Saturday, October 19, 2013

Review: Muramasa Rebirth

It’s no secret the Vita is in dire need of some quality exclusive titles, and while Muramasa: The Demon Blade originally appeared on the Wii’s eShop, this updated version of 2009’s beautiful action RPG gives Vita owners a reason to be proud of their system. Despite relatively simple gameplay and some superfluous mechanics, Muramasa Rebirth is a fun, addictive, and stunningly beautiful example of what the Vita is capable of.
I can’t talk about Muramasa without mentioning its visuals, as its hand-drawn spritework renders its 2D landscape of feudal Japan with a level of detail and artistry that can only be described as majestic, particularly on the Vita’s gorgeous OLED screen. Rice fields sway in the breeze and streams sparkle with rushing water in the background as main characters Kisuke and Momohime take out the game’s colorful enemies with a wide variety of elaborate sword slashes and ninja magic in the foreground. The game’s painterly art style and reverence for ancient Japanese myths and demons brought Okami to my mind more than once, which is a very good thing.
While the game’s visuals are superb, I found its gameplay a bit shallow for the 15 to 20 hours it takes to complete both characters’ stories. I’ve described Muramasa to friends as Super Metroid if all the enemies were ninja and all the powerups were swords. This sounds pretty awesome on the surface, and the amount of backtracking through old areas to open up new ones makes it a fairly apt comparison. However, the game plays pretty much the same from beginning to end with all your attacks available from the get go. The abilities that allow you to break different colored barriers with your swords are really the only significant upgrades. There’s something to be said for allowing full freedom in movement and combat from the beginning, but it really hampers the sense of progression.

Kisuke and Momohime do level up and obtain new swords through an elaborate network of blade forging, but there are really only two types of swords--heavy and light. The rest is pretty much just numbers. One saving grace however is that almost every sword has a unique active ability that can be triggered with the O button. These range from a flurry of slashes to shooting fireballs to screen-wide attacks. They’re a fun addition that helps break up the standard hack-and-slashery of sword combat at the expense of some of the sword’s durability.

One other issue worth noting is that the game’s attention to detail which, while great in some areas, is somewhat pointless in others. There is a whole cooking system complete with ingredients, recipes, and unique preparation and eating animations that I barely used at all over the course of my playthroughs. Food restores your health and blade durability, but with full health and blade restores at every save point and hot spring (there are hotsprings!) it’s pretty unnecessary. There are also restaurants in the villages that allow you buy traditional Japanese foods and actively eat them bite by bite, which is pretty neat, yet wholly unnecessary for the same reason as the cooking.
I don’t mean to sound too down on Rebirth, as it really is worth playing for the spectacle alone. Fighting the game’s screen-filling bosses while dashing through the air, swapping between blades, and firing off special abilities is nearly as entertaining to see as it is to do. And while most of the swords play pretty much the same, they all have a unique special attack, as well as a unique sprite, which offers some semblance of weapon variety. The game’s two stories and alternate endings also give reason to continue playing after seeing the credits roll, even if Kisuke and Momohime both play pretty much the same.

The Vita is still waiting for its first real system-seller, but for those who already own one, Muramasa Rebirth is an excellent investment whose every moment is a spectacle of ninja-packed art in motion.

Find it on Amazon | ebay

Released: 2013-06-25
Publisher: Aksys Games
Developer: Vanillaware

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