Muramasa Rebirth exists within a weird space, leaping from relative obscurity on one questionably appropriate console—the Wii—to what could prove continued obscurity on another questionably appropriate console, the PlayStation Vita. It’s not that I take issue with the Vita, or that I think this once–Wii exclusive isn’t a good fit for Sony’s handheld platform. Honestly, I feel the same way about Vanillaware’s 2D sorta-kinda-Metroidvania action-RPG as I do most Vita games that aren’t hindered by forced touchscreen controls: There’s just no good reason for Sony not to make this a cross-platform release on the Vita and PS3 in order to garner greater attention to a game that absolutely deserves it.
I won’t bore you with too many story details. There honestly isn’t much in the way of a fleshed-out tale here, and the overarching story largely exists in utilitarian fashion. There’s just enough narrative framework to give the player and both protagonists agency, with minor plot beats hit during the transitions between each act (with eight acts total, clocking in at roughly an hour each). Male protagonist Kisuke’s tale? Boy meets girl. Girl distrusts boy. Boy saves girl. Girl and boy challenge fifth ruler of the Tokugawa shogunate/demon god. Classic stuff. And it’s the same thing on Momohime’s side. Girl runs away from marriage, gets possessed by the lingering spirit of a master swordsman, and embarks on a quest to save her body from the ravages of soul sharing.
What is interesting, however—at least in terms of providing value to the player—is how these two distinct storylines bolster Muramasa’s replayability. Regardless of how throwaway the two stories may be, it’s nice not to have to retread story elements by simply choosing another character when returning to the game. I mean, I suppose you could play as both Kisuke and Momohime in parallel, alternating between two save files, but c’mon. That would probably be daunting.
While narrative is easily the least-interesting aspect of Rebirth, the striking, gorgeous hand-drawn 2D art—a standard for Vanillaware games—is largely what defines it. Hold up, I’m not dismissing gameplay—we’ll get there. I just want to gush for a moment about how the super-crisp, super-slick visuals that feel like art in motion are the real show-stealer—what sets Muramasa apart from side-scrolling 2D action-RPGs from other studios. The aesthetics alone will compel you to explore the Japanese island of Honshu, breaking down barriers as you obtain new demon blades that can shatter these otherworldly locks (which function, in reduced capacity comparatively, like a new tool or ability that provides access to previously blocked areas in a standard Metroidvania). Unfortunately, aesthetic appreciation is really all there is to gain from exploration. There aren’t any tools or items that bestow new abilities to find—just a heck of a lot of blades to forge and equip to the three slots available to Kisuke and Momohime.
Said sword forging—and item crafting, and general character progression—round out the RPG aspect of Muramasa’s action-RPG status. It’s all pretty standard stuff. Kill enemies, gain experience, level up to increase hit points and stats. Forge or claim a new blade from a fallen foe, and equip the most powerful one available. Each sword possesses a level requirement in order to equip, however, which serves as incentive to grind for XP—beyond, you know, the obvious reasons.
Those forged and found blades form the heart of Muramasa’s combat, which is pretty straightforward and largely familiar to anyone who’s played previous Vanillaware titles. Control-wise, there’s only one attack button, so there isn’t much in the way of killer combos to bust out. Still, there’s a perfectly serviceable number of attacks—which do change, particularly in terms of speed and style, from one sword to the next—and, when juggled with dodge rolls and air dashes, they offer fairly dynamic combat encounters. Muramasa is not without challenge—that is, of course, if you choose the Chaos difficulty. Unlike the original Wii version, Rebirth only has two difficulty options: Legend and Chaos, which is a kinder way of saying Baby Mode and Big-Kid Mode. Playing on Legend as Kisuke during my first runthrough proved disappointingly easy. I never died, never even took much damage, and I never had to employ much strategy. I just hacked and slashed my way to the end.
But the difference between Legend and Chaos is staggering. Playing on Chaos, dodge rolls and blocks and air dashes become a necessity for survival. Honestly, anyone with even a modicum of experience with side-scrolling action-RPGs (let alone other Vanillaware games) should opt for the Chaos difficulty. Legend is just too lacking in challenge, and that ease makes victory unrewarding—and the overall experience far too breezy.
But on Chaos, Muramasa Rebirth shines. Combat intensifies, and enemy engagements become a matter of strategy and management—keeping a close eye on a sword’s spiritual energy before it breaks (something that, on Chaos, could prove disastrous in the heat of battle)—over sheer brute strength. Where my Legend playthrough left me feeling underwhelmed, the earliest taste of Chaos left me feeling relieved and rightly justified about my initial impression of Rebirth.
Developer: Vanillaware • Publisher: Aksys Games • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 06.25.13