Most of Muramasa: The Demon Blade is set in Japan, laid out on a map based on the provinces of its feudal period. In one act, however, the possessed princess Momohime jumps down a well in Kyoto (Yamashiro) and finds herself in a fiery underworld populated by demons. Although the game is suffused with elements from Japanese myth and folklore, this drop into a completely fantastic area represents a substantial break from the rest of the game’s semi-historical motif. It represents a break in other ways as well, few of them good. Muramasa‘s episode in hell creates player frustration in almost every phase, to the detriment of one the game’s most memorable sequences.
The stages set in hell involve a marked increase in difficulty. Most of the monsters encountered in this area are trivial little imps that have been seen all game and can be disposed of with a few strikes. Because they can launch projectile attacks if left alone, the best approach to deal with them is unbridled aggression. In the hell stages, however, these imps are accompanied by one or two hulking monsters that are very tough to kill. Not only do these oni take a great deal more damage, they also have an expanded arsenal of attacks that do significant damage to Momohime, and more importantly to her swords. Because a broken sword makes the player essentially incapable of offense or defense, these encounters can rapidly become very dangerous, and the player will spend much more time dodging attacks than is typical for a random encounter. Although the oni are vulnerable at every spot, fighting them requires a consideration for angle of attack and tactical retreat that goes beyond that needed for many of the game’s bosses.
This is not an intrinsically bad thing, because the boss of this area, the Big Oni, also imposes tactical requirements that make it quite different from the preceding bosses in the game. It would have been clever to set the stage for this fight by making the oni enemies in the field have similar vulnerabilities and attacks to the big boss so that the player would be trained for the boss fight by the more ordinary encounters. Unfortunately, the oni from random encounters have only the slightest resemblance to the Big Oni in their attacks, and no similarities in vulnerability. So although they are in many ways much tougher to fight than the boss, the player takes nothing useful away from these encounters.
Irritatingly, the increased difficulty of these particular monsters does not seem to acknowledged in the experience yield from the battle. In Muramasa, the primary determinant of experience reward appears to be the monster level, which is in turn set by the player’s level. This careless approach to the difficulty/reward dynamic is a characteristic flaw of Japanese RPGs, though not by any means confined to them. As Denis pointed out to me, the asymmetry between difficulty and reward appears in some Western RPGs as well. The foes introduced in Fallout 3‘s Broken Steel, for instance, give similar experience to their lower-level brethren, despite the steep increase in difficulty. At any rate, it’s not unexpected to see this in Muramasa, though it is irritating, and it points to a larger issue I’ll get into with my general critique later this week. Here, it merely accentuates the frustration of dealing with the more difficult enemies in the field, and helps turn the trip through hell, one of the least visually interesting areas in the game, into an annoying slog.
This means that the player arrives to the boss battle frustrated or even angry, which is a shame because the battle with the Big Oni is a really clever and interesting fight. The stage for combat is set by a pitch-perfect scene where Momohime convinces the Big Oni to swallow her whole, in classic trickster-hero style. The first phase of the battle then involves cutting your way out of the monster’s belly, a classic epic trope that would in most other games have been played off as a cutscene. The main battle requires Momohime to attack the monster’s horns, evoking the famous Japanese myth of Momotarō. Absent the cultural context, however, this resonance, and the accompanying hint about how to attack the Big Oni, are missing.
This again can easily become frustrating, because the target area on Big Oni is just large enough to be hit occasionally by attacking his body. Because every previous boss in the game is vulnerable at more or less every visible spot, the player might not even think this limitation on Big Oni is possible. Training the player to attack the horns with the randomly encountered oni would have been an ideal solution to this problem. Alternately, Vanillaware could have elected to have only the horns or head flash in response to damage, or to have shown the horns cracking and breaking as the battle progresses. However, the developers, being familiar with the myths about oni, simply might not have thought about how to convey that information to a Western audience. So, another possibility would be for the localization team to slip a hint into the dialogue boxes somewhere.
The journey into hell displays a set of outright mistakes and lost opportunities. Although the difficulty of this section is out of line with the rest of the game, the level of challenge is appropriate to the area being entered. However, because that challenge is not rewarded, what was merely tough becomes frustrating. The strategic requirements for dealing with the oni foes also break with the rest of the game, but it could have been used to prepare the player for a new wrinkle in the upcoming boss. Instead, the demons are dealt with using totally disjoint approaches: raw aggression for the smallest, careful dodging for their larger brethren, and targeted attack for the boss. That makes what could have been Muramasa‘s most striking and epic section into a frustrating and ultimately tedious slog.