. It may be the prettiest game I’ll never finish.
A Lot of Ground to Cover
Muramasa takes you through mountains, forests, and towns, interacting with nobles and villagers (to advance the plot or just buy recovery items). According to the game’s marketing materials, Muramasa has “not only side-scrolling fashion, but vertical progression elements as well.” This means you’ve got the option of moving up or down and side to side.
Within the expected horizontal and vertical restrictions, Muramasa still manages to create complex map of interconnected locations across Japan. There are even some attempts to give the illusion of depth while exploring as you move up/away to enter doors and follow paths or go down/closer to cross bridges that extend “out” towards the player. Of course, combat still ends up firmly locked in 2D space. (Yes, you can argue that all video game combat is two dimensional because it’s on a TV screen. My counterargument is SHOVE IT, NERDLINGER!)
Since the two main characters have very different storylines, the game’s already extensive map of Japan gets twice as much usage. On the normal difficulty setting, you progress through the story smoothly, earning experience points and leveling up through random enemy encounters. As an added bonus, you can level up more quickly by doing things like striking first, avoiding damage.
Much like that fat white kid from my dorm who collected Naruto comics in the original Japanese, I’m no expert on historical accuracy in feudal Japan. Having said that, Muramasa is thoroughly non-Western, making games like Tenchu and Shinobi feel like The Oregon Trail. The imagery can be familiar at times, but the plot gets pretty weird.
The ninjas use sake and foods like tempura to recover their health, while the towns they move through have familiar decorations like colorful lanterns and rice paper screens. Then there are shapeshifting foxes and some kind of wild boar covered in flowers and disguising itself as a giant ogre. I could follow what was going on up to a point — the boy is being pursued for a crime he didn’t commit, while the girl was possessed by a swordsman’s ghost — but then I encountered demons posing as corrupt bureaucrats and a portal to hell that only opens on one night each year, and it got tough to keep up.
Balance in All Things
The scenery in Muramasa is beautiful, but there are no environmental challenges. There are no spike traps, flames, or lava to avoid while exploring that isn’t the direct result of an enemy attack. The ground is always there to catch you, with one possible exception: a collapsing bridge sends you onto the next screen at a slightly lower starting point than if you’d timed your jump correctly. There are no jumping puzzles or real risks to advancement besides arbitrary force fields that can only be broken by collecting certain swords from boss monsters.
In addition to the swords you need to win from bosses to unlock new portions of the map, you can also craft your own by calling on the spirit of a blacksmith. The blacksmith’s animation is elegant and uniquely Eastern, and it’s an entertaining challenge to decide how you’ll use the souls you’ve collected from enemies — do you unlock the faster, less powerful short sword, or the less nimble sword that has a better reach and does more damage? This is quickly offset by the realization that there are only two types of swords (long or short), and while they all have unique special attacks, there’s little diversity to be found in the garden-variety encounters with enemies.
It’s kind of like having the big, explorable map from Super Metroid without being able to use grappling hooks, ball form, or anything except one basic gun for shooting enemies. Yes, you carry three swords at a time and can switch between them rapidly, but at least two of them are going to be identical.
So, eight hours later I’m impressed by the work that went into Muramasa, and entertained by the visuals and the atmosphere. I’m also not likely to play much further, since it hasn’t thrown anything new at me in a while.