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.

Worse still, you’re hindered at every turn by Muramasa‘s clunky controls and cumbersome menu system. Some players may appreciate the fact that the game completely bypasses the Wii’s motion-sensing capabilities, but this control scheme effectively ignores the only advantage the console has over its high-definition competitors. More damaging is the decision to map the jump function to the thumbstick, which makes platforming maddeningly imprecise. Don’t be surprised if you have to scale taller rooms two or three times after a missed leap sends you back to the bottom.

Then there are the game’s poorly explained and text-heavy menus, which you’ll find yourself thumbing through frequently when you acquire new items or need to recover some health after a battle. Not only is it a pain to navigate, but it also leaves out crucial information. For example, you acquire a new blade after each boss you defeat, but this weapon may not become usable to you until you level up a few times. How many times? You’ll have to guess – nowhere in the item description does it say what level a sword requires before its available to you. [Ed note: Muramasa‘s weapon requirements are based on stats that can be modified by wearing accessories, not strictly on character level.]

So many aspects of Muramasa spurn playability that it’s a wonder the game is enjoyable at all. But as much as it frustrates and annoys, Muramasa also finds a decent rhythm after you’ve adjusted your expectations. The combat, while repetitive, is oddly satisfying. There’s not much variety in the enemies you encounter, but the boss battles are always a thrill. And while there’s no appreciable difference in gameplay from one zone to the next, the environments are so beautifully rendered that it’s possible to be transfixed by the visuals while simply tolerating everything else.

But “style over substance” only gets you so far. Perhaps if the game’s designers spent as much time polishing their work as the artists, Muramasa would play as good as it looks. Instead, it expects you to tolerate a whole lot of frustration for meager rewards.

Bottom Line: The fact that Muramasa is still somewhat compelling after its myriad failures is a testament to the artists at Vanillaware – they created a game world so beautiful that you’re willing to put up with mediocre gameplay to see a bit more of it.

Recommendation: Rent it. Your patience with Muramasa may run out long before you’ve gotten your $50 worth.

Score: [rating=3]

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