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Long Combos and Short Kimonos: Oboro Muramasa Review



Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Barely Playable; 0: Non-Functional.

Developers: Vanillaware
Publishers: Rising Star Games (EU), Ignition Entertainment (US), Marvelous Entertainment (Japan)
Console: Wii
Players: One

With Heavy Rain being the talk of the gaming community (my review will probably pop up sometime next week, as soon as I've managed to get enough time on my friend's PS3 to finish it), a question frequently raised is whether it is acceptable for a game to be more fun to watch than it is to play.

Oboro Muramasa (or The Demon Blade, as it has been blandly subtitled here in England) proves to be a pertinent case in point for this question, not because it isn't fun, but because one is frequently made to wonder whether that fun is the result of controlling the action on-screen or simply watching it unfold.

It barely needs restating quite how beautiful Muramasa is: developers Vanillaware adapt the hand-drawn visual style of their PS2 game Odin Sphere to fit into Suibokuga art traditions, reflecting the shift in influences from Norse to Japanese mythology. From the bustle of dark forests to rolling mid-ocean waves, meadows of swaying wheat and snow covered mountaintops, the level of artistry on display makes it a difficult decision as whether to stop and stare or keep running and find more of such majesty waiting to be discovered. The bosses too are drawn in gleefully grotesque strokes, capturing that same sense of mystical otherworldly horror that made Ōkami's enemy encounters so thrillingly evocative. The animation doesn't let the side down, filled as it is with such details as Momohime's nervous glances back at the player that may seem tiny and insignificant, but reflect the nature of the character with great subtlety and add more layers to the game's already immense charm.

For such complex environments, the gameplay is practically zen in its simplicity. With motion controls wisely left on the sidelines, Vanillaware have designed a deep and intuitive fighting system that uses only two buttons and the analogue stick. The Wii remote's A button performs a standard slash, with the direction of the analogue stick dictating the type of attack that will be unleashed. Tapping up on the analogue stick makes your character jump, whereupon a whole new set of attacks is opened up. Special attacks are triggered with the B button, whose nature is dependant upon the sword you are wielding at the time as well as using up some of that sword's durability (if they suffer too much damage or are made to block unstoppable attacks, they smash and are out of action for a short period of time). The swords themselves come in two varieties, long or short, which can make big differences to your fighting style. Most of the game's hundred-odd swords are forged in between battles in exchange for the spirit you gain from keeping your character well-fed, the souls you take from deceased enemies, and the strength and vitality from combat experience. Despite making for an arduously extended tutorial at the beginning of the game, the style is simple enough to welcome newcomers to the genre (like me) but deep enough that it takes time to master the technical and timing details required to emerge from fights unscathed. Enemy battles occur frequently enough that you'll never be short of time to practice, although Smoke Bomb items allow you to skip fights when the interruption is unwelcome.

While Muramasa achieves lofty standards in both presentation and gameplay, problems arise when the initial sense of awe, which to the game's credit lasts for a good many hours, begins to wear thin. Once you've visited most of the game's environments (based in various regions across Honshu in Genroku-era Japan) and have participated in upwards of several hundred fights, the padding beneath the game's breathtaking surface begins to reveal itself. Chief amongst these problems is the backtracking, which recurs to a ridiculous extent and will take up at least a third of each of the two main characters' eight-hour stories. This would not be so bad were there a number of side-quests or secrets to distract you while returning to old ground, but apart from opening up shortcuts and a small number of evil spirit trees, which can only be entered with the acquisition of more powerful swords and contain battles against super-powered versions of regular enemies, there is little to find that was not easily accessible on your first trip across the territory.

The niggles in the fighting system also become frustrating. Having jump attached to an upwards press on the analogue stick is occasionally annoying but perfectly workable in the overworld; in the chaotic midst of combat, what was a minor imprecision is multiplied and able to lay waste to carefully planned battle strategies, especially when the framerate drops as a result of too many enemies attacking at once. Combine this with the slushy character movement and while these issues are far from debilitating, when placed under the scrutiny of time Muramasa falls short of the exactitude required from the finest in the hack 'n' slash genre.

The length of play depends on how much time you're ready to put into it. The game features two protagonists, amnesiac ninja Kisuke and Momohime, a lissome female ronin possessed by the spirit of an evil samurai, whose propensity for eye-bulgingly short kimono and scarcely-existent bathing towels make hers the scenario of choice for male players (the ladies get sight of Kisuke in his pants in the steam pools though, so any lascivious gazing will not be entirely one-sided). Both stories last about eight hours each, but cover the same regions (albeit starting from different places) and are identical in gameplay terms. Once both stories have been completed and all the swords forged, a further set of secrets is unlocked adding another handful of hours of play. Whether or not you see it through to the end, the game is impressively packed and considering how addictive it can be, you should expect to see a minimum of ten hours' play, extending to a maximum of twenty.

When at its best, Oboro Muramasa is gorgeous to look at and exciting and addictive to play, fusing the visceral thrills of combat with the beauty of the battlegrounds to create an awe-inspiring spectacle. But that spectacle is so central to what keeps the game's heart beating that in the times when it cannot be provided, during the extended periods of back-tracking through well-trodden environments and after many battles have been fought and won, the comedown between those moments is deep and frustrating. For a game whose stories revolve around the importance of reputation and proving one's greatness, Muramasa frequently soars to the highest pantheons but cannot find the depth and balance to stay there for as long as you wish it could.


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About Xander Markhamone of us since 3:08 PM on 02.07.2010

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I'm a 26-year old English writer, formerly known on the CBlogs as Xandaça. I've been an avid gamer since I was a wee lad, gripping a NES controller in my hands and comprehensively failing to get past those infuriating Hammer Bros on Level 8-3 of Super Mario Bros. I've stuck with Nintendo since then (not for any animosity towards the other console makers of course - Nintendo just make games I enjoy and have grown up with), apart from a brief sojourn with a Sony PlayStation, several woeful attempts to play Half-Life 2 using a laptop touchpad and sporadically wrangling a turn on my sister's beloved Sega Saturn.

In addition to burping out the occasional novel, I'm a passionate critic, writing reviews and articles of films, book and games for my school magazine and university newspaper, for which I created and edited its film section. In addition to starting up my own blog, covering television, games and movies, I am also a writer for Destructoid's cine-geek sister Flixist. While primarily a film geek, the evolution of the games industry over the course of its short lifetime has fascinated me and provided vast quantities of content for some incendiary pieces of work - perhaps a few more might spring up on here?

My Favourite Games of All Time (because who doesn't love having a few Of All Time lists?) are GoldenEye 007 (which I still play through at least once a year to remind me of its glories), Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, Gunstar Heroes, Super Mario Bros 3 (I don't know who told Shigsy Miyamoto-san that raccoons could fly, but I'll love them forever) and No More Heroes.

I hope you find great enjoyment in my many scribings, and please keep an eye out for upcoming news on my novel(s) and do pay a visit to my blog sometime. And yes, the Dtoid community's 'no copy and paste' rule will be fully respected!

Good gaming, everyone!