Murasaki Baby is a unique specimen of a game. When I first heard about and got a chance to play it at E3 this past summer, I was both intrigued by its unconventional style and mechanics as well as a little wary of how its control scheme might cause some problems. Now that I’ve played through the final product, I can say that both of these thoughts were valid. The way Murasaki Baby plays will undoubtedly cause some frustrating moments for gamers, but at the same time, there are enough creative and original mechanics here that it’s still worth looking into.
The plot of the game is very basic. Your intro is a brief scene of the main character, a child named Baby, waking up from her bed and attempting to find her mother. After that, things immediately take a more episodic fashion, as the four levels that make up the game have unique environments, gameplay mechanics, and characters. While you’ll hear plenty of vocal utterances from Baby and the people she meets in her travels, the only actual word is when Baby occasionally shouts out, “Mommy?” to remind players of what her end goal is. The game still gradually gives out the history of each new character through illustrations, but anyone hoping for a more traditionally presented plot might not be fond of how this one plays out.
Even ignoring the way its story is presented, basically every aspect of Murasaki Baby is completely unorthodox. The environments and characters all have an odd filter on them similar to shading a drawing with a pencil, and everyone – including Baby herself – has huge, sunken eyes and an upside-down mouth of crooked teeth resting on their foreheads.
It’s bizarre, for sure, but one accomplishment the developers pulled off very well is how Baby still manages to come off as a cute and pitiable character. She never does anything malicious, visibly relies on the player to guide and help her, and shows some good emotions despite her bizarre design and limited vocabulary. This is very fitting, considering the game is more of an emotional journey than a traditional one, and making the character you spend the most time with endearing becomes more important as a result.
The game also throws away traditional conventions in terms of how you actually play it. Baby is not directly controlled with the analog sticks or D-pad. Instead, the game relies on both the Vita’s touch screen and rear touch panel. The front screen is used for players to tug on Baby’s arm and guide her forward, as well as interact with certain environmental objects.
Where things get really interesting is how the back panel is utilized. As players proceed through each level, they’ll encounter characters holding balloons of various colors. Popping them with the front screen will result in a new background for the level, which can be chosen by swiping the back left or right. While the default background you start with generally has no effect, the others definitely do, ranging from wind or rain to appear, altering the actual layout of a level, and providing different ways for Baby to stay safe or progress past certain obstacles. Every level has a completely different set of backgrounds, helping to keep the gameplay fresh and make each chapter a unique experience. It’s a neat idea that’s mostly pulled off well.
I say mostly because, despite the originality of the game’s control scheme, the touch-based gameplay sometimes results in moments of frustration. There are several moments that require you to precisely and quickly guide Baby while switching between backgrounds, and I never quite felt that the precision necessary to make the experience seamless was really there. Additional factors, like the constant requirement that the balloon Baby always carries can’t be popped, can result in moments where you have to use two fingers on the screen to carry out simultaneous tasks. It can be difficult to quickly switch between or activate backgrounds, as well.
As a result, there are many moments that I doubt players will succeed at without a few retries to figure out the proper actions for each part. While lives are thankfully infinite, the respawn checkpoints can feel a little far apart from each other sometimes, so I often found myself having to repeat a longer portion of the game than what felt necessary.
The upside to all this is that when you put all its elements together, there is really nothing else like Murasaki Baby, and I mean that in a positive way. It’s a game that I find practically impossible to categorize in a single genre, and few games bear any resemblance to its visual style. It’s generally worth slogging through the more frustrating moments, because when the mechanics click, they provide some very impressive and satisfying moments.
Also worth mentioning is the game’s soundtrack. While generally sparse to provide a more desolate atmosphere, the moments that the score kicks in are very appropriately timed, and result in some of the most engaging and even emotional moments of the whole thing. Considering that veteran game composer Akira Yamaoka, who produced some of the most memorable tracks from the Silent Hill series, helped collaborate to the soundtrack makes sense, because it knows when to kick in and when to keep quiet.
There are still a few overall quibbles that should be brought up, though. Despite costing $15 to download, the game will probably take three to four hours for most players to finish. There’s no incentive to immediately replay it, either, as it’s a linear journey with no side goals or items to find. I was reminded of last year’s Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, which boasted a similar length and price tag, but that title’s unique controls and mechanics presented less frustration, and the impact of its final act personally justified the price for me.
That’s another aspect that Murasaki Baby doesn’t handle well. Though the story is certainly sparse, when I realized the final moments were approaching, I hoped for some sort of proper conclusion or at least some emotional resonance. Instead, the final moments set things up to make you believe that something interesting will happen, but then you get an abrupt and rather vague twist of sorts, followed by an immediate cut to credits. While I think I understand what Baby’s last actions are supposed to mean, it didn’t feel as impactful to me as I think the developers intended.
Murasaki Baby is certainly a mixed bag of a game. Though I’ve gone into detail about its shortcomings, there are other aspects and specific moments that are pulled off brilliantly. As far as a recommendation goes for Vita owners, I’d say that if the style and mechanics intrigue you, it’s a game worth looking into. If you frown at touch controls or minimal storytelling, you may have a less enjoyable experience. This appears to be the first title from new developer Ovosonico, and if they put a similar effort into their next project while addressing some of this game’s flaws, it could definitely result in something truly special.
This review is based on the PS Vita exclusive.