When you release a game like Muramasa: The Demon Blade there's a danger of putting yourself between a rock and a hard place. The rock appears when you pump so much artistry into a game's visual style that flaws are actively sought in the game beneath. There must be something wrong if a disproportionate amount of energy has been lavished on the game's looks, people think. The hard place is the substance that provides the game's foundation - it might be too solid, almost impenetrable to those not prepared to work for their enjoyment. There's a concern then that a game so obviously and immediately drop dead gorgeous as Muramasa is bound to fall over in some way.
As far as Vanillaware is concerned, these things are trifling. It couldn't care less about what is expected from games that look like Muramasa, because it doesn't have a deficiency in its game design department that needs to be hidden by dazzling graphics. This is a meaty game, with the accent on action with deeper RPG elements.
Vanillaware has somehow managed to make a game which sticks a rocket up your bottom at the beginning and, cleverly, provides enough fuel throughout the rest of the game to keep the pace, and interest levels, cranked right up.
At the outset you've the choice of starting as the nimble ninja princess Momohime or the hulking amnesiac Kisuke, each pursuing a slightly different story through identical environments. If you were to empty a bottle of turpentine over the game you'd have (discounting a foul smelling short-circuited Wii) a side-scrolling slasher in which you smash enemies, collect new demon swords and unlock colour-coded barriers with those corresponding blades. Simplistic in theory, yet even disregarding the odd repeated enemy and samey battle, the action is so thick and fast that it simply doesn't have a chance to grow stale.
Even the controls are deceptively uncomplicated. You have two commands: move and slash, nothing more. The analogue thumbstick controls jumping, double-jumping, crouching and gliding, as well as running left and right. The A button handles your sword slinging, a series of rhythmic double taps unleashing a flurry of metallic streaks across the screen. Combine this with a different movement and a number of parries, counters and powerful assaults can be called upon.
The combat system is easy to get to grips with and provides you with the oomph to power you through the levels. In only an hour's play we'd soared to about a level 14, giving us the ability to wield blades three or four times as powerful as the ones we'd started out with. Far from being too rewarding, this was the result of some genuinely thumb-cramping swordplay and a finely-weighted difficulty curve which arches according to the work we put into the game. The looming spectre of button mashing is banished thanks to a score card that appears at the end of every encounter, awarding cash bonuses depending on how well you did in battle. Use the same tactic again and again and you'll be marked down. Happily, the developers have refrained from cramming in needless motion controls too.
The game hinges on you collecting soul and spirit, and this is the element that gives Muramasa its RPG bent. Soul is left behind by enemies or scattered through levels. You'll need it to create more powerful blades from a staggeringly complex tree of swords, though there's also a spirit requirement as well. This is gleaned from scoffing your face at the food shacks you run across. So as well as simple levelling-up, back-tracking and spilling more and more enemy blood also gives you the soul needed for yet more potent weaponry. You'll even be able to buy recipes to make your own food, providing you with the spirit to combine with that soul. Take a look at the panel to the left for a more in-depth look at this feature. Unfortunately this back-tracking aspect is where the game is let down. With no discernible hub area and objectives that seesaw from one side of the large map to the other, having to run back on yourself again and again does become something of a chore, albeit one offset by luscious artwork and constant rewards.
Vanillaware has even partly solved it by offering a rickshaw to run you around more quickly, but this is too rare to be much use. In a game full of subtlety and common sense (it warns you you're about to come up against a boss, for instance), it's an odd mistake to make.
Even so, criticising Muramasa for this is tantamount to slapping David Attenborough for carping on about frog mating rituals. Best to enjoy it for what it is: a relentless romp that's as breathless as it is beautiful.