I wanted to like 'Muramasa: The Demon Blade,' but beyond frustration, and feeling like I was 'doing it wrong' when trying to forge new swords, I unfortunately felt very little else while playing this game

What's Hot: Looks fantastic; Terrific control scheme

What's Not: Confusing objectives; Overly difficult; Repetitive

Crispy Gamer Says: Try

When I was younger I answered phones for an investment firm on Madison Avenue. It was considered "European" to have a man answering phones. They actually said these words to me: "It's European to have a man answering our phones." I also served coffee during board meetings. Mostly I moped around and took Advil all day to stave off my hangovers.

There was another gamer in the office: Ramon. (Gamers can always sense each other.) Ramon was a junior something-or-other. He ate alone in his tiny office on the 36th floor every day, his Men's Warehouse tie swept over his shoulder so it wouldn't fall into his General Tso's chicken, which he always ate hurriedly, with his face so close to the food that his eyeglasses would fog over.

Ramon was obsessed with screenshots. He'd spend hours trolling IGN and GameSpy. "Just look at that!" he'd say incredulously, pointing at a screenshot for the PlayStation-era "Resident Evil" or the latest "Madden" installment. "I can't believe it!" Then he'd proceed to christen the screenshot with two words that would become the Ramon Seal of Approval: "AWESOME GRAPHICS."

I have Ramon to thank for my skepticism regarding "awesome graphics." Our medium's most unfortunate holy grail is its never-ending quest to make everything appear photorealistic. Example: Watching football and playing football are two very different things, and "Madden's" annual incremental journey toward looking exactly like a televised broadcast of football only takes it further (and further) away from being a true football experience.

Which brings me to "Muramasa: The Demon Blade," a videogame that has the courage to look exactly like a videogame.

How refreshing.

The game stars a pair of ninja named Momohime and Kisuke. At the start, you select your character: Momohime is the woman-girl and Kisuke is the man-boy. Both are clearly descended from a clan of people who all have eyes that are far too large for their onion-sized skulls.

You must choose your difficulty level: Muso or Shura. Muso is "Normal." Shura is "Hard." I began the game on Shura, but after a few hours of getting battered by monsters, I switched to Muso. "Muramasa" gives you no shame in switching to Muso, unlike "God of War" and its constant, mocking suggestions to "switch to the 'Easy' difficulty level."

The two ninja have their own abstract goals: Momohime has lost her soul and her body has been possessed by a demon; Kisuke has no memory of his past and must rediscover who he is. Their concrete goals, however, are almost identical: Fight tons of ninjas and monsters (and ninja-monsters, and ghost-things and creepy dudes with umbrellas -- more on these dudes later), gain experience points, beat bosses, level up, and forge new, more powerful swords.

"Muramasa," on paper, sounds a lot like a game you've played dozens of times before. But it's the game's stylish execution and spot-on controls that rescue it from being bargain-bin tripe. Everything is rendered in a very painterly two-dimensional fashion. It's good to see a 2-D game contently stay in 2-D, and have no three-dimensional aspirations. Yes, "Shadow Complex," I am looking at you.

The game world is divided into discrete panels, similar to the original "Metroid" games. For example, once you enter a "cave panel," you must trek from one end of the cave panel to the other. A red arrow marks the exit. And in case the meaning of the red arrow is lost on you, the word "GO" is also displayed.

Gameplay is paced similarly to a traditional role-playing game. While crossing a panel, enemies can attack at any moment. An exclamation point appears on-screen, along with a very dramatic double drumbeat. Dispatch enemies as quickly as possible. Once they're gone, a report card of sorts appears on-screen indicating how well you did and how long it took you to defeat the enemies, as well as providing a tally of the XP you earned. These exclamation-point/drumbeat attacks typically happen once or twice per panel.

There are no gratuitous controller-waving moments in the game. Hooray for that. The game defaults to a Nunchuk/Wii Remote control scheme, but it also supports the Classic controller and GameCube controller. (I played through the game using the default Nunchuk/Wii Remote scheme.) Early battles against a handful of enemies really show off the refined controls; you'll zip around the screen, dealing damage to enemies like a cat playing with a mouse. But later battles, when enemies begin to fill the screen, are less satisfying; they become exercises in crowd-thinning, button-mashing anarchy.

Three swords can be equipped at any given time. Blocking or using your Secret Art (a powerful attack; pull the B button-trigger on the Wii Remote) against enemies depletes your blade of Soul Power. Once all the Soul Power has been drained, the blade breaks -- the screen turns dark for a moment, and the sword-breaking animation rolls. Press the C button to switch to whatever sword happens to be next in your three-sword queue to continue the battle. Swords eventually "heal" themselves over time and become usable again. So, in a typical battle, by the time you've reached your third sword in your sword queue, your first sword is ready to be used again.

The key to success in the game is to level up and to be prepared. Leveling up is easy enough to accomplish. Keep getting into battles, and your level will rise quickly. Preparing for key battles, like boss fights or the dungeon-like Enemy Lairs, is a little more complicated. Making sure that you have plenty of health-recovery items, like Rice Balls and Recovery Pellets and Toad Oils, on hand is easy enough. But forging new swords is more obtuse than it should be.

I never really grasped the logic behind the sword-forging tree. I'd visit it every now and then. Sometimes I'd be able to forge a new sword. Sometimes I wasn't able to forge a new sword. More seasoned RPG players will probably be able to figure this thing out. But me, I was lost. (The instruction book is no help whatsoever.)

The game also requires plenty of tedious, fun-draining backtracking. You're often instructed to head in a certain direction -- a flashing arrow tells you where to go on the map -- only to eventually run smack into a magic wall that you cannot pass through yet, because you haven't met some other, often obscure, criteria.

Prepare to be frustrated.

I wanted to like "Muramasa: The Demon Blade," namely because I know Ramon -- wherever he is now -- would never give it his Awesome Graphics endorsement. But beyond frustration, and feeling like I was (to quote Gus Mastrapa) "doing it wrong" when trying to forge new swords, I unfortunately felt very little else while playing this game.

I ran into an old man on a country road during the game. He said: "It's not safe to walk outside at night alone. There are murderers around here. They carry an open umbrella even when it's dry, and they hop around on one leg! As people gape in wonder, they kill their victims with a rusty blade."

This moment gave me a glimpse of what I was looking for. If only the game had more of these creepy, shiver-inducing moments, I might have stuck around for a second playthrough, as the developers clearly intended me to, with Kisuke this time.

This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.

Article: Copyright © iHaveNet

Video Games: Muramasa: The Demon Blade - Wii

Article: Copyright © Tribune Media Services