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We'll be honest, we've seen much better holiday line-ups than this year's. Seemingly every major release is getting delayed on other consoles, and although Nintendo has some good-looking games ready for winter, New Super Mario Bros. Wii has so far left us a tad disappointed (and let's just ignore Wii Fit Plus). But the silver lining on this gloomy Xmas is that some titles that were previously under the radar now have a chance to shine in the empty spotlight. And after playing the nearly complete Muramasa: The Demon Blade, we think this action-RPG hybrid has a chance to slash its way to the top.
In our time with it, we played through a level as Momohime, one of the game’s two heroes. Her story intersects with that of Kisuke - the other protagonist - but you play separate campaigns as each. Momohime is a young samurai princess who carries a possessed sword and is off to kill the gods the sword-inhabiting demon wants finished off. We took over early-ish in her westward travels as she searches for a god in some snowy mountains, fighting monsters and ninjas along the way.
What's most immediately striking about the game is its hand-drawn, 2D graphics. Just like its sister game, the critical PS2 darling Odin Sphere, Muramasa shows that with the proper time and care, sprite graphics can keep up with modern games, even without the retro-charm. Characters move beautifully, whether drawing their swords or having a conversation, like art come to life. And the backgrounds keep up as well, with diverse settings like empty fields, snow-capped mountains or raging oceans, to name a few.
After we became accustomed to seeing it in action, we got into our first fight. Momohime can only draw her sword when enemies are near - it has something to do with the demon cursing the blade - so it worked like random encounters in an RPG, as a squad of ninjas would just show up out of the blue and she'd draw her sword, Toshiro Mifune-style.
The battles were pretty fast-paced, as we had to balance pulling off combos with using healing items, all while learning the patterns of our attackers. Once the fight was over, we collected our experience points and items and went on our way, prepared for the next scuffle. The fights came in two flavors: the unavoidable ones in which the camera was stuck in a fixed position, and the optional ones that we could get away from, as we avoided the enemies and ran for the exit. The combination of twitch-heavy combat and side-scrolling platforming made Muramasa feel a bit more on the "action" side of the action-RPG genre.