The first time I played Muramasa was a little over a year ago, and it was very briefly. I played on Shura, the harder of the game’s two difficulty settings, and got stuck on the second boss. I didn’t give up so much as stopped playing and then never got around to picking it back up.
Because I remembered getting stuck, I started my new game on Muso difficulty, and found it to be insultingly easy. I beat the aforementioned second boss of Momohime’s storyline almost without getting hit, and decided it was time to ramp the game back up to Shura difficulty.
Turns out, Muramasa just isn’t a very difficult game. There are a few points where it gave me trouble, but I found that those areas of the game weren’t so much difficult as they were frustrating, for reasons that I’ll delve into as I go along with this analysis.
The combat system in Muramasa is simple and elegant, which puts it right up my alley. Action-RPGs are my favorite kind of games because they allow me to settle into this groove of killing lots of enemies without thinking too hard about it. Muramasa requires just enough skill, reflex, and attentiveness to be engaging like an action game, but has the grindy addicting quality of RPGs as well.
The combat is satisfying because of its beautiful sense of flow. Most of the action is controlled simply by moving around the control stick and pressing the A button a whole lot. The character responds to every directional push, flying around the screen hyperactively like a bee and stinging from all sides. A lot of gamers have questioned the reason for this game’s lack of a jump button, and the reason is that a jump button wouldn’t allow for the constant movement that the player can put the character through. It’s possible in this game to almost constantly be airborn, zipping left, right, and up by holding down the A button and pushing in every direction. The game does not feature a block button, but instead encourages the player to dodge and counter enemy blows, which adds to the constant need for motion.
This control scheme makes Muramasa similar to a fighting game, but not the same. In a fighting game, precision of movement is very important, which is why I usually prefer to play fighting games using a D-pad over a control stick. However, in Muramasa, the control stick is prefered because the game isn’t about precision so much as it is about speed and flying around all over the place. The control stick allows for a natural flow of movement that the D-pad can’t provide.
Having said that, the controls don’t work as well outside of battle. This isn’t a huge issue because the bulk of the game takes place inside of battles, but when travelling around the game’s open world, it can sometimes feel awkward to double-jump from platform to platform by way of pressing up on the control stick twice. A lot of this game’s platforming element is unnecessary to begin with, so it seems odd that the developers put so much of it in when it’s such a poor use of the game’s movement mechanics.
The worst part of controlling the character is trying to collect the little green spirit orbs that are littered across the environments. Collecting these actually does take a bit of precision, and while it isn’t difficult by any stretch, it often involves multiple tries to get the jump just right. This entire element be cut from the game and nothing of value would be lost.
While I’m talking about the controls, I should mention that I played through Muramasa using a Gamecube controller. I hate playing games with the wiimote, and I’m not a fan of the classic controller, so I was happy to find that the Gamecube controller works just fine. The only difficulty I had with the controls is that I had to use the Z button to switch the mini-map on and off constantly, and the Z button on my controller was stiff and shitty, but that’s obviously not the game’s fault.
Controls aren’t the only thing that make the combat satisfying—visual and sound design play a big role, as they do in any great action game. Every time the player lands a hit, there’s a crunchy sound effect and an explosion of calligraphic brushstrokes from the enemies, along with other visual effects. I noticed while watching my game footage back that when I land a big hit on the enemy, all of the animation on screen halts for a moment, just to make the impact that much more apparent.
Even the manner in which battles begin and end adds to their satisfaction. While running around the game’s levels, the character keeps a satisfyingly quick pace, and battles will begin on the go, never wrestling movement away from the player. When the battle is over, a very quick screen comes up telling the player how fast they were and what bonuses they may have earned for extra experience. The screen is unobtrusive, and I rather enjoyed seeing the “completely unscathed” bonus all the time.
Muramasa’s most stand-out quality is its gorgeously detailed art, which has led many to call it the best-looking game on the Wii, or even one of the best-looking games of all time. This is something that I really want to dismantle, though, because even though I think the art is fantastic, I don’t find this game to be as beautiful as its status implies for a number of subtle reasons.
First, let’s talk about the amazing 2D backgrounds that will catch the player’s eye throughout the game. I’ve seen backgrounds with this amount of color and graphical flourish that fall apart by being too chaotic and unmemorable. I think of games like Donkey Kong Country or Trine, who’s attempts at verdant beauty fall flat because of a dark color palette and a focus on packing the screen with detail, instead of making sure that the whole screen is cohesively gorgeous.
Muramasa pulls off this style because of the way it separates the foreground and background layers, and creates a feeling of space by having the background elements be very large. The nature of the game’s combat system allows for the player to take in the backgrounds because they aren’t constantly rushing past them, and it’s arguable that the one benefit of the awkward platforming element is that it gives the player more time to take in the visuals (though this is still unnecessary for reasons that I’ll get into later).
Muramasa has a beautiful color palette, that manages to feel dark and mysterious without going too dark and leaving everything muddy and hard to see. However, it runs into problems with the fact that the game skews dark and is on the Wii, meaning that it isn’t in HD. Because of this, when played on an HD TV, the entire game looks muddier and darker than it should, and it’s like looking at a beautiful painting as photographed on a cell phone camera. I’ve heard that the game looks a lot better if you play it on a CRT, but I don’t have one of those laying around, so my experience with the game so far is one of lackluster visual presentation.
I’ve seen a video of someone playing this game on Dolphin upscaled to 1080p, and it definitely looked better than playing it on the Wii. I haven’t seen any footage of it being played on the Wii U yet, but I’ve seen videos of other Wii games upscaled on the Wii U that looked pretty good. I don’t know yet if this is or isn’t preferable to playing on a CRT, though.
Additionally, while the designs of all the monsters and characters are excellent, it’s worth noting that the game is animated with a very low framerate, probably something like six frames per second at the most. I imagine that this was done for budgetary reasons, and it doesn’t detract from the game’s style and feeling, but it can be a little jarring at times, especially on some of the moving background elements. I’m a big fan of 2D art, and I especially love it when the framerates are higher, like in the Metal Slug games, or in fighting games such as Guilty Gear or the phenomenally-animated Skullgirls.
By the way, please note that I am referring to animation framerate, not to the actual number of frames being displayed on-screen. Muramasa moves at a solid sixty frames per second with very little slowdown occurring almost exclusively in boss battles. It doesn’t suffer from the big framerate drops that Odin Sphere had in its boss battles, which were one of the biggest complaints that reviewers had about that game. Slowdown has never bothered me all that much regardless, probably because I grew up playing four-player Phantasy Star Online.
Another art gripe I have is with the design of Kisuke. Because Kisuke is small and blue, he has a tendency to blend in with the enemies and backgrounds, which makes him harder to see. It’s not so bad that I find him hard to play, but in all the rushing around that happens in combat, there were times where I almost lost track of him. I much preferred playing as Momohime, who is taller and really stands out from all of the backgrounds and enemies with her pink kimono.
Despite the complaints I have about the game’s art, I do want to reiterate that I still think it’s a gorgeous game, with some locales that really stick out in my mind, and truly unforgettable enemy and boss designs. I’ve seen 2D art enthusiasts who are so blown away by this game’s visuals that they view it as a huge relief in a 3D dominated world and want to see its praises sung from the rooftops. I’m as much of a 2D art enthusiast as anyone else, but I also don’t play a lot of 3D games to begin with, so Muramasa isn’t as much of a breath of fresh air for me as it is for others, and when viewed against other 2D games that I really love, it doesn’t come out on top, even if it’s certainly in a high tier.
The reason I’m reiterating this is because Muramasa’s combat system and its art style are what I want to ultimately recognize as the good parts of the game; and now I’ll be delving more into the negative aspects which have prevented this game from reaching me on the level that it could’ve, had it lived up to the polish of its art and combat system.
Muramasa’s biggest problem is the structure of its open world. The world is divided into thirteen or so provinces, each of which is explored in a screen-by-screen fashion. Depending on the size of the province and the number of random encounters the player runs into, it can take anywhere from three to fifteen minutes to cross a province, or up to twenty if they player stops to collect all of the spirit orbs and other items littering the areas.
In the starting province of Momohime’s storyline, one of the first things I noticed was the lack of visual cohesion and differentiation between the different screens. The first three or four screens had me running through what appeared to be a dense forest, and then suddenly I was in a village in the middle of a big open field. After two screens of that, I was in the forest again. I then entered the boss room and found myself in a huge graveyard.
I imagine that the rationale behind this is that feudal Japan is really thought of that way, as pocket villages shrouded in dense forests. I know that the theme of wandering a mysterious forest and turning up in some unknown place is somewhat prevalent in Japanese folklore, and in that respect the game does capture the feeling of mystery. Nonetheless, it starts to get really confusing in places like the third province, which will transition between forests, villages, caves, and beaches back to back.
The reason I find this problematic is that it makes it harder to remember where I’ve been and what each area looked like. Even though Muramasa features a degree of backtracking, I could never remember how I’d gotten to where I was, even though most of the progress happens in straight lines, because so many of the screens looked exactly the same and were organized so randomly.
What this ultimately led to was having to rely on the mini-map to find my way around, which is my number one biggest complaint about Muramasa—the stupid map. The mini-map is on by default, and my first natural reaction to the thing was to turn it off, because HELLO, THIS IS MURAMASA, a game known for the quality of its background art. Covering that up with a mini-map is a travesty. Moreover, the map is useless a lot of the time. It’s designed in the style of a Metroid map, but for some reason it draws the screens unnecessarily large, considering that all it shows is whether or not there’s an item in the room.
However, when I played with the mini-map off, I had at least five instances where I took the wrong route on one of the screens where the path branches, and didn’t realize that I was going the wrong way until I hit a dead end.
In order to find my way back at times like this, I would have to put on the full-screen map because the mini-map doesn’t show enough screens to really be helpful. This meant that I played a very disconcerting amount of the game with a map covering the entire screen, shrouding the gorgeous visuals entirely.
I just don’t understand why the world was designed to necessitate a mini-map, nevermind why the mini-map was designed to necessitate a full-screen map. Muramasa usually ushers the player towards the next boss area at all times, and uses barriers and other shit to impede the player from exploring other parts of the map. There isn’t a lot of secret stuff lying around, and what there is isn’t often all that useful, so I don’t get why the game wasn’t just designed in a linear fashion.
If I had to guess, I imagine that the real point of this was to enhance the action and RPG elements of the game, by allowing the player more agency to grind and dick around instead of heading straight to the next boss fight. If the developers were going for this, though, then they should’ve gone all the way and made exploration really worthwhile. As it stands, the only exciting thing to be discovered in the game is the monster lair challenges which can be won to get special items, which are a nice addition to the game, but they aren’t enough. Moreover, trying to get to all of them is confusing because they’re blocked with different colored barriers, meaning that the player has to return to them after getting different story-important swords which break different barriers, and it’s a pain in the ass to keep track of all that.
By far the most confusing design decision in Muramasa is the placement of item shops in the game. There’s usually an item shop somewhere smack in the middle of a province, and nowhere else. A lot of the provinces split off into a linear piece of level that the character goes through before fighting the boss, which means that there is always a stretch of level and half of a province separating the boss room from the item shop.
Most of the time when I was having trouble against a boss, it was the direct result of not having enough healing items. Any time a boss was truly kicking my ass, I would have to venture all the way back through the confusingly-structured map until I found the shop, and then head back to the boss, usually gaining a few levels in the process and trumping the boss with ease.
There’s an item in the game called the Bronze Mirror which claims to send the player back to the last shrine that they visited, but every time I used this item it seemed to send me somewhere random, and never to the actual last shrine that I visited. I never figured out exactly what the bronze mirror considers to be the last shrine, and I gave up on using the item.
This necessitation of backtracking would’ve gotten me stuck at one part if I’d been unwilling to switch difficulty settings throughout the game. When I made it to the Big Oni fight, which is the payoff to one of the coolest levels in the game, I got my ass handed to me because the battle is extremely long and I had barely any healing items. When I tried to head back, however, I kept running into the enemies who caused me to use up all my healing items in the first place and getting killed. I ended up having to switch the difficulty back down to Muso mode so that I could go back and get the items, and then switched it to Shura again to fight the boss.
I think I’ve covered all the big, core game mechanics at this point, so now I’m gonna try and tie up all the lose ends by just running through everything at random.
First up, the boss fights. Muramasa’s bosses are easily the coolest thing about the game. They tend to be gigantic, complex-looking creatures with five life bars and an assload of attacks, resulting in battles that usually last from five to ten minutes. Most of the game’s challenge and reward comes from these fights, and beating them is immensely satisfying.
Adding to that satisfaction is the packaged deal that comes with fighting a boss at the end of a level, in that it advances the storyline through cutscenes, and each boss gives the player a new sword, which allows them to advance through the sword tree, which I’ll get into next.
Muramasa has a forging system in which spirit points are used to forge new swords. However, swords follow a certain lineage, meaning that the player needs to have already forged or obtained certain swords before they can advance on the sword tree. Hence, how beating bosses allows the player to create a slew of new swords.
The sword forging system seems like it was intended to be deeper than it ultimately was in my playthrough. During the forging tutorial, the player is warned that they should be careful about what swords they forge because they have to manage their spirit points. Spirit points come from a variety of places, one of which is food, which can be bought from people in towns, and can also be made by the player utilizing the cooking system. The cooking system is simple but in-depth enough that it would engage a player if they sought to get into it. However, I never needed to cook any food in my entire playthrough. I always had enough spirit to forge all of the newly available swords, and I found the healing element of cooking food to be pointless since there are a number of other ways to heal, from stopping at shrines to visiting hot springs. If I could’ve carried the food I cooked as a healing item, that would’ve been great, but such is not the case.
I really enjoyed the sword forging system because it was a lot of fun to experiment with all of the different swords. Swords in Muramasa fall into two categories: katanas, which are fast and small, and long swords, which are big, powerful, and slow. I preferred the katana in all situations, so one of the coolest things about sword forging is that I could have a lot of katanas which were all high enough level to be worth using, meaning that all three of my equipped swords could be katanas. Every sword has its own special ability, and most of them are pretty useful, so playing around with those was a blast.
The storyline, at least in Momohime’s arc, was fairly intriguing. Muramasa has a very light focus on story, with only a minute or two of dialog-driven exposition bookending each boss fight, and I consider this to be a good thing since the game’s real strength lies elsewhere. Momohime’s story was interesting to me because it felt like I was literally playing a Japanese folk tale, with exactly as few details and as much weirdness as a real folk tale would have. Japanese players will probably appreciate the dialog a lot more, especially when it comes to the NPCs, whose mostly-meaningless dialog often references random Japanese folklore.
The Japanese voice cast also serves to make the cutscenes more entertaining, featuring some of my personal favorites such as Sawashiro Miyuki as Momohime and Nakata Jouji as Jinkuro. The characters aren’t nearly intricate enough to necessitate a stand-out performance from any of the actors, but it’s nice to hear them anyways.
Muramasa’s soundtrack definitely stands out as well, with its blend of classical Japanese instruments and dance-like electronica. The songs are cacophonous almost to the point of being chaotic a lot of the time, which fits well with the chaos happening on-screen. Between the hugely detailed backgrounds exploding with color, the dozens of on-screen enemies with their own sound effects, the spastic fighting system, and the bombastic music, the game approaches a degree of sensory overload, but somehow it all holds together. I wouldn’t be surprised if the game gave some people a headache, but I think the sensory overload has a lot to do with how it remains engaging in spite of its repetitious nature.
If I were doing a proper review of this game, with a conclusive score and everything, I’d ultimately score it positively. In spite of how much I dislike the layout of the game’s world and how frustrating it could be at times, I still wanted to continue playing after my ten-hour completion of Momohime’s story, just to try out the other storyline and possibly finish forging all of the blades. I think Muramasa has one of the better combat systems in the realm of action-RPGs, and the art is something that shouldn’t be missed, especially if you can get your hands on a CRT, or run the game through an emulator.
That’s all I’ve got to say about Muramasa for now, so I hope you enjoyed this video. I’ll be making a lot more videos like this, so if you want to see more, I recommend hitting the subscribe button, and if you could share this video with other people, that would be awesome.