Review: Muramasa: The Demon Blade

Jordan Deam | 17 Sep 2009 09:00
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I don't envy the team at Ignition who had to localize Muramasa: The Demon Blade, the latest hack 'n' slash sidescroller from Odin Sphere developers Vanillaware. It must have seemed like an impossible task: Take a world that combines innumerable elements of Japanese history and mythology and make it relatable for Westerners. The team could have translated every line of dialogue flawlessly and it still wouldn't make sense to an American audience. Perhaps that's forgivable for a game that is so infused with Japanese culture, but what's surprising is that many of Muramasa's design decisions are as impenetrable as its story and characters.

Muramasa follows the separate paths of two warriors, Momohime and Kisuke. Momohime is a young girl who is accidentally possessed by the spirit of an evil swordsman, while Kisuke is an amnesiac ninja who must travel eastward in search of vengeance. Though the two characters cross paths at certain points in the game, their stories are otherwise entirely separate and distinct. Unfortunately, the extra replay value that this adds comes at the expense of multiplayer - there's no option to play as Momohime while a friend assists you as Kisuke or vice versa.

Perhaps allowing co-op play would have blunted the impact of each story, but therein lies the problem: The stories (or, more accurately, my feeble attempts to piece them together from seemingly unrelated bits of dialogue) add almost nothing to the experience. Instead of watching the characters develop or even relating to them at a basic level, you end up wandering through the game oblivious to your characters' personalities or motivations. For a game as beautifully drawn as Muramasa, the storytelling - at least in the English version - feels like a half-finished sketch.

Strip away the Eastern accouterments, and Muramasa doesn't feel so foreign. In fact, it's reminiscent of the old-school Metroidvania style of gameplay, which hinges on the gradual explanation of a vast, seamless game world. Unfortunately, Muramasa is anything but seamless. Every zone is split up into dozens of discrete "rooms" for no particular reason, and while certain areas are barred to you at the start of the game, the solution to each obstacle is the same: Wait until you've acquired the sword the cuts through the appropriate color barrier, and you're on your way to the next patchwork territory. Even though the load times between "rooms" are almost nonexistent, the lack of contiguity still detracts from the experience.

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