Friday, September 19, 2014

REVIEW - Genroku Legends: Hell's Where the Heart Is.

A 2D Metroidvania-esque title with a bit of RPG to it and a ton of action, Hell's Where the Heart Is is the send-off to the Genroku Legends series of downloadable content, whose quality warbled from okay (A Cause to Daikon For) to great (A Spirited Seven Nights' Haunting) to fantastic (Fishy Tales of the Nekomata).

Muramasa Rebirth, the luxurious game that spawned the series, may be accused of playing things a bit too straight in terms of mechanics - both heroes of that game's twenty-hour campaigns had identical combat styles - but none could accuse Genroku Legends of the same predictable simplicity.

The series, as a whole, has a lovely balance to it - like a four-course meal of well-paired dishes, with no one flavour overtaking the whole.  There was tragedy (Nekomata, Haunting) and comedy (Daikon, Hell), and while Fishy Tales of the Nekomata, the starter, remains the most memorable in terms of story and style, Hell's Where the Heart Is is a grand finale for the series in terms of combat mechanics.

Let's begin at the beginning. Once upon a time a young monk named Seikichi abandons his holy order, and heads out into the world in search of some sweet lovin'.

He hits on everything in his path, getting slapped or insulted in turn, and eventually comes across Momohime from Muramasa's core campaign, who's chillin' out, eating a rice ball.


Rolling the dice for the hundredth time on the off chance a woman may to fall for his lines, he bursts forth with a declaration of love,


and hears the words "I accept," from a hedgehog-haired demon-girl, who just happened to be standing nearby as Momohime finished her rice ball, and left.


And she holds him to his word.

Rajyaki, it turns out, is a princess - the youngest daughter of Lord Enma, ruler of Hell.  Desperate to escape his promise, Seikichi spins lie upon lie.  The innocent (?) Rajyaki takes everything Seikichi says as the gospel truth, and sets off across Japan to free him from a nonexistent arranged marriage and retrieve his soul from the mountaintop he swears he left it on - after stuffing him in to the bottomless sack she wears on her belt, because "as husband and wife, we shouldn't be separated."

Almost a horrific sex-comedy of errors, Seikichi repeatedly tries to escape Rajyaki's affections and ends up stumbling into the clutches of even more monstrous creatures that lurk beneath masks of beauty.

Of course, that provides Rajyaki the opportunity to show what the youngest daughter of Hell can do, when she puts her mind to it.  Which is a lot.


Rajyaki's only on Earth because she's trying to retrieve a bunch of magical treasures, you see, and has so far collected her magic bag and the Lucky Mallet, She'll whack herself on the head with the magical golden hammer mid-combo and transform from her manic child form to a beautiful young woman (with horns, crazy hair and a six-foot spiked club), and into a colossal being of pure muscle and rage, who goes all E. Honda on entire screens' worth of enemies at once.

You mash square - ora!ora!ora! - as she fills the room with blinding strikes of her mighty fists and, if you land enough strikes of the combo, a halo of red light will collapse in on her, signalling that she's ready for her ultimate blow.  When that combo ends she will let forth with a final, colossal attack that kills pretty much anything it touches.  This is called a "crushing blow," and it's a mechanic that's unique to Rajyaki, among her Muramasa and Genroku Legends peers.

Wham!  Broke your sword!

Each of her forms can perform a type of crushing blow, and they are intensely satisfying.  In adult form, mashing square will cause her to spin her club in a perfect circle, which hits so many times so quickly that it obliterates all but the strongest enemies caught in its vortex.  Schwoop! The halo of light zips into her, you stop mashing square and she leaps into the air (in whichever direction you're pressing) to come down on her foes with a mighty, single slap of her club so powerful it causes an explosion that ripples into the sky in gorgeous, artfully-painted clouds of burning-red smoke.

Her child form has two crushing blows - one tied to her "secret art," which involves a colossal stone hammer,


and another that takes advantage of her manic lightness.  Every character, with every weapon in Muramasa Rebirth and the Genroku Legends has a drop attack - pressing down and square while airborne.  When Rajyaki executes it in her child form and strikes an enemy with it, she bounces off them and soars up again.  If you can successfully hit enemies three times in a row with her drop-bounce, she'll burst into flame on the fourth strike and slam into the ground, dealing damage to anything nearby.


More than any other character in the Muramasa library, Rajyaki has benefited from the expressive, involved combat mechanics Vanillaware poured into 2013's Dragon's Crown.  Both her child and adult form offer more depth than any other character who's run through this beautiful 2D recreation of Japan - different enough from the other heroes to feel distinct, similar enough to remain comfortable - and the inclusion of the "crushing blows" ensures the player almost always has a strangely satisfying, powerful strategy at their fingertips.

She is the funnest character to play as.  Period.  She's also the funniest, as she's always so happy when she kicks the crap out of enemies,

Ya-tah!  Kicked their butt!

and one really gets a sense of her childlike glee and willingness to take things a bit too far, built right in to her combat mechanics.

When you press down and mash square when on the ground in her child form, for example, she'll turn into a horizontal buzzsaw with her axe, sweeping back and forth across the floor of a scene, only moderately guided by the player's instructions through the analog stick.  The longer you mash it, the more powerful her buzzsaw attack becomes - but if you take it too far, she'll come out of it all dizzy and seasick - and vulnerable to enemy attack.

You shoulda' known when to quit, kid.

A heady risk, when you consider that Rajyaki has the lowest defense of any Muramasa hero. She is a definitive glass cannon - ridiculously powerful, terribly vulnerable, and an absolute blast to play as.

Adult Rajyaki's secret art involves producing an orb of fire that she can then
(1) hit like a baseball with her club, obliterating everything in front of her,
(2) hit in an arc, so that it bounces around, randomly hitting a wider range for less damage or
(3) crack overhead into the ground in front of her, instantly detonating it and producing a shower of smaller projectiles.
Awesome - with far more utility than any other characters'.

Perhaps simply by virtue of being a comedy, her narrative doesn't carry the same memorable weight of the darkly tragic Fishy Tales of the Nekomata, but as one could expect, there is a definite sweetness to it - and an interesting symbolism, if you consider her three forms (innocent and sweet, sexy and mature, monstrous and powerful) as a caricature of the multi-faceted creatures that so beguile the minds of men.

Rajyaki, for her part, is so capable, earnest and dedicated to her fool of a husband, she's impossible to dislike - beyond being incredibly naïve (when in her child's guise), she's wholly endearing.


In classic rom-com form, Seikichi, for his part, finds kindness for the girl almost in spite of himself.  In that, Hell's Where the Heart Is is both the best-playing Genroku Legends adventure and a curiously accurate reflection of romantic love.  It's a story in which a man, mindful only of his baser instincts, discovers the best parts of himself - his capacity to genuinely, selflessly care for another - as he's dragged along, kicking, screaming and terrified.

Yeah, man.  That's love.

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