Version tested: Wii
We were first introduced to Muramasa: The Demon Blade - Oboromurumasa to its friends - at the Tokyo Game Show last year, where the demo charmed Oli so entirely that he melted into an appreciative puddle. As would be expected from the makers of Odin Sphere, it's unfathomably gorgeous, beautiful in a way that no modern game is. You can hardly blame us for being besotted.
A scrolling fighter presented in detailed, sharp and artistically resplendent 2D sprites and backgrounds, the TGS demo presented Oboromuramasa as a series of edited highlights, throwing you into battle with a representative selection of the game's striking, idiosyncratic enemies and bosses for barely a minute at a time, serving up a taste of various distinct and obscenely lush parallax-scrolling environments and departing with the promise of more.
Unfortunately, and with heartbreaking predictability, the game is more enticing in this form, where we barely get the chance to get to know it and can concentrate entirely on its incredible, unique beauty. In its extended form, it's easy to see that, like many beautiful things, Oboromuramasa is a little lacking in substance. There's still an awful lot to like, though, and many reasons to be joyful that Rising Star is giving European gamers the chance to experience it in spring next year.
Combat is accessible, simple and forgiving. Playing on the normal difficulty setting, the game leaves you to concentrate on building up whichever of the two main characters you choose to play with, and on expanding their arsenal of swords, enjoying the mere spectacle of battle in the meantime rather than the challenge. The A button controls nearly everything. Stabbing it results in a series of sword flourishes, holding it down guards against projectiles and attacks.
Flicking the control stick in a direction whilst holding down the A button causes you to either sweep across the screen, sending enemies into the air, or roll to evade, or perform a powerful downwards strike from the air. B unleashes a special attack, anything from a flurry of quick strikes to one massively powerful hit that can cut a swathe through a whole screen of enemies, depending on the sword you have equipped. There's no jump button - instead you leap into the air with an upwards flick of the control stick and can stay up there almost indefinitely by maintaining an aerial combo.
You have three swords equipped at once, and switch between them with the C button - doing so at the right moment activates a screen-wide special attack - and each sword has its own health bar that recharges when it's not in use. General use wears it down, but it's blocking and special moves that really eat up your sword's durability. Needing to switch between swords gives a real rhythm to battle. It's all about aerial combat and combos, sweeping across the screen in a flurry of strikes.
The combat, however - enjoyable and visually spectacular though it is - feels imprecise. The game barely ever challenges you on the normal difficulty setting, instead letting you slice enemies up unperturbed, and as a result it gets repetitive after that first breathless, impressive half-hour or so. The next difficulty up is more technical, and the next after that more technical still - it unlocks upon completion, and limits your health to 1 hit point for the duration - but this isn't the hardcore 2D action game that its sprites and Japanese looks might suggest.
The two different characters, too, control exactly the same, and there's not that much to distinguish their play styles. The swords, of which there are hundreds, are meant to provide variety, but even here there are only two distinct types - the faster tachi and more ponderous odachi. It's not enough to hold your interest for more than an hour or two at a time, and there's no real complexity to the battle system. More distinct playable characters, or more of them, might have made Oboromurumasa as impressive a side-scrolling fighter as it is beautiful.
After each combat situation a screen pops up briefly with a few statistics, just like Okami, and your character sheathes their weapon and runs through to the next area. The levels are sequences of 20 or 30 separate stages, with occasional branching paths leading to doors that might be opened later, or combat bonus stages. It's not an entirely linear game - the story often sends you back to areas you've already visited to unlock previously inaccessible segments.
The stages themselves are unfeasibly good-looking - all gently falling cherry blossoms and bamboo forests that stretch back into infinity, choppy waves rolling across the screen in stop-motion or a sea of Edo-period rooftops in twilight. It's the detail that's truly astounding: the pale moon seeping through charcoal clouds to illuminate a copse of trees, or the silhouettes of people behind their paper screen-doors as you run through a village.
The world is populated by enemies and NPCs suffused with character in their design and animation. The whole thing is crafted with beguiling detail - the way that main character Momohime occasionally glances out towards you from under hooded eyes as she runs, for instance, or the visible glee with which the bosses unleash their attacks, or the entirely lovable eating animations when you visit a little restaurant and order something to eat.
It's just a shame that you sometimes have to run through the same places six or seven times as you make your way through the game's story. Pressing Z brings up a map that clearly indicates wherever you need to go, so you rarely end up lost, but that doesn't stop you from having to backtrack through most of a level that you've already played once or twice, defeating enemies you've fought far too many times. The environments, for all their splendour, repeat themselves rather a lot between levels, and you're less impressed every time you wander through.
It's at least impossible to criticise Oboromuramasa for being overly long in the way that Odin Sphere was. This isn't a plot-based adventure, so while the cut-scenes and voice acting are as high-standard presentation-wise as the rest of the game, the story is largely irrelevant, and certainly not drawn out. The game is over within 10 hours. There's extra longevity if you play through again with the other character or on other difficulty settings, and a few alternative endings to tempt you into doing so, but realistically most people who buy Oboromuramasa will probably find themselves content after one play-through. It's not really long enough to start to get on your nerves.
Oboromuramasa is shallow, rather simple and relatively short-lived, but nonetheless wonderful in its way. As a piece of visual videogame art it's at the very peak of the medium's achievements, along with Okami and Odin Sphere, and it's crafted with such obvious, loving care and attention to detail that it's impossible not to like. If only its combat were as precise and considered as the faultless presentation, this might be an enduring love rather than a fleeting but indisputably beautiful affair.
7 / 10