JP title: 装甲悪鬼村正
Soukou Akki Muramasa, written by Narahara Ittetsu of Hanachirasu fame, was a VN released back in 2009 by popular VN company Nitroplus, known for their fairly dark visual novels (a well-known example being Saya no Uta). And honestly, Muramasa is probably their very best title to date; a true crowning achievement of the medium.
Note: The review lightly alludes to the main themes of the VN, so if you’d prefer to go into it completely blind, well… you know. Don’t read on.
So, what actually makes this VN so damn good? Well, it does feature a richly-detailed alternate Japan in the first half of the 20th century, made complete with supernatural suits of armor known as Tsurugi; an era of turbulence, cruelty and political uncertainty, with constant tension between the tyrannical Rokuhara Shogunate, as well as the GHQ (Western powers); and finally, a large cast of main and side characters, each of them fleshed out and given their proper time to shine. There are political machinations and quite a bit of infodumping. There are secret societies and supernatural beings. And there’s no lack in wacky humor, either. It really is a novel with a bit of everything, which should come as no surprise considering its massive scope. In fact, so much happens in this I could be here all day just trying to list it, so I won’t even try. But really, what resonates the most with readers of Muramasa, I think, is the primary theme (or themes) explored throughout the story.
Optimally, I would recommend just going into the VN with no prior knowledge — once you see the final scene of Chapter 1, you’ll instantly understand just what kind of a ride you’ve signed up for. Needless to say, Nitro+ is extremely good at trolling their own readers, and then casting them into a sea of pitch black despair. Forget the rules that govern most other VNs. The motto of the game declares: This is not the story of a hero. This is a VN designed to make heroic souls lose hope. To force those gallant enough to believe in justice quiver in fear. In short, a dark, twisted story dealing with very simple, but very heavy questions. What does it mean to wield a blade and kill a man? What is the concept of justice? Of good and evil? If we wish to break it down, it really is quite a simple story, but the VN explores it in such great detail that it just becomes a beast of its own. This is very much a Nitro+ tale, so if you’re expecting a happy-go-lucky, feel good adventure, this will not be your kind of game.
There is, however, an extremely slow buildup to the various endings of the game; in fact, the first few common chapters might feel tremendously dull and boring to some. That’s one of the major flaws of the VN, really. The lengthy mecha fight scenes, similarly, might split readers as well. I wasn’t a massive fan of them, personally (with few exceptions), but that’s just me. The story itself really does take quite bit to get going, and even during its heroine-centric routes, it sometimes drags quite heavily with occasional pacing issues. As such, it’s definitely not gonna be everyone’s cup of tea, I think. However, I think it’s worth pressing on — Muramasa is one of those games that get better and better in retrospect, the more you think about it.
There are three routes in total, each designed to showcase the specific mentality/ideal of a given heroine (heroism, revenge and the True Route unlocking after the others are completed), and how the protagonist, Minato Kageaki, responds to and deals with them, all while being forced to tread on vastly different paths and meet with different characters in each route — the actual order of the routes (Ichijou/Kanae first, and then Muramasa’s True End) also holds a significance, symbolizing Kageaki’s own personal development; in order to fully appreciate the True route, you have to be aware of what he had experienced in the other two. Romance is hardly the point of the routes, or the heroines themselves (and many of the H-scenes are unavoidable rape, so there’s that, too).
The VN, and I’ve said this before, is also one extremely long emotional journey for Kageaki, whose inner struggles and doubts are what shape the various arcs of the game: his character development, from the moment he first appears on-screen until the very final shot of the True End, is more or less at the core of Muramasa. This isn’t necessarily the kind of game where you’ll be constantly surprised by amazing twists that you couldn’t see coming (there are a few holy shit moments though). Sure, there are some pretty cool revelations here and there, but overall, the VN, if we really need to simplify it, is mostly about discovery; the slow but steady acceptance of the very grim motto shown at the beginning. It’s just as much a journey for Kageaki, as it is for the reader.
And to *all* of this comes the other main plot line, which, albeit being very much connected to the first, is about something entirely different. By this I mean the case of the mysterious Silver Star, the white Tsurugi that Kageaki vehemently chases across the land, hell-bent on stopping it at all costs. What is the Silver Star and why does it fly across the land of Yamato, wreaking havoc wherever it goes? And how does Kageaki himself come into the picture? Once again, at its core, this is a very simple problem as well that basically sheds light on Kageaki’s dark past, but the more you find out about its origins and all the twisted circumstances that led to it, the more interesting it all becomes, culminating in a really moving finale and a subsequent, near-cathartic (but nonetheless tremendously bittersweet) epilogue that truly makes Kageaki’s character development complete and finished, with a certain sense of closure (but still leaving room for more, as evidenced by the fandisc sequel).
The characters themselves are all memorable, even the lesser side characters/antagonists. Kageaki himself, along with his partner, the female mecha spider, Muramasa, make one hell of a main pair — their rocky relationship is what makes the True route that much more fascinating, and especially satisfying by the time you reach the end. And since this comes up so often, yes, Muramasa is also the female “dark elf” you might see on various illustrations alongside the game (screenshot below). That’s what she used to look like before she became a mechanical spider/Tsurugi. How she become that is another story entirely and I leave it up to you to find out by reading the VN. She’s by far the most interesting of the main heroines (for me personally), displaying a very strong sense of duty, loyalty towards Kageaki, but also providing much needed comic relief and some of the game’s very few semi-romantic moments. She’s basically a strong, serious female character that nonetheless does have a more emotional, kinda-sorta tsundere side to her that is just really fun to watch. Despite all that she is, and everything her very existence stands for (which I can’t explain due to spoilers), she does have her heart in the right place, and it’s really hard not to come to care about her. Best girl in the history of best girls, basically.
The other two heroines are Ootori Kanae, a well-mannered woman at the GHQ with a peculiar sense of humor, who comes in contact with Kageaki quite early on in the story, but -naturally- holds a dark secret or two of her own; and Ayane Ichijou, the purple-haired high schooler who believes in justice above all else. The ending to Ichijou’s route is considered by many to be one of the most epic things that happen in Muramasa, by the way. While I personally find Kanae’s route the weakest of the three (I like her as a character, but her chapter was the least exciting IMO), Ichijou’s route, on the other hand, is one hell of a story arc, and also serves a very important role in making Kageaki discover who he is and what he was born to do. This also comes back in Muramasa’s route, so I almost consider the two to be somewhat of a pair. Oh, and there’s one more female character who plays such an important role in Muramasa’s route that it might as well be her route as well… but her identity is one of the game’s earlier surprises, so I’ll not spoil it. Needless to say, she’s a terrific character, and is easily on par with Muramasa herself in terms of being insanely memorable and unique, while also being a very tragic heroine overall.
One more character worthy of noting is Ashikaga Chachamaru, a cheeky and upbeat young girl who’s also one of the leading figures of the Rokuhara Shogunate. She does provide much of the comic relief, but she is by no means an insignificant character: her goals remain a mystery for the longest time, but nonetheless, she’s an important enough character to actually have her own mini-ending of sorts. Oh, and her occasional bickering with Muramasa in the true route is pretty hilarious.
In short, while Muramasa does have its hiccups, with certain bits and chapters that I personally found not that riveting (and depending on your tolerance for politics and infodumps, this might be a larger issue), if you do endure those and are sufficiently receptive to the kind of story it wishes to tell (not everyone might be), you will be well rewarded. It’s a dark, thought-provoking rollercoaster of an adventure that effectively deconstructs and challenges some of the established tropes regarding valiant heroes, focusing on the darker, bloodier side of what it means to wield arms and wage wars, all the while offering a variety of other content, including betrayals, twisted love, clashing ideals and a cast of fleshed-out, memorable characters.