Saturday, August 17

Muramasa Rebirth Review (PSV): Let's play a painting (a fucking rad painting)

With your PlayStation 4s and Xbox Ones around the corner, photorealistic graphics are going to be what every developer and their Call of Duty dog strives for. The two-dimensional sidescroller will soon solely become the domain of indie developers. Not that I don't appreciate their work, more that your average publisher won't want any part of a niche market comprised of a small set of customers yearning for experiences from a bygone age.

Enter Muramasa Rebirth, a remake of the (previously) Wii exclusive, Muramasa: The Demon Blade. I never played the 2009 home console release, but I have read enough songs of praise for Vanillaware's beat 'em up to make the idea of importing the handheld iteration sound like an acceptable course of action. Let's face it: at this point, importing any new retail release for the Vita sounds like a plan because new releases for Sony's fledgling portable are rarer than hens' teeth, and publishers aren't exactly breaking their backs to get their games to Australia. I can understand why, mind you; but still, the game's showing a release date of "TBC 2013" on the EBGames' website and our friends across various ponds have been playing it for two to five months now!

Oh yeah, the game! Let's talk about that, rather than the business of releasing games Down Under.

I loved this game. Loved it. I can fully understand if someone didn't want to give it time to see the time of day or wanted it to burn in a fire though.

For one, it's mighty repetitive. When you're not mashing the square button for minutes on end, it's more than likely that you'll notice some familiar scenery. The two campaigns play from and to opposite sides of Genroku era Japan to attempt to break up the monotony, but save for a few enemy types that are unique to each, there are a lot of common experiences spread across 10 hours plus.

Secondly, it's repetitive. Save for one boss fight that takes the concept of "verticality" and turns it up to 11, you'll have seen all the different types of combat scenarios the game has to offer after about two hours of play. So, that means shitloads of lengthy boss fights, hundreds of often frustrating exchanges between high flying enemies, and just generally bashing shit until it falls over. If you're looking for "surprise" in the conventional videogame sense of the word, there is no turret sequence and you can't jump in a vehicle to "freshen up" the experience. This is a beat 'em up: you will beat shit up on a 2 dimensional plane. That is it.

It's a good thing then that bashing shit up in Muramasa Rebirth happens to be somewhat enjoyable. The range of attacks that both Momohime and Kisuke have at their disposable are varied, and generally have your chosen character darting from one side of the battlefield to the other with a flurry of strikes. Some of the more open arenas lead to some particularly satisfying battles where you can string attacks together and climb from tree to tree (or cliff to cliff), leaving bodies above, below and to the side of you. There are some slight RPG elements at play here, but none of the special, blade-specific Secret Arts will greatly affect how you play (on the standard difficulty setting, at least).

I probably should've mentioned this earlier, but this has to be one of the best-looking games on the Vita. Hell, it's one of the most visually-arresting games I've played this year. Anything from the most fearsome demon to serene shorelines are rendered by hand, and the animation quality is top-notch. The game's visuals are reminiscent of a kakejiku that's come alive. The greatest joy in this game comes from running through a vibrant Japan and catching Momohime and Kisuke's wry glance at you mid-flight: it's hauntingly beautiful.

The boss fights probably wouldn't be anywhere near as memorable -- and in some cases, bearable -- were it not for Murama Rebirth's memorable artistic direction. Some of these encounters encourage movement and require enough skill and timing so as to be satisfying, but the vast majority require you to a) mash the fuck out of the square button and b) push the analogue stick to the right. Sometimes, ten minutes of bashing your sword against a wall would seem a challenge if not for the fact the game is so easy on the eyes.

There are some other quibbles, like the finnicky positioning required to start a conversation with NPCs, the apparent ignorance of the developers regarding the Vita's touch interface (and how that could've remedied the aforementioned issue), and two difficulty settings that allow for either careless play or require judicious use of resources (where's my happy medium?), but they don't detract enough from Muramasa Rebirth's gorgeous veneer to warrant further discussion. I'm sure that most will appreciate it's beauty, however, I'm less convinced that all could see its charm. If you don't mind playing with one less dimension and have an itch for some swordplay, I'd recommend this without hesitation.