Sunday, October 18, 2009

"Muramasa: The Demon Blade": A Hand-Drawn Masterpiece

I'm writing this review as I watch my wife play the game. And I'm not gonna lie, it's totally turning me on watching her control the lithe Momohime and her Muramasa blade as she jumps, rolls, and dashes her way around the beautiful Japanese countryside, forests, and cities. Enemy ninja strike with their swords and shuriken and vicious demons attack with mystical powers only to be cut down by her steel. But that's not why I love this game--well, that's not the only reason anyway.

But let's start with that one--watching my wife Veronica play. The combat in this game is beautifully fluid and simple, while being open enough to allow different playing styles. It's why I like watching her play; she controls Momohime with an amazing grace, rolling past one enemy's attack before knocking a second in the air, leaping after him to cut him up before he can hit the ground, and then mid-air dashing back to the first enemy. It's gorgeous and very different from my own (I attend to just hammer through a line of enemies, as opposed to dancing around trying to separate them one by one).

But the buck doesn't stop there for playing styles. The game comes with two settings, something that's been translated for English gamers as "Normal and Hard Difficulty Settings." But they're more than that. The Japanese words "Muso" and "Shura" that were translated as"Normal" and "Easy" refer more to the play styles. Playing on Muso allows for a more action based experience (straight-up fighting to progress), while Shura recalls a more RPG experience (leveling-up, finding the best items, accomplishing side-quests, etc.). The game even features two protagonists, Momohime and Kisuke, each with their own stories, each story with three different possible endings! Clearly, the replay potential is high, but is it worth it to play through, essentially, the same game not just more than once but six times?

Yes. Yes it is. And here's why.

The other reason I like watching my wife play is that this game is simply just amazing to watch! When I reviewed Okami, I noted the beautiful art it presented. And I say with no hesitation, Muramasa makes Okami look like just another game. This game is beautiful, for several reasons, but I believe they all come back to the most basic aspect at work. Muramasa is a hand-drawn, 2-D video game. That in itself is nothing less than an astounding feat in this environment of 3-D, uber-realistic graphic envelope pushing. But playing or watching the game, you can see and appreciate the amount of artistic work that went into this game. Like Okami, the game borrows heavily from classic Japanese art, and it's even more beautiful here; it's cleaner, more colourful, and more detailed than any video game I've ever played. The animation is extremely simple (and Flash-based!), but instead of making characters look buggy and static, allows you to better appreciate the art. Lastly, and I promise I'll move on, the art style lends itself extremely well to the backgrounds of a traditional side-scroller. Mountains, forests, country-sides, even the burning hills of Hell, and the subtle things that happen back there, all give the game amazing atmosphere and depth. (The game is so beautiful, playing it actually makes me want to draw, and it inspired my Drawing 1 midterm project--which I may or may not share depending on my self-esteem level after I get my grade.)

"If only there was some sake!"

Yet another great aspect of the "watching" of this game is the health-system. And admittedly, this also has to do with the game's art. Health is replenished in a number of ways--save points, hot springs, leveling-up, etc.--but the one that most stands out is cooking and eating. Cooking while on your travels takes two forms--the first is when you roast food (sweet potatoes, char, squid) for later during dire battles; the second is when you boil something in a hot-pot for immediate enjoyment that includes a special bonus (like increased attack) depending on the dish. In both cases, a special animation takes place in which point of view shifts to first-person, making you the one enjoying the meal, bite by beautiful bite. Eating in restaurants is similar except that the variety of dishes increases. I've always said that a good movie makes you hungry. I've since learned that any good work of art appeals to not only to your emotions but your senses. This game makes me hungry. This game makes my wife hungry. We had to go out for Japanese food this week.

The last bit I want to address (and I'm not even going to get into the RPG elements, music, or how much the team who made it cared about what they were creating) is the story. It's very likely that this story will seem odd to Western audiences, mostly because VanillaWare hadn't even considered translating the game for us but also because the story is influenced by and steeped in traditional Japanese theatre. As such, there are tons of references the average player won't get--the protagonists' stories are based on classic tales--and may, therefore, seem a bit strange. But the influences the game takes are not only in the stories themselves but also in the storytelling. The game is broken into acts like a play, and the story progresses between each through dialogue that takes place as though they were on stage--the protagonists move across the "stage" to other waiting, characters, having their conversations one at a time. It's an interesting way to progress the story, and one most gamers will find odd. But it's a welcome change from the fast-paced cinematics and hole-ridden plots of most contemporary games.

In the end, this game is so unique, I have to recommend it to anyone with a Wii, though I know it won't be well-received by most gamers. But it needs to be given a chance for what it might inspire in future games, and what it might make us demand from future games.

Questions? Quibbles? Controversies?


Veronica said...

So I need to play video games more is seems.

Ben Villarreal said...

Yes. Yes you do.

Veronica said...

So I can't spell it seems but I will so play Muramasa tonight.

Ben Villarreal said...

Not if I beat you to it. And you're in class :-P


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