July 17, 2014

That's A Wrap: Muramasa Rebirth

warning: may contain spoilers

Continuing to bond with my PSVita, I found myself unable to resist the allure of Muramasa Rebirth, a Vita port of the Wii title, Muramasa: The Demon Blade. What attracted me to Muramasa was actually that I didn't really know anything about it! I'm familiar with the word "Muramasa" but that didn't necessarily explain the game. After firing it up for the first time… wow.
The game is comically polite, unbelievably good looking, and feels like it belongs amongst my favorite retro titles in a lot of ways.
The first thing I think anyone would notice about this game, is that it is beautiful; the colors are exquisite and the design is just gorgeous. There are little visual effects in some areas that are so subtle but so effective - they add so much to the atmosphere of each level, which
are hand painted with heavy Asian influence and it's just… fucking beautiful. I really can't describe this game's graphics and do it justice; even the screen caps are not entirely honest.

Hurray for Japanese dialogue! You don't have choice in the matter, so learn to love it. I always prefer to experience things in their native language so 'Japanese only' wasn't something that deterred me at all, and I thought the voice acting was spot on. I enjoyed hearing Momohime's voice speak Jinkuro's diction, it gave them both a ton of character. I also love how the sound pans between speakers depending on which side of the screen things are happening on - such a simple and obvious touch but it earns points from the audiologist in me. I have fetched the OST, and it is marvelous! It is characteristically fitting, very high-energy, and manages to speak to the evil within the blades at all times.
My favorite track is apparently called "Lightning Speed A" (many tracks have two versions, one for Momohime and one for Kisuke).

In case the title didn't give it away, swords are a pretty big deal in Muramasa. The game is broken into two plots that slightly overlap, but to get the full picture you have to beat the game as both Momohime and Kisuke. Basically, Momohime has been attacked by Jinkuro - who possesses incredible skill and power with a sword - and now has to share her body with his roaming soul until he can fulfill his destiny. Kisuke has deserted his ninja clan, which clearly has strict rules forbidding the act. Too bad he has no recollection of the event or anything, really. But he has this sword, and he's going to retrace his past with it.
The story has very interesting pieces and the separation of the characters adds both replay value and interest, but the overall morals and themes (save for the heavy Asian motif) are rather dry and ineffective. The game tries to incorporate Buddhism for example, but it feels like an extreme afterthought and I'm not convinced it's handled in a way that would resonate with all players.

The characters in Muramasa consist of two playable protagonists: the aforementioned Momohime and Kisuke. The difference? Each has a unique story to unfold and you deal with different NPCs and bosses for each. I feel like Momo had tougher bosses but Kisuke had tougher mobs. They also visit slightly different destinations on the map and take different routes throughout.

Momohime is a young princess from a respected family, but when she is unwillingly possessed by the vengeful Jinkuro, a master swordsman with a foul plan, she is forced to share her body with his soul and execute his desires, all the while sorting out her own. Momo-Jinkuro are aided by Jinkuro's foxy, voluptuous friend Kongiku, who provides valuable information and advice at temples found along your journey. Momo also encounters a lost monk, Rankai, who becomes a frequent interruption due to his unresolved feelings towards Jinkuro. Lastly, you eventually cross paths with Momo's thought-to-be-dead fiancé, Yukinojo, though his true intentions show him to be less than marriage material.
As for Kisuke, our wandering ninja uncovers his story with the help of the love he can't have, Torahime. You may suspect, by her name, that she bears some relation to Momo, and you'd be correct! Torahime ends up becoming the tie between our two leads, although that doesn't stop them from crossing paths before Tora brings them together. Kisuke is also aided by a foxy friend - Yuzuruha - who watches over the young ninja regardless of his protestation and misunderstandings.
So who's the better lead?
Why? He seems to have tighter controls, better swords and magic, more kick ass boss music, plus he does that cute sword/sheath toss thing after every battle…

Speaking of which…
Battles in Muramasa Rebirth seem to appear at random, often once per screen, and usually when you hit the middle of the block. If you spend too long on any given map piece, you'll likely instigate a(nother) battle. You'll know it's battle time because Momo or Kisuke will unsheathe their blood-thirsty swords, which is not a healthy practice when simply traversing. Don't run with scissors, kids…
The game starts off with a shiny, well-presented and very polite combat tutorial. It seems there's a lot to learn and remember - I'm terrible at that - but I usually re-learn things as I go, and master it by the end. I felt at the beginning of Muramasa the way I feel when I play Tales games for the first time in a long time, just takes some practice to get into it. Really, combat isn't that complex, most of it is handled with one button, but more on that later.
The unique aspects of Muramasa are that you have to watch your own health as well as the health of your blades - which monitors the damage the blade has taken as well as the magic you've used (a sort of mana or MP meter). You can equip three Muramasa blades at any time, and each has its own stats as well as one magic trick. A glowing blade (indicated by the name of the blade flashing on screen) means you can unleash a devastating "quick draw" attack by switching blades. You must master using all three blades and all three attack types (quick draw, magic and melee combos) to defeat your many foes. I found, in the beginning, that it was easy to forget about magic attacks, but of course it is beneficial to get to know them; sometimes they're useless, sometimes very helpful. Another thing you must be mindful of is broken blades. Muramasa swords possess a sort of life meter (the "MP" meter I mentioned a moment ago) and if you let the bar empty, the blade with break. You are then stuck fighting with a more-or-less useless nub of a knife with no magic abilities. I know what you're thinking: "well, fuck," but not to worry! Muramasa blades operate on their own dimension, and to mend a blade, you simply need to replace it in its sheath. It's not that simple though, the blades feed off of the souls you collect on your journey and in combat (green, ghost-y, orb-y thingies), and if you're running short on those, the blade with take much longer to heal itself. You can purchase honing stones to aid your blades in speedy recovery, but otherwise, you'll just have to use another blade until the broken one is healed. Broken blades are indicated by a small graphic at the top of your screen - where all three blades are displayed - as well as by a pink meter rather than the "healthy" blue one if you try to equip the busted weapon.
I find the rest of combat a bit finicky because movement is a little unreal; people can move through each other, so everyone and all their objects are all over the place, and it's hard to stay pointed in the right direction. I don't know how I got so many flawless victories.
Enemies come in various forms, but the most annoying, by far, are the ones you can't physically attack, but rather have to repel their projectiles back at them. Flyers can be annoying, too, since lining up an attack is so tricky.
After battle you're shown a quick victory screen, which details your battle and the fruits of your labor:
Time, EXP, Money and Bonuses, which earn you extra experience for things like the speed with which you finished the battle, your use of defense and magic, and defeating your foes without taking damage. Of course, experience contributes to your level and base stats (if you should level up during battle, your health is automatically restored!), and money is spent on items which restore your health, heal your blades, and buy you food and other items which typically offer you aid in battle. Which reminds me, let's have a look at a boss battle screen:
At the top of the screen you see my current health ("life flame") followed by the three equipped blades: a dormant blade, a broken blade and my currently equipped sword whose magic attack is called "Earth Runner I". The blue bar there indicates the health of my current blade. Next to that is my item shortcut. You can equip certain items to a shortcut list to be accessed and used in battle (or outside, if you wish). Only five items can be on this list, and you cycle through by pressing left on your D-pad. Once you've highlighted the item you want - in this case a Rice Ball (of which I have 6) - you press down on your D-pad to execute. Eating food causes Kisuke to feel full, indicated by the "fullness" meter floating above his head there. This monitors the amount of time before he can eat again, so it's important to consider the product before consumption. Eating food and other items does not pause or interfere with battle, so you must time it carefully.
At the bottom of the screen are the boss's two health meters. Yes, two. Boss health is broken up into sections, as indicated by the orange meter. As you can see, I have depleted probably 2/3s of this boss's orange meter and am currently working on the last section, which is monitored by the yellow meter. When I deplete the yellow meter fully, the orange meter will dispatch another full yellow bar of health and the battle continues until there is no more orange or yellow health left.
Bosses are kind of… I don't know. It's not that they're unpredictable, but they just seem a little all over the place. Fighting them requires very little tact, just mindless button mashing more often than not. After a boss battle you're treated to a nice chunk of story and character development, which is also laborious, but very rewarding.

The rest of the game consists of traveling across the land and unlocking each of the areas. It sounds boring but the game design is so gorgeous that it's actually a pleasure to do.
You develop the map as you go and you can toggle map options or make it disappear by pressing 'select'. If there is an item in the area (the "square" if you will), you'll see a little orange basket in the map square. Once you discover the item, the basket loses its color. Save points are represented by little blue temples (saving also replenishes your health!), and there are a bevy of other symbols indicating hot
*whistles*
springs, tea houses and merchants. Hot springs restore your health as well as the health of your blades, tea houses offer you food which boost your health and spirit (explanation incoming) and merchants are pretty self-explanatory. Some squares have multiple exits, indicated the by the lines protruding into the unknown, and you'll have to explore all of them to find everything. There is a small flag on your map showing you to your ultimate destination, to help you keep pace with the story, as well as arrows pointing the way to your objective, outlining exits, and even reminding you of the square from whence you came. Sometimes you will come across a building or bridge, which you can explore standing in front of the "x" that appears on screen and obliging the command. You'll also come across colored barriers that prevent you from accessing new areas unless you posses the correct blade to destroy the them. Eventually, you'll come to a blue, glowing gate, which is a nice way of saying, "you're about to get your ass handed to you, so stop and manage your character (boss battle)." That said, you'll never be ambushed or surprised by a boss. In fact, you often meet and speak to them before the battle begins. This is probably the weakest thing about Muramasa: the pre-boss series of scenes seems a little pointless. Perhaps an animated cut scene would have been more appropriate and effective. There are also a lot of useless NPCs. Many seem to have corresponding stories or information, but there appears to be no side quest. They're just… there. A wasted opportunity, if you ask me.
Overall I love the design of the mini map and levels, I think it's a really great way to handle a side-scroller!
You can "warp" to different areas by using items called "bronze mirrors" or by employing a couple of sculpted gents who will carry you, but a lot of this game is explored on foot.
While on your journey, you're expected to forge new Muramasa blades to keep up with your opponents. This can be done from your menu, but to unlock certain blades on your chart, you must conquer bosses. You will also encounter enemy lairs littered throughout the land, which possess optional bosses of varying difficulty. In order to unlock all the Muramasa blades, you'll have to scratch off these baddies, too. You're also introduced to another useful tactic: cooking. Throughout the game you can find or buy cookbooks which unlock recipes that are typically much more helpful than the base items you just buy. Since tea houses are few and far between, in doesn't hurt to learn to cook!

Let's check out the menu!
It's worth mentioning that just looking at the menu right away got me really excited about this game. When you access the menu for the first time, it introduces you to each section. This game is so thoughtful! Up top is your character's current status, and then:
Items> General overview of your inventory, broken down to Recovery, Supplies, Ingredients, Blades, Accessories, and Books; you can carry a maximum of nine of any given item.
Cooking> As you find/buy cookbooks, your list of recipes will expand. When you have the necessary ingredients, you can fashion yourself some yummy health/status/spirit restoring goodies. Some recipes are consumed immediately, and some are stored for later, like during battle.
Map> A depiction of the entire land; selecting any area will open your mini map, showing everything you've uncovered in your exploration. Also highlights active barriers and enemy lairs.
Item Shortcut> Allows you to choose five items from your total inventory to be accessed quickly from your D-pad.
Equipment> Lists all the blades and accessories you've acquired and their stats. You can equip three blades and one accessory at any given time.
Forge> After the first act, you gain access to Muramasa himself, who will forge new blades for you based on a structured tree or chart. Momo and Kisuke start at opposite sides, but after beating the game they can access the entire chart. Forging a new sword requires souls (the green things you collect along your journey) and spirit (which is typically acquired by eating food). There are two kinds of swords - short and long - which offer slightly different capabilities, and your ability to equip a particular sword depends on your current level and strength. Choose your path wisely.
Abilities> A detailed look at your character's stats and condition.
Settings> A few game settings. Pretty straight forward. You can change your difficulty here at any time.
The menu is concluded with your game time (per character).

The game controls are exceedingly simple, and the game does not appear to make any use of the Vita's extra capabilities. Generally speaking, X is input and jump, circle is cancel, triangle will cycle through your equipped blades (performs a "quick draw" when applicable), and start will bring up your menu. Pressing select will cycle through your level map options: at the top of the screen, the middle or not at all. Once you've drawn your blade, square initiates all of your melee attacks, which you use in conjunction with your left stick to create different attacks and combos. You are thoroughly instructed on this at the beginning of the game. Pressing circle will use your blade's magic ability.

Muramasa offers two difficulties: Legend (which is essentially "normal") and Chaos ("hard mode"). You can change modes while loading your game or at any time in the menu. Legend mode means mobs happen often, but are pretty easily taken care of. Some bosses will present a bit of a challenge but maintaining your level makes them quite manageable. Chaos kicks it up a notch, some of your enemies will start to get really annoying and bosses will toughen up a lot.
It took me 20 hours to beat Muramasa with one ending for each character. I spent 12 hours on Momo's story and 8 on Kisuke's. I reckon this has a lot to do with the fact that I played Momo first, so a lot of that time was spent getting acquainted with controls and level design; also I found Momo's bosses to be trickier, and had to retry a few of them. I don't think it would take the average player 20 hours to beat this game; I spent a lot of time jotting down notes or being otherwise distracted, and excessively traveling on foot, so my time was stretched out a bit.

Is the game perfect? No. It would be nice if you could see your own inventory while shopping; I'd love to be able to equip more than once accessory; it's a silly complaint, but since there is so much traveling, it would be nice if we could do something other than jump. Just to spice things up a bit; 'examine' and 'jump' could be different buttons. Just saying; and finally, stronger coordination of themes would have made the plot much more powerful, and the pre- and post-boss chats would have made better cutscenes. Not only more rewarding to watch, but it would feel less pointless. "Press x to talk, press x to talk, press x to talk, press x to progress…" stays with you but the actual information doesn't.

My first look at the game immediately brought to mind a Xbox Arcade game called Dust: An Elysian Tail, which is similar in both style and beauty. If you enjoyed Muramasa, you may want to give this bad boy a looksie.
Muramasa is extraordinarily beautiful, and its good looks alone are enough to convince me to replay this gem on any system. However, the story could be better organized and the gameplay repetition would be much less tolerable if it weren't so nice to look at.

LOTIPS
  • Fight every battle you can, especially early on. Visit every room and choose to backtrack by foot to get the extra boost.
  • Cooking > buying, regarding in-battle items.
  • The quickest way I know to get lots of spirit is tea houses. Go overdose on questionable-looking food. Also it's kind of fun to watch.
  • The game offers multiple endings, however to see them you have to beat the game repeatedly on the same file. After you beat the game once, you gain access to all of the blades you've unlocked for both characters, meaning you can now eliminate the previously impenetrable white barriers, and beat the final boss with his own weapon. Doing so warrants you the second and third endings.

1 comment:

  1. This is a really good game. I got pretty far in it before losing my save when my memory card crashed on me. Played it for a bit on the Wii too. Reading this makes me want to pick it up and start fighting those baddies again with my useless nub.

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