Saturday, March 3, 2012

Retro Review: Muramasa: The Demon Blade

This post will be a review of a game I've already reviewed in the past: Muramasa: The Demon Blade. I'm doing this because I think I gave the game too high of a score in my first review, and I'd like to see what happens if I review the game now. So, here we go ...

Gameplay (7.5/10) - The gameplay of Muramasa is a solid execution of the classic 2D beat-em-up formula that was popularized by classics like Shinobi on the Genesis, but Muramasa manages to add its own additions to the formula. For example, combat in Muramasa is combo-based with an emphasis on air juggling, special moves, and dodging; the result is combat that feels almost like a 2D version of combat found in Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden. Combat is given a bit of diversity thanks to each of the games 108 swords having their own unique special moves (though some are just powered-up versions of previous sword's special moves) and a good diversity of enemies of bosses. With that said, combat can get quite repetitive as the game progresses; this is mainly due to most battles playing out in the same way, for enemies, for the most part, all behave in similar ways. Sure, some enemies fly, some disappear, and other block your attacks, but really the combat system just comes down to getting close to an enemy and attacking them. If the process of getting close to enemies was more diverse, then the combat would benefit from some diversity, but that isn't the case. Bosses offer more diversity in combat, and also show how a stages geometry can affect battle; thus causing the player to not only understand the bosses attacks and patterns but often the geometry of the stage as well. The bosses show how some more complicated geography in the stages could have benefited the diversity of normal enemy combat; unfortunately, there are only a few stages that have anything other than a flat surface. Regardless of these criticisms, Muramasa's combat is a fun experience throughout the game, as the player is consistently challenged by new enemy types and given many swords to utilize in combos. However, Muramasa's combat could have benefited from more diversity in enemy behavior and possibly a projectile weapon(s) to keep the flow of combat flowing. The combat is a step above that of classic 2D beat-em-ups, but not the evolution I'd come to expect from Vanillaware.

Muramasa's other gameplay systems include a cooking system for healing items and a forging system to make new swords. These systems help keep the player busy even when out of combat. These systems are also vital to progressing through the game, so they help add another important process to the game design, thus making Muramasa more than just a bunch of fights.

Graphics (9.5/10) - As expected from Vanillaware, the graphics are incredible. As opposed to Odin Sphere, Muramasa contains many different environments to travel through, each looking very different from the other. The result is a visual tour de force through Japan, all in Vanillaware's beautiful artistic vision. Characters and monsters are all very well designed and animate very well. The animations aren't always superb, but always look great when it counts, most notably in boss battles. The environments are amazing to behold as well thanks to the subtle little animations found throughout them; from gorgeous lighting to stalks of grains moving in the breeze, the game is truly beautiful. The only real flaw is that the environments lack real impact other than being beautiful; this is mainly due to flaws with the story, but it's still a noticeable problem, at least after the huge impact Odin Sphere and Grimgrimoire's backgrounds had.

Sound/Music (8.5/10) - Muramasa's soundtrack is as beautiful as it is diverse. First of all, the soundtrack is expansive and has different themes for each of the games' areas as well as themes for each boss fight, and has pieces for cutscenes as well. Secondly, while the soundtrack mostly uses traditional Japanese instruments, it also uses modern instruments such as electric guitars; the result is a sound that is both unique and traditional, beautiful and eccentric. And finally, the quality of the soundtrack is superb, and definitely matches the high standards of Basiscape's other works. The only flaw in the soundtrack, similar to the graphics, is that there isn't too much attachment to the pieces from the perspective of the player. While many stage themes are beautiful and memorable in their own right, they don't often create an attachments to the story or environments. So, as a result, Muramasa's soundtrack is great for the moment you hear it, but it isn't really one that sticks with you when your done the game.

Story (4/10) - For a 2D beat-em-up action game, Muramasa's story is above and beyond what most have come to expect from the genre; however, as a Vanillaware game, the story is absolutely disappointing. While there are decent characters, many different environments to trek through, and two seperate stories to go through, it is simply shallow in comparison to the stories of Odin Sphere and Grimgrimoire. The characters aren't particularly likable and are hard to care for, the world of Japan is never given much history nor is it really talked about, thus most of the environments the player go through lack much impact on the player other than being pretty. The story does have some genuinely nice and sometimes emotional moments, though they are reserved for Kisuke's story, who's is easily the better of the two. I'm not saying there isn't anything to enjoy in the story, as it is present and there is a story to pay attention to, but there simply isn't much to care about, and for the most part, the story simply comes off as a means of getting the player from one location to another rather than the story being the ends of the effort the player puts into the gameplay. Overall, for those who are playing Muramasa as their first Vanillaware game, you'll probably enjoy the story enough to be entertained by it then quickly forget it after you're finished the game, but for those who played Vanillaware's previous games (Princess Crown, Odin Sphere, and Grimgrimoire), Muramasa will most likely be a huge disappointment in terms of content, characters, and impact.

Replay Value (8/10) - Being one of the few 2D beat-em-ups of this generation, Muramasa is a fun and accessible game to come back to and enjoy simply for the gameplay and beautiful visuals and music. There are also multiple endings for each character, which get even more gameplay out of the game (though you won't have to replay the entire game to get the other endings). There are also secret battles to take on that are often much harder than even the bosses; so people wanting try out their combat skills can try them out. Overall, like many classic beat-em-ups, there's much fun to be had even after the credits roll.

Satisfaction (7/10) - Muramasa is a great game, for it has superb visuals and music, solid gameplay, and some generally amazing moments that combine all three of those factors; however, there's nothing in Muramasa that feels truly spectacular. Especially for a player like me who has had previous experience with a Vanillaware game, there are standards that Vanillaware has set for themselves, and, in the end, Muramasa falls short of those expectations. The reasons behind this fall of expectations all really comes down to the story. I know it seems harsh to penalize an action game based upon story, but when I play a Vanillaware game, I don't expect just another great game, I expect an incredible experience, at least that is what I've come to expect after playing the masterpieces that are Odin Sphere and Grimgrimoire. Muramasa comes close to being such a game, but the lack of immersion in the characters, environments, and conflicts in the game as a result of the poor story-telling really hurt my satisfaction of the game as a fan of Vanillaware. As a fan of 2D action games, I was very happy, it isn't the evolution of the genre that Viewtiful Joe was, but it's still a solid entry in the genre.


The score I should and want to give it - (8.5/10): Muramasa is an amazing game is solid gameplay that adds more to the classic 2D action gameplay of the past, all while being beautiful to both the eyes and the ears. The story isn't particularly strong (especially for a Vanillaware game), even if it has some emotional moments, but the main concerns in this genre is the gameplay and visuals, and Muramasa delivers in both categories. It's disappointing that Muramasa didn't have more complex gameplay or evolve the genre past what it's Genesis ancestors did, but it's still well worth a player's time to play through this great game that harkens back to simpler time in gaming history.


So, I guess, in the end, Muramasa still holds up well. The game is great, even if it lacks a bit of depth. But really, that shouldn't be surprising, as George Kamitani has stated that he basically wanted to remake the 2D action games of the NES and arcade days with Muramasa. And, he and his team accomplished that. It's just that with Vanillaware's past games, I've come to expect more than just beautiful executions of existing genres, as well as having amazing stories. And, that's really the only thing holding back Muramasa, it's poor story. And I stand by that criticism, because Kamitani has shown in the past that he can write some of the best stories in any medium, and when he follows up the masterpieces that are Odin Sphere and Grimgrimoire with Muramasa, it can hurt pretty hard for a hardcore fan like me.

Unfortunately, this trend may continue. Grand Knights History has a very minimal story to it, which is disappointing; however, GKH isn't directed by Kamitani like previous Vanillaware games, so I'll probably let that slide. However, Dragon's Crown, is directed by Kamitani, yet has nameless character, which is often an indicator of a minimal story. Furthermore, the 2D beat-em-up genre, which Kamitani wants to evolve with DC, is infamous for having little to no story. I hope Kamitani doesn't continue that trend and actually gives us a good story with DC. I'm not expecting much due to the characters simply being classes rather than named characters, but I hope the world and NPCs can make up for it. A great story doesn't need to have named characters, nor much dialogue, but to pull it off is a rare feat. Can Kamitani and his team pull it off? I guess I'll have to wait and see.

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