Thursday, July 4, 2013

REVIEW - Muramasa Rebirth.

Muramasa Rebirth is a free-roaming 2D action-RPG, with an emphasis on the action.  Players take on the role of amnesiac ninja youth Kisuke and spiritually-possessed noble's daughter Momohime as they criss-cross Genroku (early Edo) era Japan.  

Blessed and cursed as the only living souls with a knowledge of the omnipotent Oboro sword style and wielding the forbidden, cursed blades of mad smith Muramasa, they are unstoppable by any force on Earth, Hell or Heaven - and will cut their way through all three. 

Play time is approximately sixteen hours to complete both campaigns, but Muramasa requires about twice that to really explore and find all the items and hidden stuff.  I'd estimate fifty-plus hours if you want to complete every challenge it offers.   

Should you?  Let's dig in.  

Most of these screens are cut down to show full resolution.  To see uncut screens, just check out these four posts.

Beautiful touch #1: The animated cherry blossoms floating on the breeze.
Beautiful touch #2 : The way the trees and grass gently sway with the wind.

Muramasa Rebirth is (currently, as of July 2013) my favorite game on the PlayStation Vita, bar none.  

Originally released in 2009 for the Nintendo Wii as Oboromuramasa or Muramasa: The Demon Blade in the west, Muramasa Rebirth is the definitive version of what was already a gem, and a rightful cult classic.  Every aspect of the game has seen improvements, from the resolution (an ultrasharp 960 x 544 on Vita, comprared to the Wii's maximum 854 x 480 output) to the controls (the Wii version required an upward snap on the analog stick to jump - Rebirth simply uses a button) to Xseed's localisation, which is miles beyond what Ignition provided English-speakers four years ago and communicates the game's humor, sweeping melodrama and abject zaniness with far more purity, nuance and texture. 

As you run through the rivers and rapids, fish will occasionally leap from the streams.  Beautiful touch #93.

The young Kisuke, having lost his memory, is pursued from beyond the grave for crimes he cannot remember committing by his beloved samurai princess Torahime, who upon her death successfully petitioned Buddha to return her to Earth for forty-nine days to exact her revenge upon him.  

Momohime, meanwhile, is a supporting character to the remorseless and bloodthirsty criminal Jinkuro Izuna.  Dying from a mortal wound and desperate to live, Jinkuro intended to strike Momohime's jerk of a betrothed with a forbidden sword art that grants possession, but the brave Momohime stepped forward to shield her fiancée and was hit instead. 

Now, bound to the body of the girl, Jinkuro is determined to escape damnation in Hell for his crimes and will cut through man, demon or god to do it.  It's a grand, sweeping, romantic duo of stories, though Momohime's - with the pleasing odd couple of the lady and the criminal - is the stronger of the two, and quite moving.

All dialogue is spoken in Japanese with an expressive translation below - a wise choice which maintains the game's unique flavor, given its setting.

Multiple endings are available for completists, with the "true" endings reserved for those who are prepared to track down and obtain all 108 demon blades.  

Beating the game once unlocks new weapons and freedoms, and the player is then at liberty to continue roaming Japan, ferreting out missed secrets and discovering new blades, returning once again to the final battle to see the second and third endings whenever it suits them.  It encourages players to continue snuggling in to the game's (gigantic) world and comfy, zippy combat - wanna' beat Kisuke's bosses with Momohime?  You can - which is lovely, as wandering Japan and getting in fights represents Muramasa is at its best.

Beautiful touches #8 through 10 - the background in every area is heavily layered, horizontally (8) and vertically (9). Nearby trees sweep by faster than those further back, and when you jump into the sky, whole swaths of background you hadn't seen before emerge from the new perspective. The flooded rice paddies above reflect the sky (10) - a thoughtful addition some might never even see.

In classic Vanillaware style, story aside it's very light on the whole "RPG" thing.  Momohime and Kisuke become stronger as they defeat enemies, upping endurance and strength stats, which permit them the use of ever-more-powerful swords.  Swords can be earned from bosses or forged by the undying spectral blacksmith, Muramasa Sengo, in exchange for the souls of your defeated foes.  

A single accessory item can be equipped (though dozens upon dozens exist to choose from, offering a vast variety of subtle tweaks to balance), and you can additionally buff your character via meals cooked over a campfire - if you've found the right recipe book, and have obtained the correct ingredients.

This game has given me a mad sushi craving.

Beautiful touches #72 through 78: All food is lovingly represented, and animated. Look! You can see the lines of fat in this tuna sushi (72)!  In a restaurant, when the plate arrives at the table, it slides up to you (73) and the food jiggles a bit as it stops, from the momentum (74). To eat, you tap X and a morsel will fly off the plate, dip into the soy sauce and up into the camera before disappearing (75). You tap X for each bite of the meal, and in campfire cooking you see every step of the process.

The baked potato is a staple of a low-level character's diet.

A rice ball begins as a lump of white grains before being gently formed by invisible hands into the classic rounded triangle shape, and wrapped in a cut leaf (76).  A roasted sweet potato sees a blanket of leaves thrown down, the potato placed on top, with more leaves heaped above that which are then lit afire. Once the flames burn down to ash, a steaming potato is presented to the player (77). Even fish animate slightly when cooked, their bodies tightening and mouth yawning wide on the skewer as they roast (78).

I've always felt a good game is elevated to great via wise choices and "little touches," and Muramasa is so jam-packed with attention to the tiniest details, it's downright opulent.

The cooking and RPG elements enjoy the same backstroking easy-going attitude as Odin Sphere, though it's a far less granular affair, requiring almost no inventory management and pulling no real attention away from the main course.  No, in Muramasa, it's all about the gameplay - and by gameplay, I mean awesome high-flying sword combat. 

Combat is announced with two sharp drum taps, and concludes with the sting of a samisen and your character's flashy animation for sheathing their sword.

Muramasa far and away represents the most accomplished action Vanillaware have ever put forth.  Its controls (delightfully improved for the Vita release) are spot-on, and it relies on player strategy and the successful mastery of its movelist to graduate from "really pretty" to "wicked fun."

Momohime and Kisuke's abilities are identical.  All blades have the basic three-hit combo on ground or in air, there's a dodge move (which you can map to any button, or press down and sweep to the side on an analog stick), a low attack (down and attack), a vicious guard-breaker move (down, hold attack and release) and guard (hold attack).

Where Muramasa breaks a bit with convention is how insanely agile and fast Momohime and Kisuke are, in combat.  Holding attack and sweeping the analog stick up results in a classic DMC-style High Time, as you arc your sword across an enemy in a rising slash and follow them into the air for additional punishment.  Holding attack and pushing the analog stick left or right gives you this glorious flying-dash attack which instantly closes the gap between you and your foes and can be repeated three times in a single air combo.  Holding down and attack while airborne will deliver a vertical crash similar to (DMC's) Helm Splitter.

The bosses are huuuge.

So picture this.  You're cruising through the mountains on your way to Fuji-San, doing that awesome padpadpad martial arts run you've seen in so many animes, and you're jumped by ninjas.  Literally.  Some battles will happen every time you enter an area, others are randomized - so you'll regularly get jumped by ninjas and oni and tengu and ice spirits and hairy eyeballs and too many enemy types to name.  Each enemy type usually comes in several iterations, and each requires applied knowledge to efficiently dispatch.

You can get randomly attacked by a single, vicious pheasant.  (They're delicious.)  Anyway, where were we?  Oh yes - a ninja attack.

You whip out your blade as they spring into the air to fling their deadly kunai at you, but you deflect them with an effortless mashing of square - chingchingching! - and they all go singing back at their owners.  Then, you crash into the nearest shinobi with three quick slashes.

On the third slash, you hold down the button and tap the left stick up.  You carry your target into the air with you.  You keep the button held down and tap the stick left - smash! - you crash through him, lifting him higher, and jam the stick right - smash! - even higher, and you jam the stick left again - smash! - to take him to the roof of the world before mashing square again, delivering a fatal flurry of strikes high above the fray below and pinwheeling to the ground for an additional ten hits.

This scenario plays out in the span of three seconds.  The combo over in an instant, and the three dash attacks lifting your enemies to the sky happen so fast it's a zigzagging inverse lightning strike with a pissed-off swordsman at its center.  Wonderfully, every aerial move can be freely mixed and matched - you can perform the "High Time" in midair, after a jump, for example, or double-jump after having performed a dash.  It's a really easy-going arrangement of mechanics, allowing the player a huge degree of areal maneuverability and permitting your strategies to be very fluid, addressing and finishing off multiple enemies before hitting the ground.

The combat is... communicative.  Muramasa speaks a simple but elegant language, and is a great example of 'play that translates player intention to onscreen action with an effortless grace, allowing you to concentrate on strategy, survival and style.

Which is good, 'cause this game is not a cakewalk.

Y'see that lantern in the foreground?  On the left?  During combat, if there are bamboo shoots or hanging braziers or lanterns like this, they'll be cut in two if a sword slash overlaps with them.  Nice touch #64.

Boss fights and the fearful, optional demon caves will prove challenging as you weigh the safety of blocking (hold square) or parrying attacks (mash square - it's awesome when a boss rapid-fires projectiles at you and you send every one back at him), as each parry or block reduces your sword's Spirit Power.  Block or parry an attack that's too powerful, and your sword will shatter, leaving you with a half-blade that's not good for much until it's returned to its scabbard, and given time to heal (it's magic).

You can equip three swords at any time, and you're encouraged to switch them out on the fly to balance your defensive options, access the unique secret art of each weapon (which also spend a sword's Spirit Power), and mix up your play style with the heavier, swooping strikes of a nodachi or the zippy slashes of a traditional katana.

Bosses fill the screen, their mighty attacks obliterating your precious blades with impunity, begging for you to try - just try - to achieve that 999-hit combo trophy on them (protip: pinwheel attacks on the centipede boss), or to beat them without ever suffering a single hit.

"High time."

Speaking of which, upon completing the game on the harder difficulty, a yet-harder difficulty opens up - Fury mode - in which a single hit will kill you.  Instead of feeling patently infuriating, Fury mode ends up simply feeling "hardcore," and incredibly satisfying when you're pounced on by a bunch of insane Buddhist monks and mop the floor with them with nary a scratch to show for it.  Boss battles become studies in pattern recognition and the tells of animations, and... oh my, I haven't even really talked about the animation yet, have I?

Take the above image, for example.  The paper lanterns sway ever-so-slightly, their lights flickering from within.  The cherry blossoms waft on the breeze.  The trees in the foreground rustle gently and, through the paper walls of the buildings, you can see the shadow silhouettes of citizens going on about their lives as Momohime dashes past.  You can slip in to an open window to speak with a sultry courtesan, absently smoking a pipe.  Cats stretch and yawn on rooftops as you fly by - and that's just one of dozens upon dozens of equally lushly-realized settings. Take into account the stunning work done on the bosses, enemies, NPCs and most of all the player-characters - where, once again, little touches and details elevate an already impressive showing - and Muramasa Rebirth is something very, very special.

When running through a scene, for example, your character's little legs will gently speed up until they're struck through with tiny, almost imperceptible blur lines.  After dashing for a bit, they will - just for a moment! - glance towards the player before putting their eyes back on the road ahead.

So subtle, you're not even sure you saw it.

In terms of presentation, Muramasa Rebirth is the most beautiful, spectacular 2D game I've ever seen.  It's rather like Valkyria Chronicles or Rayman Origins or Mark of the Ninja, in that gameplay trailers and screenshots don't begin to do it justice.

You won't appreciate how incredible this game looks until you see it.

Unlike the Wii version (unlike every game Vanillaware's ever made, come to think of it), it has zero framerate slowdown, and its load times are so brief as to be effectively nonexistent.  Its music is equally lush.  Here, try this boss music on for size. The score is overflowing in quality and quantity - the official soundtrack for this game fills three CDs.

Swords clanging off each other just sing, the Japanese voice work is expressive and... and when you're off roaming the forests, and you pick up a bit of soul on a treetop (which the smith Muramasa requires for his efforts), it makes the whoosh sound of a candle being blown out.

It's just beautiful and beautiful and then beautiful some more.

Muramasa Rebirth threatens to utterly spoil me with its sky-high production values, and the simple, wholesome pleasure of wandering its gigantic world and getting jumped by ninjas has not yet, after forty-ish hours, grown the least bit stale.

It's a luxurious title.  A grand, opulent four-poster bed of a game that's ideal for snuggling in to for long, breezy stretches of gorgeous scenery and zippy, stylish, satisfying combat.  This is one of those games where time just disappears in the playing of it.  It bleeds character, and loving attention to the most minute of details bursts forth like a flock of sparrows as you dash by.

Immaculate presentation, a king's ransom in content, a joy to play.  I can't recommend taking the time to get to know Momohime and Kisuke strongly enough.

I love this game.


  1. Damn, almost makes me wish I bought a Vita last Black Friday.

  2. The thing is, thus far, really living up to its potential. I've never gotten so much use and joy out of a handheld platform.

    I kept trying to like DS games (Zelda - yay! - everything else, not so much.)

    I had a few lovely experiences on PSP (VCII, God of War), but the Vita... it's just awesome on awesome.