Soukou Akki Muramasa, also known as Full Metal Daemon Muramasa, has a bit of a reputation in the eroge scene. Written by Narahara Ittetsu (Hanachirasu) and developed/published by Nitroplus, Muramasa is considered by many to be one of the greatest greats of its genre, a work that stands as a shining example of complex, meaningful storytelling through the medium of visual novels. It’s a game that tackles powerful themes and proceeds to explore them in breathtaking detail with the help of a large cast of multifaceted characters; Narahara’s tale is one of politics and warfare, justice and vengeance, sin and penitence – and it’s the kind of eye-opener everyone needs to experience at least once.
This is a work that excites me and ignites my passion in ways few other things can, and if I’m able to convey at least a tiny fraction of that excitement through this post, I will have succeeded in what I set out to do.
Confession time: I’ve actually been meaning to post something Muramasa-related ever since I finished my complete re-read of the novel last summer, but every time I opened up WordPress and typed up a paragraph or two, I looked at what I’d just written, let out what I can only describe as a dissatisfied grunt, deleted the entire thing and went on to do other things. In other words, to say this post is long-overdue would be a colossal understatement. But with the 10th anniversary of the VN’s release fast approaching (and with Nitroplus itself having just turned 20 years old earlier this month), I figured now would probably be the best time to briefly return to the world and characters Narahara so masterfully created and discuss, as well as celebrate, all the things that make Soukou Akki Muramasa an outstanding piece of fiction worthy of the highest accolades.
Fascinatingly enough, and without any sort of exaggeration, I could pretty much sum up the entire novel for you with a single phrase. Or more specifically, with four kanji characters. I don’t want to reveal what it is here, but suffice to say that everything comes down to that singular idea, that one core tenet. Part of Muramasa’s beauty lies in how it takes that idea and explores it with the kind of relentless tenacity that’s seldom seen elsewhere. And it does not hold back at all. It does not shy away from saying what it needs to say or showing what it needs to show. This level of commitment is nothing if not admirable, and once you finish the entire novel, with its meaty common route and three gargantuan heroine chapters – each of which could stand on its own as a separate visual novel – it’s hard not to be in awe of just how much Narahara poured into this thing. And although the VN’s core messages transcend its own narrative context and individual characters, the story it ultimately tells is both undeniably personal and deeply moving.
Honestly – and I realize this is probably going to be a bold statement – I consider Muramasa to be the perfect visual novel. Period. I’ve yet to encounter another VN where everything coalesces as perfectly as it does in Muramasa; it’s almost like this massive melting pot made up of a myriad different things, yet without any unsavory side effects that would tarnish the impact of its themes. Everything is there for a reason, everything is a cogwheel in this grand machine, and every element of the story works in concord to realize Narahara’s vision, creating one of the most complete and thematically consistent VNs I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. What’s more, it also lends itself very nicely to repeated readings, as knowing the characters’ complex backstories and motivations in advance will make you appreciate all the subtle ways in which Narahara sets the stage for what is to come later.
In terms of setting, Muramasa takes place in an alternate post-WWII Japan where fantastical elements have been injected into what you may know from the history books, essentially creating an alternate timeline that resembles ours, but is nonetheless very, very different in numerous, significant ways. If you’ve played the Shadow Hearts series, it’s a bit like that, except in a Japanese setting and with flying cyber samurai warriors. And that brings me to my next point. The most notable difference in Muramasa’s world is the existence – and predominance – of supernatural suits of armor called Tsurugi (劔冑), and the so-called Musha (武者) who wield/wear them. The lore surrounding them is explained in detail in the game itself so I won’t dwell on it too much, but if I wanted to put it in layman’s terms, I’d say they’re like talking samurai mechas with a consciousness of their own. What’s also really interesting about them is that they’re normally used to fight in the air and there’s even like a whole artistry to mastering this unique form of aerial combat, with its own rules and requirements and what have you. Yes, you heard me right. FLYING MECHA SAMURAI SWORDFIGHTING. Like, with special moves and shit. It’s insane. You’ll love it. Probably. Anyway, it’s also worth noting that Tsurugi are forged through the blacksmith sacrificing their own life in order to infuse themselves into the armor, thus becoming an immortal Tsurugi. Mass-produced Tsurugi (数打劔冑) also exist and in their case, no sacrifice is necessary, but these are obviously inferior in power to those forged the traditional way (真打劔冑).
Narahara cuts no corners whatsoever when explaining the intricacies of his world: be it through literal history classes, political discussions between Shogunate leaders, or the protagonist outright lecturing his frustratingly inexperienced opponent on the basics of Tsurugi combat, Muramasa does everything it can to completely immerse you into its fascinating universe. And that’s not even mentioning the highly detailed background art, the absolutely gorgeous character sprites, or the moody, somber soundtrack and stellar writing. This is a game that goes so in-depth with its shit that it even teaches you about the exact area on a blade that is considered the most effective for cutting down an opponent, and includes a katana duel that consists of the MC and another person literally standing still and staring each other down for God knows how long as the former mentally cycles through all the potential strategies he could use to overcome his opponent. Oh, and Tsurugi battles are often shown from a first-person perspective and you sort of see the “cockpit” around you while flying around in the air, which is super cool. Anyway, I’m starting to ramble. You get the idea. The bottom line is that you could practically cut this VN’s atmosphere with a knife and its rich setting / 世界観 is one of the best I’ve ever seen in eroge.
Similarly worthy of note is how the game doesn’t constantly wallow in angst, despite its often pitch-black tone. Muramasa is certainly more than just mindless popcorn entertainment, but it’s not doom and gloom all the time, either. It finds a perfect balance between the serious and the comical, weaving just enough humor into some of its scenes to give the reader quick breathers between all the dramatic and outright tragic things happening non-stop in the narrative. To put things into perspective, Muramasa has some of the funniest gags I’ve seen in a visual novel, but it’s also a game that came dangerously close to actually, legitimately making me break down in tears. Yes, I’m talking about the final scene of Maou-hen, for those of you in the know.
Back to the history lesson. At the start of the game, the Rokuhara Shogunate keeps the island of Japan (Yamato) under its tyrannical control, having previously betrayed the country during the war in order to curry favor with the Western superpowers. In exchange for selling out their homeland, the occupying forces of the GHQ allow the Rokuhara to do as they please and function as the de facto rulers of the land. There’s more to it than that, of course, and political machinations driven by hidden agendas do indeed make up a decent chunk of the storyline, but I’m trying my best to tiptoe around spoilers here.
Amidst all this, the Ginseigou (銀星号), a mysterious Tsurugi clad in silver armor soars across the skies of Yamato, leaving senseless, indiscriminate violence and mountains of corpses in its wake – no one knows the Ginseigou’s true intentions, but the mayhem it unleashes ends up drawing the attention of the Shogunate and the GHQ alike, resulting in both factions viewing it as an unknown threat that needs to be dealt with. This is where the VN’s protagonist, Minato Kageaki, comes into the picture as a man whose sole mission seems to be stopping the Ginseigou at all costs; to accomplish this, Kageaki wields the titular Muramasa, a crimson Tsurugi whose bloodline has gained notoriety over the years for reasons that are explained later in the storyline. This is about all I can reveal without delving into spoiler territory too much, but trust me when I say that there’s a LOT more to Muramasa than what you’ve just read in this post. It’s seriously mind-numbing. So much stuff happens in the plot and its routes – to say nothing of the game’s dense lore and world-building – and the characters grow and evolve to such an extent that going back to the first chapter after having finished the true route will feel like revisiting your old high school as an adult who’s already graduated college, started working a full-time job and had two divorces. Weird analogy, I know, but still.
Kageaki, by the way, is a terrific VN protagonist, and his development throughout this monster of a novel is nothing short of brilliant. He’s careful and practical. He struggles, hesitates, makes mistakes and even retreats when needed. And although the years spent chasing after the Ginseigou have made him somewhat more hardened than the average Joe Shmoe (plus, he does also have a solid grasp of Tsurugi warfare), he’s by no means a master tactician or an ultra-overpowered MC with plot armor as thick as a rhino’s hide. In short, he’s endlessly relatable, which makes his subsequent development all the more compelling and tragic.
He’s very much an everyman when you first meet him: polite, considerate, and with a strong sense of justice. But the cruel circumstances of his past and present send his life spiraling out of control; the sheer amount of emotional trauma this man endures throughout the storyline is just fucking insane, and he carries a burden so monumental that I doubt any of us would want to be in his place. Much of the game is spent witnessing Kageaki trying to make the best of the shitty hand he’s been dealt, but he’s trapped in a seemingly never-ending cycle of violence in a world where the line between good and evil is blurred. This is in large part related to his complicated relationship with Muramasa (the friendly neighborhood mecha spider/super special dark elf wifey), which is honestly among the most fascinating aspects of the game: if you enjoy seeing an initially reluctant pair go through absolute hell together and slowly but surely begin to view each other as actual human beings, you’ll love what this VN has to offer. It’s by no means a love story, mind you, but rather a tale of two individuals sharing the same burden and forging a powerful bond as they try to overcome it (which has always been my preferred way of tackling eroge romance, by the way). The way they finally manage to accept and understand each other in the early parts of the true route is excellently done and sets the tone for the rest of the chapter; Muramasa’s unyielding loyalty, strength of character and kindness of heart have all earned her the title of Best Eroge Heroine as far as I’m concerned. I JUST LOVE HER SO MUCH I COULD EXPLODE.
Aside from being a fantastic examination of numerous larger-than-life themes, Muramasa’s characters – including many of its “villains” – all have a believable, human side to them that makes the cast insanely endearing and memorable. Sure, there will be people you’ll love to hate, but even then, there’s no clear black and white here, only varying shades of gray. And while the true route serves to complete Kageaki’s journey, the two other heroine routes, belonging to Ayane Ichijou and Ootori Kanae, are not to be neglected, either. They’re by no means throwaway side stories, and are thoroughly integral to fully understanding what makes these characters tick, both on their own and in the context of the larger overarching narrative. What’s also important to remember is that you don’t even necessarily have to agree with their ideals: there’s more than enough room left for readers to draw their own conclusions regarding what they wish to believe in and which character, if any, they feel is justified in their actions.
In Kanae’s story, what I find the most interesting is actually Kageaki’s relationship with the concepts of sin and punishment – let’s just say that his fascination with Kanae ties into this, and results in the route really going in a different direction compared to what you’d normally expect from a story utilizing this theme. I guess that’s the best way I can describe it without actually spoiling the contents of the route, lol. As for Ichijou, I absolutely adore her route and the way the VN tackles her personal development. She’s a character who abhors injustice to the point of viewing it as a disease to be exterminated, and strives to always do what she feels is right: to help the downtrodden, to stand up against tyranny even in the face of overwhelming odds, and to live her life righteously, 真っ直ぐに. Which is admirable, and even Kageaki finds it enviable, something worth cherishing. However, it soon becomes apparent that the age-old saying is true, and that the road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions. I also love the metaphor with her always getting lost due to her terrible sense of directions, and how she’s told to always keep going in a straight line (真っ直ぐ), just like her name implies: the final scene of her route’s epilogue is frankly one of the most beautifully executed scenes in the VN, in my opinion.
So, after everything you’ve just read, you could rightfully ask the question: if Muramasa is so incredible, why doesn’t it get more recognition in the western VN scene? Well… the unfortunate state of affairs is that it doesn’t currently have an English version. (Update: It does now!) The game has been given excellent ratings – both on VNDB and EGS – by most people who’ve completed it and you’ll rarely find anyone who doesn’t talk about it in superlatives, but it’s also an immensely long read that can take anywhere between 60 to 80 hours to finish. It’s so worth it, though. I’ll have to repeat myself here a bit, but try to imagine Muramasa as a VN somewhat similar in tone to Hanachirasu, but with everything cranked up to 11 and expanded upon in mind-blowing ways. And now imagine that on an epic scale and with a cast so large and colorful you could fill up three other separate VNs with them. If Hanachirasu was a rough diamond, Muramasa is the complete necklace, adorned with perfectly chiseled jewels. If there was a literature class dedicated to VNs, this would top the reading list.
If you enjoy dark, powerfully written stories that challenge you, if you want to experience a complex emotional journey through the eyes of an unconventional anti-hero protagonist, if you want to see what the visual novel medium is truly capable of, and last but not least, if you want to find out why I can’t ever shut up about this VN… well, in that case, do consider giving Soukou Akki Muramasa a chance. I can only hope it’ll come to mean as much to you as it does to me.