Dragon’s Crown vs. Muramasa: The Demon Blade: The Importance Of Comparison And Why Games Are Already Art

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At what point does comparison cease to be a valuable and revealing undertaking, and instead take a nasty turn for the destructive? Though many might argue that endless analogizing of videogames (or any variety of art for that matter) can often result in needless bickering or altercation, I would venture to say that the near-exact opposite is true. The insight that results from direct comparison — be it a Disqus flame-war or an intelligent discourse amongst peers — is not needless, but essential. It’s how we judge art, it’s how we decipher what’s good, bad, ugly, or beautiful, and most importantly, it’s how a medium moves forward. If someone were raised in a cave and then asked to play and critique Dragon’s Crown, where would they begin? It would be impossible to assess its quality.

Yes, whether you intentionally compare or not, your brain is subconsciously pitting every game you’ve ever played against every other, performing complex analyses, and storing the results as criteria for how you will judge whatever comes next. The idea of not doing this is quite far-fetched, if you think about it – so I say we embrace it.

Vanillaware is a developer who has always understood the value of aesthetic beauty and arresting visual style in videogames, and each original release of theirs seems to push the visual envelope to new and strikingly provocative heights. The “painting-in-motion” cliche the developer is so-often associated with is really just the tip of the iceberg (as anyone who has seen their games in motion will tell you), and the things they’ve been able to achieve in recent times by splicing classic beat-em-up styles with bona fide, hand-drawn 2D thaumaturgy is nothing short of– well, pretty damn amazing and beautiful art-in-motion, that’s what.

So then – in the spirit of comparison, betterment, and good old-fashioned verbal dispute, I’ll be pitting Dragon’s Crown and Muramasa: The Demon Blade against each other in a devastating battle towards a final conclusion. Which game is better, point for point? I love them both, and actually don’t yet know what I’ll ultimately come up with as I write this. It will be a journey of discovery, a labor of passion, and most of all, an exercise in uncontrolled anger paroxysms as we all disagree with each other. Well, we can at least try to leave out that last part.

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Story

Muramasa: The Demon Blade

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Neither Dragon’s Crown nor Muramasa will be nabbing a “best screenplay” award any time soon, but to take these tales at their mere face value is to rob them of much of their charm. Though the writing is enjoyable enough in both games, it’s the way the stories are presented that really sets Vanillaware’s offerings apart from the pack.

Muramasa’s narrative centers around two main characters: the young princess Momohime, and the amnesiac ninja-boy Kisuke. Both possess separate, 6-7 hour storylines complete with unique bosses, and oftentimes different NPCs to chat with as well. The two tales are very different from one another, but the stark contrast comes off as refreshing rather than jarring. After experiencing Kisuke’s heartbreaking tale of sacrifice in the name of love, Momohime’s more fantastical adventure of possession and eventual transformation strikes the right chords at the right time. I actually prefer her tale to Kisuke’s, and the events of Momohime’s plotline mixed with the overall beauty of the artstyle, her potent girlish charm, and a nice deviation from standard story archs cement it as my favorite short-but-sweet videogame story of this generation.

Dragon’s Crown

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One of Dragon’s Crown’s obvious advantages in the story department comes from its unique, fairytale-style method of relaying plot information. But does that boost its story to the top of the heap? Well, the answer is… yes. But also no.

Dragon’s Crown’s main delivery technique when it comes to storytelling is via a broad-voiced storybook narrator, not unlike the narrator found in a game like Bastion. The effect is twofold – the story is granted an air of authenticity that wouldn’t otherwise be possible without big-budget cinematics or voice performances, and that is a definite plus. The Lord of the Rings vibe is strong with this one, and the feelings the story instills as a result of this direction are much appreciated. Everything you do feels epic, and that’s exactly what the game wants.

There’s a downside to this, though, and the technique proves to be a bit of a double-edged sword over time. Though everything that happens is bolstered to a certain bare-minimum level interestingness, true emotional peaks are not really possible via a narrator alone. Now, I’m not saying the game tried for this and failed – it’s definitely aware of what it is, and content with what it’s done. Dragon’s Crown is a game where you create your own protagonists, after all, and considering the need to keep story references to the player-character vague, the game’s plot does end up a reasonably impressive one.

Advantage: Muramasa: The Demon Blade

It’s a tough call, and I definitely love getting up close and personal with the sprawling, monstrous beings that are Dragon’s Crown’s characters. The wizard Lucain staring into the pit of my soul is unlike anything I’ve ever really experienced. That said, Muramasa effectively played at my emotions and did so in style, and for that I have to give it the edge.

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Gameplay

Dragon’s Crown

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Though both Vanillaware efforts in question could arguably be lumped under the measureless 2D-brawler umbrella, doing so cheats both games of much nuanced game design and general uniqueness. In fact, after playing each for a few dozen hours it’s hard to imagine confusing their gameplay styles or general play structure at all.

The main surface-level differentiator, of course, is the fact that Dragon’s Crown is a multiplayer game. A dungeon-crawler through and through, DC is less about having a sizable, pervasive world to explore and more about raiding and plundering every last ruin, temple, shipwreck, cave, and haunted castle for as much priceless treasure as a courageous band of heroes can reasonably carry. That is, zillions of dollars worth.

The linear framework will appeal to some and disappoint others, but is made up for in spades with combat. At first I was unsure – beginning as a Fighter, it honestly felt a lot like Muramasa, but less intuitive. It only took a few hours before that notion was utterly dashed, though, because the amount of gear and combat skills you can obtain is overwhelming, to the point that your character, his appearance, and his combat style begin to actually reflect the preferences and tastes of the player. My Fighter, Walhart, is absolutely nothing like a ninja or samurai now – he’s an overly-puissant brute who can sustain a shocking amount of physical damage, wields a badass, shoulder-high engraved escutcheon, and grunts like Barry Bonds after a ‘roid injection. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s actually him under all the heavy armor.

That much combat depth, combined with ample room to develop your own play style via skills and your own look via gear, is Dragon Crown’s greatest strength. For me, it was more than enough to offset the formulaic and admittedly slightly dull hub world and general method of shuttling the player from dungeon to dungeon. The kicker, of course, is that there are six different classes, so you can reinvent yourself from the ground up many times over if you so choose. Players who actually take the time to master all six will get more out of Dragon’s Crown than anyone else.

Muramasa: The Demon Blade

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Though less rife with endless RPG-like customization and levelling, Muramasa manages to be compelling in a different way entirely. Gameplay can essentially be broken down into two main components – combat, and world traversal. Though it may seem odd to list “traversal” as a gameplay mechanic, it is so integral to the Muramasa experience that it’s hard to imagine Vanillaware cutting down on it without negatively affecting immersion levels, even if backtracking is a minor inconvenience at times. But we’ll save that for the final section.

Muramasa’s combat, despite being far less strategic or skill-based than that of Dragon’s Crown, is in many ways a more refined and fluidic experience because of it. After a brief tutorial and the requisite button-mashing phase to follow, you soon realize that the key to combat success centers around a mastery (or at least pseudo-competency) of various Demon Blades and their special abilities. Aside from learning the difference between how long and short blades handle, the player needs to develop familiarity with each blade’s special attack. These specials can range from firing projectiles to essentially turning your character into a spinning chainsaw of death, so experimenting with actually integrating them into your manner of play ends up being a blast. Beyond that, each blade has a Soul Gauge that depletes when it takes damage or performs special moves, and if a blade breaks it’s rendered useless for a while. It’s a lot to juggle, but when you finally nail the balance and slay a horde of ninjas who ambushed you just moments before and emerge without a scratch, it feels pretty incredible.

Beyond the fighting and exploration (which I’ll discuss later), Muramasa is trimmed with little gameplay quirks throughout that break up the main attraction and lend astonishing amounts of charm to the experience and the world in which it takes place. Throughout your journey you can stop off at local restaurants and buy food, which is shown in great detail and actually requires a button-press or two to slowly devour. It’d be a stretch to even call it a minigame, but it’s a way for the player to engage outside of combat, and it’s effective. Visiting the hot springs, talking with non-essential but lively NPCs, and strategizing which Demon Blade to buy next all pepper the experience in similar ways.

Advantage: Tie

It’s too close to call on the gameplay front, folks. The gap between the two games in this area is more personal preference than anything else, and since both games execute so well, there’s no clear winner. On to round three!

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Visuals & Immersion

Muramasa: The Demon Blade

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It’s no secret that looks are often the main attraction with Vanillaware; the company knows how to whip up a good game, make no mistake, but in the end there’s something truly unique and eye-grabbing to their games from which people can’t look away. That something is, of course, the gorgeous, painterly 2D graphics and animation that populate the worlds of both Muramasa and Dragon’s Crown.

Now, there’s definitely an argument to be made that the aforementioned visual flair is more crucial to the experience of the former than the latter, and it’s an argument I fall pretty much fully in line with. In Muramasa, the visuals are the game. Not in the sense that gameplay doesn’t stand on its own (it definitely does), but rather that the vast, pervasive world that Muramasa offers feels so incredibly alive as it is, that adorning it with the visual finesse of exquisite art has a way of jolting the entire adventure fully to life. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – Muramasa is the only game I’ve ever played where simply running is one of the most satisfying things the player can do. As in, tilting the joystick left or right. Some reviewers felt the game contained too much backtracking, but for me I threw a little party with each passing fetch quest or tour through the countryside – just watching your characters fly through the game’s lush and varied environment’s is a real sight to behold.

As mentioned, the world itself is pervasive — much like the 2D open worlds of Metroid – and thus even though you can technically only move left or right, and the game tells you which direction you ought to choose, Muramasa possesses an illusion of open-world exploration that is thoroughly convincing. Whether I’m simply tilting a stick in a direction is irrelevant – as long as it feels as though I’m scampering down the countryside, infiltrating a ninja hideout, or even just stopping roadside for some dumplings, then that’s all the convincing I need. Bliss is bliss, and with videogames I don’t care how it’s delivered to me.

Dragon’s Crown

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That’s a tough act to follow… and the fact is, though Dragon’s Crown is a gorgeous game, the visuals don’t quite enhance the experience in such drastic fashion as they do in Muramasa. This could certainly be seen as a positive depending on your perspective — a game with mechanics this rock-solid could have stick-figure graphics and still be fun — but all said and done the visuals in Dragon’s Crown are just a stylized and highly elaborate bonus. This in no way means I don’t appreciate them, though.

The art style in Dragon’s Crown has garnered a lot of flac (or praise, depending who you ask) for its generously-endowed Sorceress avatar, but the fact is that if you take the time to look around the game as a whole, almost every character you meet has some feature taken to an exaggerated or almost grotesque extreme. Once you wrap your mind around this, it’s not difficult to appreciate what Vanillaware had in mind, and you’ll even find yourself getting a sort of curious, unusual pleasure from eyeballing many of the characters in the game. It’s not a perverted pleasure, either – the effect ranges from the scantily-clad to the ancient and imposing, and the game’s characters feel so much larger than life that it’s almost overwhelming. Odds are it’s unlike anything you’ve seen before.

The visuals are nice out in the field as well, though they don’t necessarily grant as much enhancement to dungeon crawling as they do to plot segments. This is partly because of the multiplayer nature of the game – as good as the story is, you’re either playing with your friend sitting next to you or with somebody online, and in either case you’re making real-world interactions every minute. I’m not about to start promoting Dragon’s Crown PVE role-playing parties or anything, but these are the facts all the same. Though dungeons themselves look nice, and come off as mysterious and foreboding when they need to be, there are less moments that are truly beautiful. There’s nothing wrong with that, but in Muramasa you get the sense that what the game achieves could not have been done any other way. With Dragon’s Crown, you ogle at the awesomely grotesque characters and dark, whimsical world, but once you’re finally treasure hunting it’s easy to imagine a more conventional presentation style being just as effective.

Advantage: Muramasa: The Demon Blade

What else can I say? I left it all on the table in the above descriptions. Muramasa absolutely nails its visual style, and this leads directly into the enhancement of an already-immersive world, bringing it to dream-like levels. If you zone out at your TV to this game, the rest of your surroundings just melt away. Dragon’s Crown has its truly gorgeous moments, such as the pop-up-book map screen and spookily divine music that comes with it, but in the end Muramasa does something quite special that is hard to top or match.

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Extra Thoughts and Wrap-up

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If you’ve been keeping score at home, then that would mean that the blue ribbon goes to — ding ding ding — Muramasa: The Demon Blade! Congrats to Dragon’s Crown as well – both games are remarkable in that they are impactful enough to spur such extended analysis.

Just like the end of any lengthy debate, discourse, or even comment-section brawl, there’s the awkward “what now?” moment when it comes to a close. So, what now? Nothing, that’s what. Nothing now. Discussion for the sake of discussion is enough. If videogames want to make the jump to being seen as an art form (which, for all intents and purposes, it seems the industry as whole would very much like), people need to start embracing this ideology. We spend years of our lives comparing great novels in school, don’t we? What about that ten page paper you wrote on David Lynch films? There’s no reason why this article couldn’t be some kid’s final paper his senior year of high school, and it wouldn’t have to be a gaming class either. That’s how close we are – the industry just needs that one final push.

What do you think? Whatever it is, share it – it can be about the games in this article, or the feasibility of the above example, or anything you want. Challenge yourself to think about videogames in a light akin to how society views a great painting, or a classic novel, or a musical masterpiece. And once you do, start talking about it. There’s no doubt that videogames are headed toward their critical mass, and eventually, widespread societal acceptance. Whether we get there in five years or twenty-five is entirely up to us. So do your part!

Or, if I’m just an overblown optimist who somehow found a soapbox to stand on, feel free to go full flame-war and defend your Vanillaware game of choice to the death. As fun as it is to dream about where our beloved industry may go, I love it for what it is now, too. If it never ever changes, I might be a little disappointed, yes. But I don’t think there’s a thing in the world that would ever make me leave.

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  • Nick Motrich

    Dragon’s Crown is the clear winner in terms of gameplay. Muramasa padded its play time with very mundane, forced backtracking (necessary not only to make it from point to point, but to collect the blade forging currency of souls); the aesthetic thrill of looking at the countryside only issues for so long. Dragon’s Crown has none of these gaping lows in it’s pacing. Moreover, there is a distinct level of customization in Dragon’s Crown that allows you to play the way you want to play, compared to the de facto, hierarchical nature of Muramasa’s customization where a select few weapons are viable by endgame (of which Muramasa has all of 3-5 hours of, excluding the B and C endings).

    Also, the controls prior to Rebirth were sloppy where they shouldn’t be; during combat. The lack of a dedicated jump or dodge button made basic movement difficult, even after 10 hours of gameplay. While the cursor function in DC takes getting used to and is sometimes cumbersome during MP, this doesn’t affect the core controls of combat.

    You also have more to do in Dragons Crown in terms of replay value; 6 different, distinct characters, a 99 floor randomized dungeon of escalating difficulty, and to a much lesser extent, pvp. With 200 hours in, I still find the game compelling and fun. To say it falls under personal preference in one category, but then make definitive statements about the visuals or story, feels inconsistent. Before Dragon’s Crown, I’d be skeptical of anyone who said Vanillaware games had gameplay mechanics that were anything more than solid or ok; it was always the aesthetics compelling you forward, especially in Muramasa’s case.

    Visuals are a tie in my eyes. I think the lens by which you viewed the purpose of the visuals (to support the narrative and bring you into the world) poisons the well for Dragon’s Crown, since it’s narrative is flimsy and inconsequential (marginally more so than Muramasa). Muramasa has a charming aesthetic that exuded a Japanese fairytale, but as a matter of technical achievement and pure artistry, Dragon’s Crown is almost unequivocally better in that regard. There is more than one standard by which visuals are evaluated, and if you only abide by one of them, either game would be deemed superior.

    While Dragon’s Crown is my personal favorite (mostly because Muramasa’s story, despite being central, was just as forgettable, and DC has for the first time achieved compelling gameplay for the developer) if I was evaluating the game by these categories, it would end up being a tie. I think Odin Sphere would be a better challenge for Dragon’s Crown than Muramasa.