Review: Muramasa: The Demon Blade

I was honestly a bit worried about being able to review Muramasa: The Demon Blade objectively, because this game was, from the outset, completely up my alley. Making a fully 2D sidescrolling action game with lots of combo-based swordfighting and a Japanese mythological setting is like titling the game JC Will Buy This, as there is no component of that game description for which I am not a sucker.

What keeps me honest? Professionalism the other side of that coin -- if the game worked I may be more likely than most to love it, sure, but if there was anything wrong with it, my disappointment would come out pretty harshly. Luckily, I don't have to worry about my personal biases getting in the way, as I'm quite certain this is a great action game.

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Anyone who has seen a screenshot or a video knows it's great-looking. Odin Sphere developer Vanillaware has reached a high point in its art direction, which has always relied on high-detail, well-animated sprites on colorful backgrounds. Muramasa's visuals, inspired in equal parts by anime, watercolors, and ukiyo-e woodblocks, are among the most beautiful visuals ever seen in a game. I stopped more than a few times to walk back and forth on a screen to watch the backgrounds scroll.

Muramasa sends those well-animated sprites all over the place with exciting combo-based action -- think Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry in 2D. As either possessed princess Momohime or amnesiac Kisuke, you have the ability to pull off super-quick sword combos, which, when combined with upward slashes, air dashes, and sword-specific special moves, allow you to juggle multiple enemies almost indefinitely. The only thing limiting your combos is the durability of your sword. As you fight, a meter of your sword's "spirit" diminishes. When it empties, your sword breaks, rendering it temporarily unusable. To combat this, you must frequently rotate between your available arsenal of three swords, each of which has a different special attack and other attributes. This allows your other swords to slowly regenerate. Maintaining your swords and keeping enemies airborne allows you to frequently dispatch entire groups of a dozen or so enemies in a single, ridiculous combo.

In "Muso" mode, the game's easier mode, you can pretty much button mash and fly around the screen, and you'll be fine as long as you keep switching out swords and keep upgrading your character. The game's harder mode, "Shura," makes the enemies a lot more aggressive and your blocking and parrying less automated, so you have to keep a closer eye on what you're doing.

There's no drawback to playing in either difficulty level -- in fact, you can select your difficulty every time you start up the game, even on the same save file. You can play one level in Muso and then swap to Shura if you want. The same is true of character choice. You're free to play through either Momohime's or Kisuke's storyline, with different events and bosses, at the start of any play session, which means you can play through both parts of the game concurrently.

Muramasa has just the right amount of RPG-style gameplay -- which, for an action game, is a little. You collect experience and level up as you fight, you can forge new swords with energy collected from enemies, you can buy and/or cook healing items to carry around, and you can find accessories that boost the game's few self-explanatory stats (vitality, strength). It's just enough to make the game interesting, but not so much that you have to grind outside of a boss fight. The sword forging is particularly interesting, because it takes the form of a skill tree that encourages replayability -- there's no way you'll be able to forge all the swords in one playthrough.

The environments and enemies may be a bit repetitive (you'll see an endless variety of forests as you travel across Edo-era Japan), but they never stop being gorgeous, and they show a real passion for Japanese culture and history -- the enemies are all based on creatures from Japanese myth, and even the food is presented lovingly in a minigame that forces players to savor every "bite." Developer Vanillaware's passion for classic ninja action is expressed with every sword flash of every 300-hit combo, allowing me to justify the enthusiasm I so wanted to feel for this beautiful game.

This review is based on a retail build of the Wii version of Muramasa: The Demon Blade provided by Ignition.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.