Sunday, March 6, 2016

Muramasa Rebirth Review

Muramasa Rebirth is an enhanced port of a 2009 Wii game entitled Muramasa: The Demon Blade which was an excellent 2D side scrolling action role playing game that starred 2 characters: the princess Momohime and Kisuke, a ninja with, wait for it…..amnesia! Yes, amnesia, that old video game trope (I’ll save you the hassle of searching for the story section of this review and just tell you right now that if you are playing this game for the story you’re barking up the wrong proverbial tree).

When you begin the game you are tasked with choosing one of two stories to play through. Momohime’s  or Kisuke’s. Depending upon which choice you make you’ll either be travelling east or west; if you choose Momohime you’ll play as a princess possessed by a vengeful spirit in search of 108 legendary demon blades. Choose Kisuke and you’ll play as a ninja with amnesia……in search of 108 legendary demon blades. The stories both evolve (some might say devolve) from there but frankly, I paid very little attention. What did get my attention, however, was both the audio/visual presentation and the gameplay. The game is simply gorgeous, the music is great and it plays like a dream.

Muramasa: The Demon Blade was a very pretty 2D Wii game. Muramasa Rebirth is a gorgeous 2D Vita game. The already beautiful visuals, styled in such a way as to evoke the feeling that one is looking at a moving painting, absolutely sparkle on the fantastic Vita screen. This is especially true since the graphics were enhanced in the process of porting the game to the Vita. Jagged edges were smoothed out and the colour palette was tweaked for sharper detail and deeper colour; these two changes combined with the very high quality display on the PS Vita make for one absolutely stunning handheld experience. This is one seriously pretty game and, adding to the impressive nature of the action unfolding onscreen are the slick animations and the very stable framerate.

Once you choose a story to play through you are presented with a difficulty selection screen. There are two difficulties to choose from (at first); Legend (normal) and Chaos (hard). The main differences that I am aware of (I have not actually played Legend, as I went with Chaos for my first playthrough ) are that enemies scale to your level on Chaos, but do not on Legend and you of course take less hits before you die on Chaos. Don’t fret too much over the choice because you can switch between the two during gameplay and you are not penalized for doing so. Whatever difficulty you choose you will be thrust into a game that I would describe as being like an amalgamation of the Tales of… rpg series of games and hack n slash games like God of War or Ninja Gaiden (without much of the complexity in terms of combos, especially if compared to the latter of the two examples).

The combat is very fluid and extremely fun. You have three weapons which can be switched between on the fly and each of the three weapons has a spirit meter which acts like a cross between a fighting game special bar and an rpg mana (magic, for those few uninitiated with the ways of an rpg) pool. The swords are divided into two types based on length. You simply have swords and long sword and both types behave as you would expect. Swords are fast and long swords are slow but much more powerful. In terms of combos the potential is there for some great stuff, but as was alluded to earlier in the review these are more in the vein of the Tales games than say Ninja Gaiden. The reason for this is that the amount of normal (non special) moves/combos available for each weapon is fairly limited. You have a basic three button press combo at your disposal as well as a few directional options (an uppercut that acts as a launcher which opens up  aerial combo chains, a crouching attack, lateral air dashes) which can be combo’d into (our out of) as well.

At this point you may be thinking that the combat sounds limited and destined for a reputation of repetition. What diversifies the combat and saves it from becoming stale is a combination of the special attacks, known in this game as ‘Special Arts’ and the fact that your swords will break if you block an attack with too low a spirit bar. You see, the spirit meter acts not only like a cross between a fighting game special bar and an rpg mana meter as stated above, but it also functions as a sort of defensive capabilities meter. You block attacks by holding down the attack button  and each time you block your spirit meter is depleted somewhat. Block enough times to drain the meter (or use your special art numerous times) and your sword will break on the next block. Once a sword breaks it becomes useless until you either replenish the spirit meter via an in game item or you switch to another sword and wait for the bar to replenish itself over time.

This meter management/weapon switching mechanic is the crux of the entire combat system.  It gives the combat a depth and urgency that it would otherwise have been missing given the limited moveset. Another factor that adds to the strategy  is the so called ‘quick draw’ attack. When the three spirit meters are flashing that means a quick draw attack is available; simply switch to one of the other weapon s and the attack will happen. It is a full screen attack that does good damage to any enemy in the vicinity. This attack can not be used again until the spirit meters start flashing once again. Managing your spirit and utilizing the quick draw attacks and special arts in the most beneficial way requires you to swtich weapons on the fly and it is this that gives the otherwise (fairly) simplistic combat its depth.

On the RPG side of things you of course have experience (XP) to gain which will take your character from their initial level 1 status to the max level of 99. Your level effects your hp as well as your damage output and defensive potential.  It also determines which of the 108 aforementioned demon blades your character can wield. In addition to XP there is a cooking system, which requires you to collect ingredients and recipes which allow you to make consumables which grant the player ability boosts as well as replenishing hp and spirit. There are also NPC’s to interact with, although this is pretty limited. There are very few side missions to gain and the conversations are pretty brief, as well as one dimensional. Do not expect Mass Effect quality NPC interaction here.

The other main role playing feature present in the game is the forging. Like blacksmithing in many role playing games, you can forge weapons for yourself once you have collected the requisite materials (and have achieved the required level). The only difference here is that the materials used for forging are not elementals like iron ore but rather the souls you gain from defeating enemies and the spirit you gain from eating consumables (a nice way to ensure that the player takes full advantage of the other rpg aspects on offer). The various swords you can forge offer a variety of different special arts and ability boosts, adding to the variety and strategy present in the combat.

The level design is an aspect of the game that has drawn both praise and ire from both players and reviewers. On the one hand, it is designed like a “metroidvania” as most gamers refer to games featuring level design similar to that of a classic Metroid or Castlevania game, the most notable of these being Super Metroid for the Super Nintendo and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night for the Sony Playstation (I refer to them as “Castleroids “ because I prefer that Castlevania be first and I find it amusing but I digress). This type of design, for those uninitiated in the ways of a metroidvania/castleroid, features an emphasis on exploration and non-linearity,  including the ability to explore the game world freely, save for certain areas, the access to which is granted only by either the gaining of new abilities or through the use of inventory items. A simple hypothetical example of this would be a high ledge leading to a secret area that cannot be accessed until the player earns the double jump ability.

In Muramasa: Rebirth access to restricted areas is controlled by the demon blades the player has in their possession. These areas are guarded by barriers that can only be removed by a specific category of demon blade and often times you will encounter a barrier that you will not be able to pass through until hours later. This type of design is typically seen as a positive design choice, and I am inclined to agree. I love these types of games.  Exploration and discovering new things in areas thought to be completed and not worth revisiting is a joy in my opinion and it extends replay value rather significantly. Some od the games I have played the most feature this kind of design. Non-linearity and returning to previously explored areas to find new things leads to something, however,  that many people find distasteful: backtracking. And this game is no exception.  Backtracking was one of the main complaints a subset of gamers (and reviewers, although to a lesser extent) had with this game in its first incarnation on the Nintendo Wii and this has not changed now that it is on the Vita.  Whether or not this will be an issue for you is not something I can speak to; I can only alert you to its existence and you’ll have to decide from there.

Boss Fight
The other aspect of the design that drew ire from many who played this game in its initial form on the Wii was the controls, as jump was mapped to up on the analog stick (as it is with many 2D fighting games) and this was definitely a controversial choice. Clearly the developers at VanillaWare were listening and agreed because the controls in the Vita version are full customizable. Kudos to them for allowing those who were put off by the controls to be able to alter them to their personal preferences. I only wish more developers  would follow suit as there are many games out there that I believe would have benefited tremendously from the ability to alter the controller mapping.

Once you complete a character’s story you have the option to either play the same story on a different difficulty (including an unlockable one that I will not spoil here but suffice it to say it is keeping me on my toes) or to play the other character’s story. The levels you play are the same, although you’re traveling in a different direction so you encounter them in a different order.  What is different, however, are bosses, as well as some variation in enemy types. There is enough variety, and the game is short enough (around 5-6 hours or so for each story) to keep the game feeling fresh despite the fact that the levels are the same. 

Beyond the two stories and the three difficulties there are multiple hidden endings, secret enemy encounters and boss fights and of course the trophy list, including a platinum. In other words, there’s a lot of gameplay to be had if one is so inclined. I’m currently on what I suppose would constitute my third playthrough, although I have played certain areas more than three times. I have spent over 80 hours on the game and I am not done yet. This game is the first one in quite some time to grab me and not let go until I squeeze every last drop of gaming goodness from it. It’s just so much fun!


Graphics: 10/10. Simply beautiful 2D art and gorgeous scrolling backgrounds. Incredible animation.
Sound: 10/10. Music is very fitting. Great effects. Sound definitely contributes to the overall experience and works in tandem with the visuals to create an immersive 2D experience.
Gameplay: 9/10. Great. Fun, fast and fluid. Not being able to heal unless touching the ground is weird. Backtracking may annoy some.  Combat is very fun and full of strategy but some may wish for more complexity.
Replay Value: 10/10. Lots of post game content and future DLC will only add to this. Great trophy list only adds to the replay value.

Overall Score: 9/10. Muramasa Rebirth is a fantastic game. Better than the sum of its parts for sure.        

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