Under the shadow of the next generation of graphical prowess, the notion of an absolutely beautiful two-dimensional game seems rather intrusive, but Vanillaware’s PlayStation Vita title Muramasa Rebirth has what it takes to be visually astounding. Granted, Muramasa Rebirth is a remake of the Nintendo Wii title Muramasa: The Demon Blade, which leaves the potential for this portable rehash to flop–as ports are somewhat prone to do. Still, a place will always be open in my heart for games with this artistic direction (thanks, Odin Sphere). The blockbuster PS Vita titles aren’t coming until later this year, so this is the perfect time for portable PlayStation gamers to experience something unique while the competition is scarce.
When it comes to plot, Muramasa Rebirth won’t win any awards, but fans of Japanese-inspired narratives and characterization will enjoy a separate storyline for two different characters. In the first, a young girl named Momohime is possessed by the soul of a powerful demon who’s in search of his sword; in the other, a warrior named Kisuke is stricken with amnesia and seeks his lost memories.
The focal point of this game, however, is not the narrative, even if the main cast and supporting characters alike are believable. What really stands out is the game’s visuals, which transform a highly detailed art style into an interactive experience. What differentiates this title entirely from something like Odin Sphere is gameplay with faster pacing. In fact, the combat takes on a life all its own as Momohime and Kisuke battle a wide variety of enemies, ranging from the grand appendages of big, green demons to a massive kraken and even droves of ninjas, spectors, and samurai. All the while, the game keeps showcasing a visual experience that you cannot help but be addicted to. Slick animations and clever cutouts make for eye candy made that much more appealing on PS Vita‘s mouthwatering OLED screen. A recommendation: turn the brightness all the way up. Burning through a charge this way is totally worth the optic sensations.
Coupled together with the visual strengths of Muramasa Rebirth is the pick-up-and-play combat style. These two excellent factors ultimately form a triple threat with the way the game distributes swords. Players collect souls, which are both littered throughout the game and looted from fallen enemies, and use these souls to forge many new swords via blacksmith. Indeed, Muramasa Rebirth features 108 different swords to create and wield, and each one features unique attack speeds, attack sequences, special abilities, and many different combinations of these three factors. On top of graphics and gameplay, yet another addictive aspect surfaces.
At all times, the player is equipped with three swords and can swap between them mid-combat. The act of switching blades has a tactical advantage: it acts like a samurai sword draw that slices the entire screen and deals heavy damage to anything that’s on-screen. During combat, swords lose their soul essence and break, which comes from overuse or sustaining heavy damage too often. Therefore, managing swords while in combat becomes quite a strategic endeavor as the game progresses and the enemies grow more complicated and hearty.
There are also two combat modes for the even-more hardcore. Legend and Chaos modes can be toggled at the beginning of every play session. Legend is a much simpler experience that allows players to simply move around and mash Square–Momohime and Kisuke will automatically reflect most attacks and projectiles from any direction and attack simultaneously as long as Square is pressed at the proper time. While in the Chaos game mode, you will have to aim in the direction of the projectiles and press Square in order to deflect them. Believe me: a couple rounds with basic random encounters will leave you over-encumbered with responsibilities that require extensive micromanagement.
Fans of Japanese voice-overs will be happy to know that this entire game is voiced in Japanese and subbed in English, making the game ebb and flow with an engaging Eastern rhythm. Sound effects are rather arcade-like in their presentation, but they work, since the action is delivered in the same way. Truly, the longevity of this game could be vast for anyone who enjoys arcade feel and rewards that come from a little farming of crafting materials–on top of the sublime art direction, of course.
One very big negative to this game wouldn’t, in most situations, be a negative at all: the world is very large, and its size isn’t a great fit for this genre. Normally, this would allow for more things to do, like finding the sparsely distributed caves throughout the game that can be unlocked and explored, but these caves don’t alleviate the amount of running you will have to do in order to go from place to place, especially since you’ll have to backtrack in order to unlock these caves. The game does feature a sort of taxi service where two muscular men carry you from region to region, but the regions only have one drop point. Worse yet, each region will have map panel after panel that all look the same, which makes the experience quite often drag out more than it should–especially when you’re lost. Navigating the map is simple, but the game presents the full map and minimap as separate entities, leaving you forced to interpret the disconnect between the two. The difficulty here counteracts the engaging arcade-inspired combat, and the constantly recycled maps don’t do the still-wonderful visuals any favors. Still, this is nitpicking at its core. If going from place to place becomes a chore, don’t immediately give up, as you’ll start to learn the maps with experience.
Remakes tend to require a bit of an investment past the original version, but that’s not the case here. The original Nintendo Wii version of the game, which came out in 2009, still costs $50, while the PS Vita version will set you back only $40.
One glaring negative might keep you from undertaking Vanillaware’s wonderful adventure, but the visual enjoyment and addictive combat are well worth the time you will invest in Muramasa Rebirth. Mainstream critics might not find art in the game industry, but Vanillaware makes an undeniable argument that you’re sure to return to again and again. The advantageous timing for this game’s release is perfect. Your only excuse not to buy this game would be you don’t own a PS Vita, and really, at this point, that’s no excuse at all.