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Game Review

by Dave Riley,

Muramasa: Rebirth / Genroku Legends

Playstation Vita

Muramasa: Rebirth / Genroku Legends
Muramasa Rebirth is mostly a nicer looking port of the Wii version, however its Genroku Legends DLC has enough twists to warrant a second look.

Muramasa always felt like a weekend sort of game: a 2D brawler with some light RPG bits, short and simple, and fun enough for a couple days. Compared to Vanillaware's previous game, Odin Sphere, everything in Muramasa is quick and fluid. Fighting is high combo, canceling into dodges is instant, and every attack comes out fast and flashily from over a hundred different swords, unlocked through a demonic pact with legendary swordsmith Muramasa--long dead, but still forging away in the afterlife. What already looked great on Wii looks better on Vita. Painterly fields, forests, and castles, every sprite a miniature masterpiece: main characters Kisuke and Momohime face off against enemy ninjas throwing oversized shuriken, cave-dwelling ghouls chucking bones and debris, a giant kraken, and a few major deities too.

But, beautifully rendered through Muramasa may be, the lack of variety hobbles the fun, fantastical mythology and the lightweight button-mashing. Combat itself never lags, but the frequency of very similar encounters against a limited palette of enemies drags down the action, even though the game is only a few hours long. Playing through both campaigns back to back shows some of the cracks, which split even wider when the bonus endings ask you to clear secret areas, forge dozens of weapons, and re-defeat old bosses, some of which took too long to kill the first time around. If they can find a a way to repeat something once, they'll do it a dozen times. Kisuke and Momohime play like clones and, though the game boasts over a hundred of them, there are really only two kinds of swords: slow and fast. It grates on you. Each weapon has its own special move, but few consist of anything more than a differently sparkly combo attack and none are worth keeping around when something with higher stats comes your way.

Balance is not one of Muramasa's primary concerns. "Legend" difficulty is so easy you can practically doze through it. "Chaos" keeps you on your toes, but not in any way that feels fair. Not when bosses who take dozens of combos to kill can crush you in three or four attacks. Either way, easy or hard, you'll fall into the same cycle jamming through one combo and dodging when it's time to dodge. There's not much else at your disposal. You have special moves, but there's no reason to hold them in reserve, so you use them on cooldowns. You have guard-smashing charge ups, but their intricate inputs make them hardly worth bothering with, even against block-happy samurai. Usually it's just easier to hammer the square button.

And that's the truth of Muramasa: most things are best dealt with by hammering on the square button, which the game will also interpret as a block so there's little risk in going hog wild. Blocking costs weapon durability, but breaking a sword immediately charges your special meter, so even taking hits has an upside. As long as you maintain a healthy stock of healing items, few battles will try anything but your patience.

As will everything probably, in time. Though Muramasa guides you through lush fields of wheat, city festivals with lanterns burning bright, and the misty path to heaven--all gorgeously rendered, straight down to the gates of hell--these areas subdivide into rooms that are basically plains of featureless geometry, which does suit the game's enforced backtracking. After you've cleared a boss, just hold the analog stick left to trot straight through all those insubstantial rooms you passed on the way in. The cooking minigame has some of the prettiest food around (trumped only by its successor in Dragon's Crown, really), but there's no actual game to it, just pushing X until it's done. It's all very slight. So much of this game feels like skeleton and very little feels like meat.

But, while there are no substantive changes to the base game, where Muramasa's Vita release shines is in its DLC, Genroku Legends, a series of short stories, campfire tall tales which play out over only a couple hours each. Where Muramasa is overlong, Genroku Legends satisfies, it moves, it keeps your interest.

Brevity serves the Muramasa format well. Each chapter ends before the backtracking and limited enemy variety have time to stack up. It never feels like a grind. The fewer weapons on display initially feel like a downgrade from the main game's dozens and dozens of swords, but each moveset is unique: claws function differently from fireballs, kunai differently than bombs differently than scythe. In place of the bland weapon forging are more diverse trees, still comprised mostly of stat upgrades, but seeded with tweaks to movelist and skillset: combo increases, special move upgrades, revival power-ups. Though getting each bonus ending requires clearing out every boss and secret dungeon, the main paths give you enough room to play around and have fun with the new features.

Among outlandish stories of a demon cat reborn in the form of her murdered master and a goddess-cursed ninja is the far more down to earth A Cause to Daikon For, the tale of Gonbe, a down and out farmer, and his rebellion against a corrupt government. Instead of chucking fireballs Gonbe swings around his tools: a hoe, a sickle, and a bamboo stick. Instead of explosive attacks his special meter summons his friends to fight alongside him.

This isn't a push for ultra realism, you've still got a ghost wife around for double jump assistance, but the stats tweak subtle ways to make you feel like you're playing a poor, starving farmer. Enemies drop only one or two “mon” per encounter (and sometimes nothing); taking down a score of ninja will only earn you enough to buy one cabbage. You never have enough money to buy everything you want. Generally you don't have enough money to buy anything you want. Playing through the entire chapter you might be able to afford sit-down restaurant only once or twice, so every mochi is a feast. Gonbe agrees, saying “if this is my last meal, it's a hell of a send off,” even when the meal is a single radish. Bringing down the money-grubbing official responsible for Gonbe's sorry lot feels especially poetic after two hours suffering beside him, never having a healing pellet to spare and running around with broken weapons because you couldn't afford the items to fix them.

They also sneak in a bit of humor. The storylines were focused on stern-faced swordsmen doing stern-faced things, most of its comedy centered around Momohime's wilting discomfort (at being possessed by the spirit of a stern-faced swordsman). By comparison, A Spirited Seven Night Haunting begins when the ninja Arashimaru inadvertently desecrates a shrine and is cursed to a lingering death by its resident goddess Shirohebi who, fearing the irreparable hit to her reputation if he dies before the curse takes hold, tags along to ensure he makes it to the bitter end. The two travel the countryside as almost a buddy duo, righting wrongs and flinging spectral snake magic at their enemies, and by the end we all learn a little about love, friendship, and deadly hexes.

It takes a tolerance for repetition to see all of it, but Muramasa's biggest draw is its exquisite, centuries-gone Japanese aesthetic, with all manner of mythology and monsters rarely seen outside of games like Shin Megami Tensei, where it's mostly just flavor text. Muramasa constructs almost a primer, grabs as many Japanese historical fantasy hits as it can get its hands on: places, characters, and creatures. It's a fun world to run around in, though not one that's going to keep you entertained forever. Still, there's pleasure in traveling a beautiful landscape, and it's easier to forgive ho-hum button mashing when you're doing it inside a living painting. If not mechanically, the game does benefit from being on the Vita: the shorter play sessions of a portable system give less time for the repetitiveness to become bothersome, and Genroku Legends is where Muramasa becomes what it could've been from the start. The main game doesn't have anything new to offer fans of the original, but veterans willing to double dip will get the best Muramasa's ever been.

Overall : B-
Graphics : A
Sound/Music : B
Gameplay : C+
Presentation : B-

+ Beautiful design, a nice look at tidbits of Japanese mythology
Fun button mashing soon turns repetitive, area and enemy variety is very limited

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