Vanillaware doesn’t develop video games as much as they create interactive works of bewitchingly eye-popping art. Each one of their efforts is a painstakingly constructed moving portrait that makes games that may be gunning for a more realistic graphical approach appear comparatively mundane. Two thousand and nine’s Muramasa: The Demon Blade, a Wii exclusive, was no exception to this established pattern of visual majesty. However, when weighed against the company’s prior near-masterpiece, 2007’s Odin Sphere, it seemed to be lacking in depth of gameplay, often relying too much on tedious hack-and-slash mechanics to progress its Shogun-era-set tale of evil swords and interwoven fates. Muramasa Rebirth brings the fantastical journey of possessed princess Momohime and amnesia-stricken ninja Kisuke to the PlayStation Vita, faithfully upholding the quality of its predecessor’s comely aesthetics, yet falls short of thoroughly correcting many of the problems that halted it from being held in the same high regard as the remainder of Vanillaware’s virtually spotless output.
Muramasa Rebirth can stand alongside Gravity Rush and Guacamelee! as one of the best-looking games the system has to offer, its character designs and backdrops are never less than jaw-droppingly divine. Yet, where those soon-to-be-classic titles thrive because of their rock-solid innovations, Muramasa Rebirth occasionally falters as a portable port because of its refusal to use the Vita’s technological capabilities for anything other than enhancing things strictly on a superficial level. As with the Wii version, Momohime and Kisuke have no differentiating core abilities, essentially being controlled very similarly; their backtracking-filled quests are basically rearranged mirror images with the only variation being climactic boss battles and the content of text windows. That being said, the new dialogue translations presented in Muramasa Rebirth trump the original by a fair margin; the fresh localization renders the twin narratives decidedly more coherent, fleshing out the personalities of the lead protagonists with both dark humor and a weightier emotional tone.
Combat was the biggest issue with Muramasa: The Demon Blade, and Muramasa Rebirth doesn’t make much of an attempt to change that. While the first few hours of artful, exquisite enemy-slaying may be a delight, the steady monotony of grunt foes in combination with the limited nature of attack repertoires becomes bothersome by the time switching over to another character is necessary. Sure, you can craft stronger weapons along the way, but there isn’t enough defined contrast between katanas to really make an impact on the outcome of crucial altercations. Doubling back through previously cleared areas to move on to the next is still a sporadic aggravation, which could have been fixed with the addition of quick-travel, but Vanillaware, uncharacteristically, opted not to go the extra mile here. Thankfully, every inch of Muramasa Rebirth is a pleasure to look at. Whether it be dashing through shadowy forests, lush fields, or serene snowscapes, the attention to detail is never less than momentous, single-handedly warranting a playthrough even for Muramasa veterans.
The inclusion of four DLC characters, each with their own separate storylines, is a nice touch, but having to pay for newness that should have already been added to the game in the first place could be viewed as nothing but a wily cash-grab. Yes, Muramasa Rebirth, with all its HD magnificence, is undeniably the definitive rendition of Muramasa, but the cost for such beauty seems to be a lack of advancement in the gameplay department. Even with this minor bump in the road, Vanillaware’s reputation remains intact, and the upcoming eagerly anticipated release of Dragon’s Crown is sure to be met with much fanfare, erasing the need for second thoughts about how great Muramasa Rebirth could be had it been carefully repainted and waxed rather than extensively spit-shined.