Monday, July 21, 2014

REVIEW - Genroku Legends: A Spirited Seven Nights' Haunting.

Genroku Legends: A Spirited Seven Nights' Haunting is the third piece of single-player DLC for 2013's spectacular Muramasa Rebirth, following the excellent Fishy Tales of the Nekomata and the funny but less-involving A Cause to Daikon For.  An action RPG with an emphasis on the action, it's a moving stroll through a gorgeously-rendered 2D 1600s Japan.  In addition to the remarkable presentation of Muramasa proper, Haunting skirts Daikon's comedy bent and offers a (welcome) return to the soaring melodrama developer Vanillaware handle so well.

Haunting is a sombre and tragic yarn in the vein of Nekomata, and another enjoyable folk tale that bursts at the seams with distinctly Japanese flavor and sensibilities.

Once upon a time, there was a ninja named Arashimaru.

Betrayed by the clan that raised him, Arashimaru has gone rogue.

To escape his former allies, he utilizes one of his most secret arts in a trap explosion - but in doing so, he shatters the sacred mirror that rests in the decrepit and humble shrine of Shirohebi, a water goddess who takes the form of a gleaming white snake.

Shirohebi doesn't take kindly to the insult.

She wraps her scaly self around his neck - an ethereal weight that presses down on his shoulders but can't be touched - as a reminder of the curse.  Arashimaru isn't bothered - he has business to take care of, and seven days may prove just enough time to do the impossible, and bring down the ninja clan that manipulated him...

Your first taste of Haunting's combat comes in a spectacular duel between ninja apprentice and master across a mountaintop.  Unlike the ponderous Gonbe of Daikon, Arashimaru's speciality is ranged attacks - he can deliver a hail of throwing kunai with rapid taps of square, so quick and so fast that you can stand in the middle of the screen, keeping enemies in before and behind you at bay by zipping the analog stick back and forth.  For heavy hitting, he can unleash bombs that do major damage, but each bomb tossed reduces the ability's spirit gauge, and it cannot be used for long.

His bread-and-butter is a sickle with a weighted chain, useful for close and mid-range combat - and like the flashing claws of Okoi or the graceful swordplay of Momohime, one of the DLC's greatest pleasures is found in simply watching Arashimaru tear through ranks of foes with elegant, stylish twirls and spins as the sickle flips and arcs around him.

Its generous reach aside, his sickle is mechanically analogous to the blades of Muramasa's core campaign, making it instantly comfortable and expressive.  Even better, his sickle, kunai and bombs all behave identically for air-juggle and dashes - hold square, press up, and no matter what weapon he's holding he'll bash it into his foe and spring into the air with them.  Keep square held down and jam the analog stick towards your enemy, and he'll air-dash through them, back and forth up to three times, zig-zagging them into the sky before, for example, continuing the combo with a blinding machinegun fire of blades, hovering in the air as he keeps his enemies aloft with a never-ending stream of kunai.

It's super-sexy.

The water goddess's presence also comes in to play, here, as the vain spirit feels she'd lose face with the other gods if a mere mortal were to slay Arashimaru before her curse does its dark work.  With that in mind, she promises to protect the boy until the eighth morning - and her presence in combat (press circle while airborne) is meaningful, as she uncoils from around his neck into a gigantic serpent that breathes enemy-seeking magic across the battlefield.

Haunting also offers a rebalance of Genroku Legends' remarkable challenge.  Both previous DLCs offered boss battles that would press even the most experienced ninja assassin to their limits, to the point that it was advisable to spend more than a bit of extra time running back and forth across Japan, fighting enemies and earning levels and weapons before attempting their final bosses.  Not so, in Haunting.

True to Vanillaware's standards, the game's bosses are spectacular, imaginative and a ton of fun - and this time, they never really risk frustration.  You don't have to be perfect to beat them - you just have to have mastered Arashimaru, and his formidable skills.

Try to beat Nekomata's second boss at level 11.  I frickin' dare you.

After the less-than-stellar A Cause to Daikon For, A Seven Nights' Haunting is pure, excellent Vanillaware, again.  It's a comfortable size and offers another weird, touching and involving story.  If you want to spend more time with Arashimaru after the credits roll, dashing across a gorgeous rendition of Genroku-era Japan, the game welcomes it.

Watching him run is fun.  He has the classic ninja run.  It's awesome. 

You can, then, explore the entirety of Muramasa's world, from the stairway to Heaven to the very pits of Hell, defeating all of the core game's bosses and challenge rooms with Haunting's hero, if you really want to see the true ending - and Arashimaru is fun, stylish and cool enough that I find myself tempted to do just that, as I did with the Nekomata DLC - which opens it up from a four-hour game into a twenty-hour one.

Easily worth $4.99, Haunting is everything you love about Vanillaware in a tasty, compact package.  Case in point, hot springs:

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