Muramasa: The Demon Blade Review

By Matt Keil - Posted Sep 09, 2009

Muramasa: The Demon Blade is the latest offering from Vanillaware, makers of fine 2D action RPGs like Princess Crown and Odin Sphere. Much like those games, Muramasa is a side-scroller with the same strengths and weaknesses, with the latter primarily being rooted in the Metroid-map design choices that strangely dominate the game.

The Pros
  • Beautiful art style
  • Fantastic boss battles
  • Versatile combo system
  • Great music
  • No waggle
The Cons
  • Characters don't really evolve during gameplay
  • Tons of backtracking through empty areas
  • Difficulty settings a bit too polarized

Muramasa: The Demon Blade is the latest offering from Vanillaware, makers of fine 2D action RPGs like Princess Crown and Odin Sphere. Much like those games, Muramasa is a side-scroller with the same strengths and weaknesses, with the latter primarily being rooted in the Metroid-map design choices that strangely dominate the game.

Muramasa: The Demon Blade

Far East Side


You’re given the choice between Kisuke and Momohime, two skilled swordspeople with ninja problems. Both characters have identical controls but entirely different paths through the game’s world. Muramasa is essentially a 2D fighter, control-wise. Character movement is handled with the analog stick, and attacks are on the A and B buttons. A surprising amount of depth is present for using such minimal controls. Interestingly, Muramasa completely foregoes the usual minigames and remote waggling that seem to accompany (or plague, if you prefer) Wii titles. The entire game is played using standard controls only, and you can actually use the Classic Controller for a more precise level of control. The game benefits tremendously from Vanillaware’s decision, keeping the focus on mastering the versatile combo system.

That said, there’s very little character evolution over the course of the game. There are 108 swords in the game, but only two types of them. Both characters must forge them over the course of the adventure using souls collected from defeating enemies and using spirit earned by eating delicious food that can be purchased or cooked by the characters themselves. Blocking, special attacks and reflecting projectiles can all wear down a sword’s durability; it regenerates when you sheath it. You equip three swords at one time, and switch between them to avoid breaking the one you’re using. Despite a variety of special attacks and status bonuses, none of the new swords change how you play to any great degree, and it can be pretty fairly stated that after about half an hour, you’ve seen most of what Muramasa has to offer for gameplay. From there it’s all about honing your abilities and working with what you already have, which may not be quite enough to engage some players.

Kisuke and Momohime’s adventures are broken up into acts, each guarded by the requisite boss character. Muramasa’s boss battles are epic clashes, with some bosses being multiple screens tall. These lightning fast and often lengthy fights are when the game is at its best, demanding old school pattern recognition and controller handling that will trigger fits of nostalgia in 16-bit era fans. The trouble comes when a boss battle is over.

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Ninja, please

The entire game world is an interconnected map, which means that you have to actually run everywhere you want to go. Since each area tends to keep its boss at a dead end, it means that every time you kill a boss, you have to then backtrack through the dozen or more areas you already cleared. A few fast-travel options are available later in the game, and once you finish it you can warp between save shrines, but during the initial playthrough, you’re stuck running through empty areas with nothing to do but watch the destination slowly tick closer. The open map adds very little to the game overall, and Muramasa probably would have done better to simply use a standard level system.

If anything helps mitigate the constant transit, it’s the gorgeous visuals that give Muramasa such a singular appearance among other Wii titles. Each zone is unique, with tons of detail that demand close inspection to pick up on all the little touches. From parallax scrolling that stretches to the far horizon to tortured souls on a forced march on the plains of Hell, there is no shortage of eye candy. Of equally high quality is the music, blending traditional Japanese sound with rock and electronic beats.

Muramasa: The Demon Blade

Cake or death?


Two difficulty settings attempt to balance the level of challenge for veterans and newcomers alike, but they both go a bit too far in their respective directions to be entirely satisfying. Muso is the easy mode, which offers quick character leveling but almost no challenge. You practically have to try to get killed in Muso mode. On the flip side is Shura, which requires you to use all your combat abilities much more wisely and somewhat solves the backtracking problem by throwing a lot more random fights at you, but greatly ramps up the difficulty in the second half of the game. It’s most likely too difficult for all but the best twitch gamers, leaving those who want a reasonable challenge (read: without an undue level of frustration) out in the cold. A third difficulty can be unlocked after completing the game that permanently sticks you with 1 hit point, demanding a perfect playthrough with no hits taken whatsoever. The nature of the combat system means it can be done, but all the same, good luck with that.

Muramasa: The Demon Blade is full of great moments, but it lacks any real sense of pacing. Even the big finale falls flat for each character. There is a fair amount of replay value, thanks to all the swords needing to be forged and a “true” ending that can only be obtained after finishing each character’s story. But none of these elements can mitigate how dull the sections between boss battles can become. Vanillaware has created a large and seamless 2D world, but when you’re running back through areas you’ve already cleared for the fifth or sixth time, you may find yourself longing for a load screen just so you can get back to the action quicker.