Muramasa Rebirth: Handheld Blades

A few years back, a sidescrolling 2D action RPG called Muramasa: The Demon Blade arrived for the Wii. It was well-beloved, and was one of the few Wii games that even made me consider digging it out of the closet for, but alas I never did. So until now I could only wonder what Muramasa was like… but Vanillaware decided in their infinite wisdom that this was not a satisfactory situation. And thus was born Muramasa Rebirth for the Playstation Vita and there was much rejoicing!

coverart

But did the rejoicing have to be cut short… was this handheld resurrection determined to break hearts, or win accolades?

A Trip to Japan

Cherry Blossom Beauty

Muramasa Rebirth is gorgeous. It’s hard to describe just how gorgeous the 2.5D backgrounds of this game are on the Vita’s OLED screen… and there are a wide variety of them, from coastal ocean views to mountains and forests… but by far the most impressive were the cherry trees. There is a region in this game that is full of glorious cherry blossom trees, swaying in the wind.

The character models and attack animations are perfectly suited to this environment as well, which adds up to a very cohesive visual experience.

scenery

I Could Stare at this for Hours

The Voices of Japan

Unlike most games brought over from Japan, Muramasa’s localization did not include a rework of the voice acting. They did subtitle it, but kept the original voices. In most games, this would likely feel awkward… but I don’t think I would have enjoyed this game as much if it had been English VO. But when you add the visuals to a rather fantastic classically-inspired soundtrack full of very Eastern-influenced tracks… you get a game that just suits the Japanese voice-overs so well.

Tourist Trap

The most unfortunate warning I can give is that the game forces upon you a lot of backtracking even just within the story. Be prepared to do a lot of running back and forth, and a more accessible and reliable fast-travel system could’ve been an awesome addition. That isn’t to say there is nothing, but the travel system in this game is incredibly limited, and awkward to use. The fortunate part is the actual reason that you would want a travel system… the game has a lot of content, and a huge post-game section featuring a number of challenges, the ability to play through all of the other character’s dungeons, and two alternate endings for each character as well.

challenge

Birdmen Everywhere! AHHHHH!

Rival Blades

Twinned Stories

You can play as either of two characters, who each have their own stories. Both stories take place in Japan, using the same map and regions. There are a few subregions that are specific to each character – at least until you finish the game as both – but aside from those story-specific subregions, you go through the exact same areas regardless of your character choice. The key difference is the order you tackle those regions in, which is nearly opposite for the two characters. This sounds like a fairly trivial change, but oddly enough it really does make things feel different enough to not get repetitive.

The stories themselves are completely different, with a few minor ties. They are both very steeped in traditional Japanese lore, and are naturally very much tied to the mythology surrounding Muramasa Sengo, the famous swordsmith whose blades were fabled to be cursed such that once drawn, they could not be sheathed again until they had tasted blood.

Our two heroes, Kisuke and Momohime, are tied to this mythology. Kisuke was wounded and lost his memory, and is now – for reasons he himself does not understand – trying to hunt down a specific Muramasa Blade. On the other side of the coin, Momohime has been accidentally possessed by a cruel swordsman named Jinkuro Izuno when he attempted to take the body of her intended and now Jinkuro wishes to reclaim the blade he used for that so that he can be free of this woman’s body.

More of the Same, And More

What does; however, get repetitive are the enemies. You’ll see a constant barrage of the same enemies over and over again throughout the game. Essentially you’ll see ninjas, monks, ghosts, samurai, wildlife, birdmen, and demons. There are 1-3 types of each, and they do gradually get stronger over the course of the game… but those are basically all you see over a playthrough. Additionally, there are a series of locked challenge rooms around the world… and these, like the normal monsters, are largely repetitive. Each one is either a huge number of monsters spawning in near-endlessly or a refight of multiple bosses from elsewhere in the game. While these challenges do offer an interesting gameplay experience, I could wish for some more creative uses of challenge rooms.

boss fight

Giant Demon from the Depths of Hell, check

What really makes up for that in a big way are the bosses. Each boss is truly unique in every way – with really interesting art and animations, unique tactics, and just overall feel. The boss fights are so good that it’s hard not to wish there were more. But, it’s always hard not to want more when you have fights of this quality – and the number of bosses certainly isn’t sparse.

Oppa Oboro Style

This game features a very simple combat setup. When you’re dealing with a game on a handheld device, this is very important… because intricate controls always feel awkward on handhelds – probably because you’re just not always holding it in an ideal position. While it is simple… it also features a surprising amount of strategic depth. The basics of the control are that you have your attack, jump, duck, block, and a few combination attacks(such as a dash attack or a sliding attack). Each one of the 108 swords also features a special attack, and you also have a special draw attack you can do every once in a while when you switch swords. Yes, 108 swords of various strength divided among regular and long swords – long swords having more damage and range, but much slower attack patterns – each with their own special power, although not all are completely unique.

These mechanics combine with the fact that swords can temporarily deteriorate to create a situation that truly rewards strategic use of your weapons. At any given time you can equip 3 different swords, each of which will have different strengths and weaknesses. As you use the swords, they will gradually break, and once broken they do reduced damage and can no longer unleash either of the special attacks. However, any time a sword is equipped but not currently active it will begin to regenerate itself over time. The combination of these mechanics force you to really think about how you use your swords and what swords you want equipped and leads to a system that has just the right level of thought required so you never really get bored.

Final Thoughts

The game does feature multiple difficulties – with two available initially – but I wouldn’t really recommend the easy difficulty to most people. It is almost sad how toned down it is. The harder difficulty of the two initial ones offers a reasonable challenge that most people should be able to eventually overcome, without feeling punishing… and after you’ve finished the game you’ll unlock more difficulty settings such as one featuring 1-hit death for people who really want a challenge.

combat

From Blossoms to… Blizzards?

Overall

Muramasa: Rebirth is an incredibly satisfying and fun experience, and it might well be the prettiest Vita game I’ve seen. It is hard to say that I’d recommend this to people who have already completed it on the Wii, but for anyone else(or for people who really loved it on the Wii and just want to see what it’d look like with some more graphical power behind it), the Vita version is a sure win.