Muramasa: The Demon Blade, available exclusively for the Nintendo Wii, is the perfect example of style over substance. It's not that the game is completely devoid of content and depth, it's just that the visuals are over-the-top wonderful and the gameplay strictly mediocre.
A 2D side-scroller imported from Japan, the game still has a very foreign feel to it. While English subtitles do appear in the game, there is still a lot of Japanese characters informing players about where they are and all the spoken dialogue is in Japanese. Of course, the story itself – or the part of it that is decipherable – has a very Japanese feel to it, so to have the ninja princess speak in Japanese isn't terribly distracting or off-putting. No, the distracting part are the actual words that she says, because even after playing the game as both Momohime (the ninja princess) and Kisuke (the amnesiac boy), the plot is still something of a mystery. The players two tales do overlap to some extent, and one does clear up some questions about the other, but not to the point where the goings-on are completely decipherable.
Of course, the mechanics of the gameplay are so easy and feel so rewarding, plus the visuals (which we'll get to later) are so astounding, that it doesn't really matter terribly much that it's incredibly difficult to figure out exactly what's happening. It would be nice to understand more about how and why Momohime's soul got pushed out of her body, but it's not essential.
Mainly an action game, Muramasa features very basic attack mechanics – virtually all that's required is for the player to hit A repeatedly while moving up, down, backwards, and forwards on the control stick to perform some pretty impressive combos. Players can level-up with regularity and unlock tons of new weapons – which is really where the game is at its best. There is an RPG-like system for forging new swords. It involves not only finding one's that can't be forged out in the world of Muramasa, but also having enough spirit and having collected enough souls from vanquished opponents. A wide and deep tree, one will often have to back track and create a less good sword that was bypassed in order to create a needed, stronger one down the line.
Other RPG elements exist as well, things such as the need to purchase recipe books on featuring different types of cooking and finding/purchasing the different foodstuffs required to actual make the dishes. Cooking food restores health, fills the player up to a certain degree (not always a degree equivalent to the amount of health restored) and gain spirit.
The world of the game consists of discrete towns and villages players can see on a world map, with the paths players will have to take between them shown. Shortcuts do exist, but not all are available at the outset of the game as having certain swords allows for magical barriers blocking the paths (and certain dungeons) to be broken. The construction of the world in this fashion has both good and points. Certainly, the game, even with its tale of vengeful spirits, ghosts, and demons and trips to Hell (literally), feels very strongly grounded due to the map. However, there are plenty of places in the game which can't be visited (due to not having the proper sword or not being of a high enough level) when they're first seen, and a lot of backtracking is required, and as it takes an extended period of time to travel between towns, backtracking through mainly empty screens in order to go back and do a side quest or fill in a blank becomes tedious.
While the choice to do a limited amount of localization for the US with the game usually seems like a conscious decision, at other points in the game one can't quite tell whether certain things exist because they simply weren't translated or because they were just created incorrectly to begin with. The best example of this is the amount of life a player has. Represented as a "life flame" in the upper left corner of the gameplay screen, the number is displayed as a fraction. While life is often given as a fraction, in this case, the fraction features the denominator on top and the numerator on the bottom (i.e., 200/180 for a character that has 180 hit points left out of a possible 200). On menu screens, this number is then displayed in the more traditional (some would say "correct") numerator over denominator format.
Another drawback in the game is that despite the lack of depth to fighting, the game seems to be unable to handle the multiple characters that can be onscreen at once and the combo attacks which can take them out. When multiple enemies get struck at a single time, the game has a tendency to stutter – everything stops for a split-second before resuming once more.
All of these problems – odd story, shallow fighting, weird displays – are easily forgotten however simply by looking at the game. It is, to put it mildly, visually stunning. The look of every single character, and background, and foreground, and sword, and item is incredible. The graphics are touted as hand-drawn and feature loads of detail and great lighting. Wandering through empty lands repeatedly in order to pick up that which was inaccessible before is still annoying, but at least it looks great, as do the numerable bosses that are to be found (boss battles are highly involved and strategic things, while the rest of the enemies can be disposed of hack-and-slash style).
Murmasa: The Demon Blade proves, once again, that the 2D side-scroller is far from dead. The game is a sheer joy to look at, and while the action may not be as in-depth as one would like in regular battles, there is enough going on to keep a player involved throughout. And, very happily, it doesn't resort to any Nintendo Wii "just shake the Wii remote to do everything" foolishness. The game is far from perfect, but it's certainly worth looking at.
Muramasa: The Demon Blade is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for alcohol reference, fantasy violence, and suggestive themes.Four stars out of five.