Reviewed: March 28, 2005
Released: March 15, 2005
Back in 1998, when the gaming world was just beginning to recover from the earthquake that was Final Fantasy VII, the company then known as Squaresoft released a hideous little blob of a game called Brave Fencer Musashi. Sandwiched between FFVII and the forthcoming Final Fantasy VIII, it was a second-tier title that dealt with the "humorous" adventures of a whimsical fantasy version of Musashi Miyamoto, the historical samurai most famous for perfecting an extremely effective two-sword fighting technique. The real man would have been a bit angry if he had been alive to see the title.
Musashi's head looked like a giant flesh-colored lemon with black hair mounted sideways on a flimsy little body. He ran up long, straight pathways with little to offer in the way of exploration, hacking and slashing with reckless abandon, poor controls and only the flimsiest excuse for a plot. Square hawked its creation by calling it a revolutionary new type of game, the "action/RPG". Those of us who had played the Zelda or Square's own Mana games (as in "Secret of," etc.) weren't fooled. The only good reason to give it more than a look was the mouthwatering demo disc of Final Fantasy VIII included with the game.
Fast-forward to 2005, and the return of the "franchise" (as it must now, unfortunately, be called) with Square Enix's latest, Musashi: Samurai Legend. Stylish manga-shading and cartoony textures replace the somewhat disturbing polygonic blocks of the previous title, and the game's sense of humor is much more finely honed, as is its gameplay.
From the first chords of Dick Dale-esque surf guitar in the intro to the inevitable appearance of an actual surfboard near the end of the game, Musashi: Samurai Legend manages to do what the last Musashi game could not: maintain a light, silly tone throughout while actually being a solid game in its own right. The real Musashi still probably wouldn't be too happy with it, though.
It took me a while to get over the fact that there isn't really a serious moment anywhere in Musashi. The light and airy plot was almost too easy to understand, and so standard that I at first worried I was going to quickly become bored with it.
The evil Gandrake Corporation has developed an engine that runs on a magical material called nebulium, revolutionizing life across the globe with a cheap, powerful energy source. However, nebulium is notoriously difficult to work with. Gandrake needs the powers of the Mystics, a race of magic users, in order to successfully utilize their nebulium supply. The ultimate goal, of course, is the creation of a weapon that will allow Gandrake total world domination.
Not standard enough yet? Then add this into the mix: more specifically, Gandrake needs the powers of Mystic maidens, whose unmarried (and supposedly virginal) status grants them incredible powers. There are seven maidens - a princess, who is the most powerful, and six others who guard five elemental swords (one sword is guarded by twins). When Gandrake achieves the unthinkable and snatches the princess away, she summons a hero - any hero - from across time and space to rescue her and defeat Gandrake - luckily for her, she didn't nab Kratos (God of War).
Instead, none other than a youthful Musashi Miyamoto shows up, dressed in suspiciously modern garb (goggles and a turtleneck?) and ready to kick some Gandrake derriere. He has to do it anyway, to be able to return to his own feudal Japan. Musashi is a naive, wisecracking teenager with hair that must be seen to be believed. Obviously, this isn't the most serious game.
Musashi: Samurai Legend's silliness, though, is intentional, as is its pat storyline and cookie-cutter bad guys. The entire game - every last line, every last character - is one big send-up of RPG clichés in general. Amazingly enough, it works very well.
Rescued maidens who probably can walk just fine fall to their knees and request that Musashi carry them, resulting in a large number of missions with a young woman's arms wrapped around Musashi's neck as he returns the damsel to her home.
The Mystics' patriarch, Banon, is so caught up in tradition and routine that no matter how upset he becomes, he always greets the hero with the words, "Ah, Musashi!" - even when he jumps up from his desk with a desperate expression on his face and practically screams it. And the bad guys - Gandrake's Board of Directors - are so fascinated by Musashi that they occasionally forget he's the enemy. For a longtime RPG fan, seeing every clichéd premise turned neatly on its ear has a lot of appeal.
Of course, if Musashi: Samurai Legend wasn't any fun to play, it'd all be for naught. The game is an action/RPG, which means that the enemies appear right there on the screen and must be hacked away at in real time in order to be beaten. Of course, a legendary samurai is more than up to the task. Musashi fights his way through legions of enemies so endless they bring an FPS to mind.
Enemy AI is mostly pretty dull, though, and Musashi's swords are sharp. The game utilizes a simple weapon system - one button activates a weak but fast katana attack, while another swings one of Musashi's larger swords. A few basic moves are learned early on, including the indispensable basic five-hit combo, and a forward thrust move. Various special techniques can be mapped to a third button as they are learned, but Musashi can only use one at any given time.
The way all techniques in the game are learned is by targeting an enemy (or occasionally ally) and duplicating one of their moves. The duplication system is one of the most enjoyable things about playing Musashi: Samurai Legend. A focus gauge appears whenever Musashi has an enemy targeted. If that enemy has a learnable technique, the target over their body will glow blue. As the target is held, Musashi's focus gauge fills. When it's full, just wait for the correct move to be used on you and press a button to "catch" it and learn a new technique. Looking for more enemies to duplicate and watching Musashi's skill lists fill up was one of the most entertaining parts of Musashi: Samurai Legend, and it is also very important to beating the game.
The overall balance in Musashi: Samurai Legend is very nice. Only once did I have to go back and level up - usually, learning an effective new technique does the trick instead. The five elemental weapons are also important, unleashing powerful magic that can turn the tide of even the most difficult battle.
As usual, an MP gauge must be watched carefully when using spells and skills. Musashi's skill set is always growing to combat the tougher enemies he faces throughout the game, and each level gained makes a respectable, noticeable difference. The game still manages to be challenging, though I found some instances where the gauntlet leading up to the boss chamber was tougher to survive than the boss itself.
Still, a forgiving continue system and some cleverly designed levels usually mean you won't have to backtrack too far. Enemies drop orbs of health and magic power too, allowing a skillful player to trench through an entire dungeon without having to rest. The overall impression I got from the gameplay mechanics was that, control and move-wise, this is the game Kingdom Hearts should have been (Musashi even bears vague resemblance to Sora). It's light and easy, but challenging and with surprising depth as well.
Aside from the main game, there are a small number of side missions that can be engaged in. The most obvious of these is the rescue of Mystic townsfolk who locked themselves inside escape pods when Gandrake sacked their city and are now scattered all over the various locales of the game. The rewards for this quest are twofold, since many of the townsfolk are shopkeepers or specialists of some sort. In this way, a fighting arena can be unlocked with some serious (though hardly insurmountable) challenges, as well as an inventors' workshop that can take items found in treasure chests and synthesize them into sometimes-useful equipment. There's also a motorcycle mini-game that's almost identical to Final Fantasy VII's G-Bike game (except for the graphics, of course).
While all of this adds time to the game, most of it is also pretty fun. It's filler, but it's decent filler, and in the end, the entire game is kind of filler. It's not very serious, but it's well designed and should be equally entertaining to Kingdom Hearts' creepy otaku-girl crowd, and jaded RPG veterans looking for a laugh or two.
Well, there isn't much that's truly impressive going on in Musashi: Samurai Legend's graphics department. The opening sequence is a little anime video set to some groovy surf tunes. I like anime cinematics, but this one has sub-Yu-Gi-Oh! production, which means a slow framerate and almost nonexistent backgrounds.
Once the game gets going, the similarities to Kingdom Hearts really hit home. Everything has a magical cartoon look to it, detailed and pretty, but also unrealistic and whimsical. The levels have pretty jewel toned colors and lots of atmosphere, in a kids' movie sort of way.
Characters and enemies are cel shaded, but still solidly 3D. They're quite detailed, and Square Enix has used cel technology to their advantage to add that detail without creating visual clutter. Unfortunately, this detail doesn't carry over to inert items such as kitchen knives or food, which often have a level of detail on par with old sprite-based RPG’s like Star Ocean: The Second Story. This was only really noticeable a few times.
However, the character and enemy designs are somewhat lackluster. Most of the run-of-the-mill bad guys fall into one of three basic design categories, so strategy in the mid-game becomes a snap. Late in the game, a handful of new types are introduced, but none of them are drop-dead cool. And as far as the bosses go: How many action/RPG’s feature a giant crab, spider or lobster-type enemy with a single huge eye as its only vulnerability? Well, take that total and add Musashi: Samurai Legend to it. Come on, guys. I can only think of one truly innovative boss design from this game.
Characters are similarly run-of-the-mill. While Musashi certainly stands out among the citizens of Antheum (the Mystic city), the rest of the townsfolk are just not that exciting. There's nothing wrong with most of them (the nightmare-inducing entertainer Broccio excepted). But when a female swordswoman who bears strong resemblances to Paine from Square Enix's Final Fantasy X-2 makes you go "whoa, awesome!" when compared to the others, it becomes apparent that original design isn't the game's strong point. And what's with the hands? They're huge! Think the Shumi from FFVIII, or a Hypello from FFX. Sheesh. They're not too noticeable once the game gets going, though.
I've been mentioning this groovy surf music throughout my review, so here I must pause and send a "thanks" to Japanese surf-guitar prodigies the Surf Coasters for providing the song in question. The Surf Coasters, according to Musashi: Samurai Legend's website, have been playing their tunes for a decade now, and their lead man has been dubbed the "Prince of Surf Guitar" by Dick Dale himself, who is called the "King of Surf Guitar" (the theme from Pulp Fiction was his doing). I guess that makes the Prince's spiritual mother... Gidget? Or something. At any rate, the music fit the game perfectly and subtly helped to convey the light-heartedness that pervades every aspect of it.
Aside from that tune, which shows up at several points during the main game, the rest of the score is well-written stuff with undertones of Koji Kondo's work on the classic Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time. If you liked that game's music, you'll probably enjoy the music of Musashi: Samurai Legend, though it doesn't approach the same level of excellence by any means.
The only problem I have with Musashi: Samurai Legend's sound package is its voice acting. It's not unbearably awful, but it's pretty close. The main issue here is Musashi's voice. Ever heard of an annoying little CG cartoon called "The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius"? Yeah. Jimmy's voice... is Musashi's voice. If it's not the same person, then it's pretty darn close.
Not only does the voice not fit the character design at all, it suffers from the same problem all the other voices do: poor inflection. The wrong words are accented, like a bad junior high school play.
Combined with mismatched voices and stilted deliveries, I found myself desperately wishing that, as in Ys: The Ark of Napishtim, Musashi: Samurai Legend had some option for turning off the voices entirely. Unfortunately, there is no such luck. It's not enough to ruin the game, but it makes it harder to like.
When games like Devil May Cry 3 and God of War clock in at twelve or fifteen hours, they're considered a good value for the price. When games like Final Fantasy X and Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne clock in at over seventy hours, they're considered a good value as well. A lot of a game's intrinsic "value" hinges on the type of game it is, and Musashi: Samurai Legend is a hybrid of hack-n-slash action, platformer and RPG. So what to score it?
The entirety of this game can be experienced in just around 18-20 hours. It's hard for me to imagine anyone topping 25 without being either seriously in love with the game or seriously bored and strapped for cash.
During this time, Musashi will gain about twenty to twenty-two levels, each one with a different title. Titles serve no purpose except to entertain, and it's fun to see all of them. The standard level titles are things like "Samurai," "Ronin" or "Conqueror," coupled with a preceding word that gives some description of what Musashi's been up to. If he was using a particular elemental sword when he leveled up, he'll gain a title based on that sword's abilities.
Other times, something else affects the title. For example, not touching the controls for a few minutes will strap Musashi with the title "boring," whereas walking in on someone while she's changing her clothes nets him the "peeping" title. This is kind of fun, but doesn't add a whole lot to the overall value of the game.
And in the end, that's the story with all of the extra stuff Musashi: Samurai Legend has to offer. It's entertaining enough to want to experience most of it, but not enough to make the game seem very long, and not enough to really entice players to give the game a second spin. There's only one ending, which is standard but also not helpful to the game's replay value. Most of the value of Musashi: Samurai Legend comes from enjoying the game the first time through, completing it fully and watching the end credits roll knowing you've had a fun time fooling around with a game that doesn't take itself seriously enough to really be a landmark.
If Kingdom Hearts' battle system hadn't sucked, it might have played a lot like this game. Musashi: Samurai Legend has certainly exonerated itself from its underwhelming predecessor as well, and turned out to be a surprisingly enjoyable jab at the world of Japanese RPG’s in general. It's got some really engaging gameplay, surprising depth for an action/RPG and, if not a huge wealth of things to do, enough fun stuff to seek out and conquer that it's satisfying to finish it all off.
The graphics, while not on a level with some of the really innovative designs out there, are nonetheless sleek, stylish and fun to look at. And the soundtrack (bolstered by the icy-cool Surf Coasters) is pleasant, fun and at times downright pretty. Too bad the voice acting didn't follow suit.
All in all, I recommend Musashi: Samurai Legend to anyone who is looking for an engaging, moderately challenging satirical romp through the world of standard ingredients, as well as anyone looking for a game that's addictive enough to want to keep playing, but not so soul-consuming that it causes job loss and GPA lowering.
In other words, for anyone who wants a next-generation action/RPG. In much the same way that the new Ys game is a symbol of a bygone era of games, so Musashi: Samurai Legend is a fine example of the future of the genre. Oh, and you creepy Kingdom Hearts otaku girls? This one's for you, too, with its graphical similarities to that title and a leading man and villain who could both be summed up by the word "bishounen".
As long as you don't expect the next great gaming revolution, you should enjoy Musashi: Samurai Legend's marriage of humorous attitude and solid gameplay.