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June 17, 2016

Muramasa: The Demon Blade (Part 1)

I know little about traditional Japanese culture. I know it involves a lot of stories about mythical creatures (youkai), honor, ninjas and samurais, but it would be a mistake to stereotype it to those elements alone. Thankfully, most video games from Japan are made easily accessible to English-speaking audiences thanks to effective translation. They explain the basic concepts so that the player can understand. In the case of today’s game, a relatively poor translation combined with a complex story that heavily relies on Japanese mythology results in something hard to understand for me, and for some others. I will most likely get it as I play.

Enter Muramasa: The Demon Blade. A little jewel of art on the Wii, a game that has gained a following in no small part thanks to its peculiar details. Yes, it features a lot of elements from Japanese myths. It’s an action RPG, similar to games such as Super Paper Mario, with the character walking and running around the large world to explore like it’s actually a platform game, while the random encounters with enemies award Experience and money, allowing the character to level up over time. Plus, it’s technically two storylines, each following a different character on their journey, with both stories finding their root in the same event and unfolding at the same time.

However, two things stand out in this game: First off, the art. Every single sprite and background was hand-drawn, then scanned and used for the game. And as a result, everything is drop-dead gorgeous. I mean, look at any other game I called gorgeous in the past three years; none of them even measures to this game. It’s probably one of the best-looking 2D video games ever made. Simply astonishing. Every time I pick it up and play, I am reminded of its beauty. Second, for all the beauty of this game, the large and complex storylines of each character, the giant world to visit, the entire game actually takes a ridiculously small amount of space on the Wii disc: 0.62 gigabytes. For reference, that’s only twice the size of the original Wii Sports, one of the shortest games out there. And of that 0.62 Gb. 0.49 of it make up the soundtrack and voice clips, which means that the programming and all of the beautiful hand-drawn sprites and backgrounds that make up this game world take up only 0.13 gigabytes. It’s a technical marvel. If that is not impressive, I don’t know what is.

That’s the basic information about this game. I will be jumping into the story now, and I will be looking at both the stories of Momohime and Kisuke. In that order.

When you play a new game, you select between Muso and Shara, two difficulty settings; the former is simpler while the latter is more complex, requires a better knowledge of buttons and techniques made available. What follows is a tutorial that explains all the attacks and techniques your character can use. This includes ground and aerial combos, unleashing a sword’s special ability (one big feature in this game is the collecting of swords) and using items, among other things. This title also contains a rather unique mechanic where you always have three swords equipped at any time, and you can change between all the swords you unlocked as you please in a sub-section of the Pause menu. I’ll go back on this later. Alright then, Momohime Time!

….that sounded wrong.

We don't learn until a little later who exactly Yukinojyo is.
One problem with this story is how it starts after a major
event we never see and we're left to pick up the pieces and
put them together.

But... if you're trying to stop the criminal named Jinkuro...
Why is your speech calling you "Evil monk"?
Anyway, Momohime’s story begins as she’s looking for her promised husband Yukinojyo (or Yukinojo in the Vita re-release, but for the sake of clarity I’ll only use the name from the Wii version). After walking through a forest and a deserted village – and encountering enemies on the way – she finds a strange place with people asking if she’s Jinkuro, some infamous outlaw. And in there, she finds Jinkuro’s soul, which casts a spell that trades places with Momohime’s, so as a result Momohime is now the wandering soul while Jinkuro walks around in that teenage girl body. *sigh* So much for promising us a strong female lead, when we actually control the very swordfight-savvy Jinkuro. There is a good side to this; it’s one “body-swap” story where the Momohime body keeps her voice, even though Jinkuro’s spirit makes it sound a little gruffer sometimes. Unlike, say, 90% of those stories where somehow the voices also get traded around. After the transfer occurs, monks summon a giant cyclopean blue-skinned monster that also seems to act like a monk to stop the body-jacking villain. …Okay, sure, why not.

So many health bars on those damn bosses. They're
absorbing so much damage, they're like sponges!
This is a quick introduction to boss battles in this game, which attempt to follow both the formulas of platform games and RPGs; you can hit them as often as you want, since there is no turn-based combat; but as a result, the bosses have an enormous amount of hit points, so much so that they have a HP bar that depletes when you hit them and a second bar, let’s call it “Bars Bar”, that decreases as you deplete HP bars. That’s really the best way I can explain it. Compare this to Kingdom Hearts where a character with multiple health bars' worth of HP had the remaining health bars represented by dots.

So! Is this the only mask to collect on this adventure?
Yes? Phew!
Following this boss fight, “Momohime” meets with Kongiku, a youkai who has the appearance of a woman with fox attributes - a kitsune, in other words. She’s Jinkuro’s loyal servant, and has reached this place to give Jinkuro a special mask she stole that allows him to speak with the legendary swordsmith Muramasa Senji, who can use a character’s Spirit and the Souls stored in a blade to forge stronger weapons for Momohime/Jinkuro or Kisuke. It comes with a drawback, as Senji’s swords are cursed and hunger for blood, but Jinkuro and Kisuke both master the Orobo style, a technique that protects them from the swords’ potential drawbacks. Jinkuro then remembers that Rankai, one of the monks, ran away with Momohime’s soul, and if harm were to come to it, her body would also be harmed; thus he needs to find that soul.

I'll take your word for it, I don't like fish meals.
We backtrack a bit through the lush forest and find a barrier in the first screen where we controlled Momohime. Now equipped with a stronger blade, Jinkuro destroys the barrier and moves forward. Further down the path, another barrier blocks the way, so Jinkuro has to find an even stronger blade; thus Jinkuro runs and jumps to a nearby town, and on the way finds a restaurant. Okay, that’s important: To gain Spirit in this game, you have to eat food - and restaurants are the best way to achieve that. As stated earlier, Spirit is very important to forge weapons, so you need to spend a lot of your in-game money on food, even food you don’t actually need. Eating is a quick mini-game where you press A and the food that appears on the screen empties little by little, with Jinkuro (with Momohime’s voice) commenting on how good it is. As for everywhere else, the art is amazing. This game will make you hungry. I could go for some ramen right now. Moments later, you also meet a merchant who can sell you ingredients as well as cookbooks, allowing Jinkuro to cook meals and regain HP and Spirit wherever he is. That’s a really nice idea, and I’d love to see more RPGs use it.

This part of the game also introduces Enemy Lairs, where your character can enter – given that they can destroy the magical barrier blocking the entrance if they own a sword powerful enough. Those are bonus dungeons where you’ll be fighting a set number of opponents. Each Enemy Lair also has a recommended level, so that you don’t go in there unprepared. Well, you can try; nothing says you’ll win. Thankfully, since those are removed from the plot, you don’t die if you lose; you’re brought back to the entrance. We soon reach the city of Musashi, which Jinkuro-as-Momohime crosses, until he reaches the other side, where he thinks Rankai ran off with Momohime’s soul. …Say, how do you take a soul hostage? Aren’t those things, you know, non-material?

A giant face in a wheel.
...Eh, I've seen worse.
Talking to a resident ghost, we learn that a monster called Wanyudo is carrying multiple girls’ souls in a wheel. And when we see Rankai, he decides to unleash Wanyudo on Jinkuro. And if you thought yokai could be weird (like living umbrellas or similar creatures born from objects), then you have seen nothing. That thing is a giant wheel with a face, and it’s ridiculous. But don’t be mistaken, it can still whoop your ass with its many fire-based attacks. Thankfully, a combination of quck slashing and strong combos allows Jinkuro-as-Momohime to defeat the creature. As a result, the souls are freed, including Momohime’s. Rankai swears that he will send Yukinojyo Yagyu in Jinkuro’s way before leaving. Quick info, Yukinojyo was going to be married to Momohime, but then the Jinkuro incident happened, and… yeah. There's a lot of characters in both Story Mode, and they combine to form one, so keep a flowchart nearby to make sense of all this. After this encounter, Jinkuro explains to his ally Kongiku that he’s searching for a legendary blade by the name of Kuromitsu, currently owned by Yukinojyo. This blade has magical properties that could allow him to regain a human body and no longer be stuck using Momohime.

This place looks so romantic! Too bad Jinkuro has no interest in a girlfriend.
Or a boyfriend.

*goes to get a Tylenol* Phew, so many names to keep track of! Everything’s in Japanese, the names of the places, the names of the characters and bosses, even the names of the swords! It gets so complicated!

Dammit, stop using your swords to attack and protect
Jinkuro-as-Momohime runs from Musashi to Sagami, through Izu and into Suruga, where he is convinced to find Yukinojyo. After this long trip, we do indeed find Yukinojyo on a beach, with Rankai nearby. Yukinojyo has been made aware of Jinkuro’s possession of Momohime’s body and is convinced that if killing her is what it takes to defeat Jinkuro once and for all, then so be it. By the way, I did mention Momohime was going to get married to that jackass, didn’t I? Okay, this is a very tough boss fight because Yukinojyo, like Momohime, has access to multiple swords and, like the Samurai enemies met during the trip, can defend himself perfectly with each of them. Thankfully, a number of hits will break his blade, and then you can get in enough hits to harm Yukinojyo. He’ll then change blades. He can also use a special attack with each blade, similar to what Jinkuro can do; if anything, this is what your current character would be like if it was a boss.

When Yukinojyo is defeated, Jinkuro attempts to kill him but before he can carry through, Momohime forces herself back in her body, turning Jinkuro into a wandering soul again. Yukinojyo is wounded, and Momohime’s pleading leads Jinkuro to ask his kitsune servant Kongiku to cure Momohime's "husband". Yukinojyo explains that he was but a pawn in a plan put together by the current shogun of Japan, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi… and that this plan, sadly, involved Yukinojyo and a squad of ninjas killing Momohime’s family. That’s the thing, though; this attack also killed Momohime, so right now she’s more like a corpse walking around with the wrong soul inside her, somehow keeping the body alive. Bet you didn’t see that coming, did you? Jinkuro and Momohime agree to help each other to take down the shogun, but they need to take a detour across many provinces of the world in order to reach the town of Hida. Why? Because there are many Monks on the way. Hey, I can deal with monks! I’ve killed a hundred of those in one of the Enemy Lairs! I can do that! Bring them to me! ...No? Ah, alright, I'll do the detour.

Jinkuro, killer of giants.
Jinkuro runs through many parts of land to reach Hida, a land of snow. It’s beginning to look just like an ice world…. Oh boy, here we go… Hey wait, this is an RPG, not a platformer. Yay, I can’t fall off to my doom! Travelling across the snowy prairies and mountains, we finally see a duo of adventurers who stopped on their journey; apparently there’s a giant mountain god ahead, and it would be a bad idea to piss off a god. We still move forward and the protective charms keeping the god away break, revealing a gigantic green-skinned monster god that decides to crush Jinkuro-as-Momohime. I’d call it a Titan, but I think even Titans aren’t nearly big enough to compare to that monster. For reference, its first “form” is… its foot. When the foot is defeated, you need to climb on it – by hitting it some more – to reach a place high in the clouds, where you’ll see the whole monster in the background and battle… its fist. Yeah, basically imagine Master Hand as an RPG boss. In case that thing wasn’t dangerous enough, you can also get thrown off the clouds and back down, which means you need to climb on the giant foot again. When the hand is defeated a first time, the godly green giant may turn into a harmless giant boar that Jinkuro can slash at without fear of getting attacked. That form doesn’t stay for long, however, so you gotta hurry and get in a lot of hits. Because let me tell you, the other two sections of that boss are really hard. Stupid hand with its stupid spinning energy thingies… So, Jinkuro manages to defeat the giant green god.

I would enjoy the fanservice if she was older.
And Kongiku, what enormous breasts you have! I see
a kitsune made some choices for her human form...
Soon Momohime finds herself in a hot spring, where she bathes in near-nakedness (Thankfully a towel covers her), with Kongiku, Jinkuro’s soul, and the giant boar (named Inosasao). The boar explains that it transforms into that giant monster to chase the intruders away from this hot spring. Kongiku adds that by “cultivating” a mountain’s spirit, one can ascend to Heaven and meet the Gods, but she adds that this is a long process (hundreds of years). Gee, I am so sad. I wanted to pick a fight with Thor. Guess that will wait till my next session playing tabletop Planescape… so, probably never. Last but not least, Momohime asks Jinkuro what exactly he has been hoping to achieve, to which Jinkuro replies that his real body was sick and dying, and he needed a replacement. He killed his teacher and his brothers in search of the Oboro Style, which he learned; it allowed him to get into Momohime’s body… on his quest for immortality.

After leaving the hot spring, Jinkuro possesses Momohime’s body again and heads out towards Narukami, in the province of Mino, to ask its magistrate where the Kuromitsu blade is.

Still got that flowchart? Keep it around, you’ll need it when Part 2 rolls around… Monday!