Musashi: Samurai Legend

Looking back on trends from the past can be a fun little exercise. Even when you lived through them and have firsthand experience with them, they can feel like a distant relic from another world. Such was my experience with Musashi: Samurai Legend. Even at the time, it would have been clear what a transparent marketing ploy this was on Square’s part. But the eleven year gap between its release and today has given me enough distance to evaluate this game with greater critical clarity, and to look at it as more than a vehicle for some media property.

This isn’t good news for the game, though. When I started to look past all the flashy surface elements, I found a game that can only reproduce what other people think is cool. It can’t grasp why people consider these trends cool, and thus can’t offer them any real substance. Beyond its surface understanding of trends lies an incoherent mess of an experience.

gsdx_20151122145241Normally, this would be the place for the reviewer to summarize the game’s story. However, I think the game summarizes itself better in its first minutes than I ever could. Between the sharp angles, heavily inked lines, energetic animation, facial expressions that feel pasted on, surf music, and the edgy protagonist, it’s clear how much this game’s design relies on popular trends from the time. In some ways, that acts as an interesting historical footnote. For as willing as the game is to reference tropes surrounding anime production (the genre just then starting to become popular outside Japan), it’s not quite as willing to reference anime narrative tropes (which wouldn’t have been that familiar to American audiences).

In many other ways, though, Musashi’s predilection for coolness structures the game to the point where it does more harm than good. For example, in what ways does the game challenge and question the titular character? Because as far as I can tell, it never does. Musashi’s represented as a perfect person whose flaws the game either quickly dismisses or never brings up in the first place. This is exactly what the game wants. Musashi never interrogates its own assumptions because doing so would run counter to its goals. Even if those questions didn’t puncture its hero fantasy, they would bring Musashi closer to a relatable human, which isn’t the game’s goal. Rather, its goal is to sell the Musashi brand, which requires depicting Musashi as an ideal person; something the player would want to strive to become.

And for that to happen, every part of the game’s design must work toward that specific end. That’s why the story is relatively simple: because the game doesn’t need a complex narrative to achieve its purpose. And that’s why this simple story is riddled with flaws like a readiness to damsel any girl the titular hero encounters, a character who amounts to little more than a racist Chinese caricature, and a lack of any coherent plot. Those flaws either don’t detract from Musashi’s character (meaning the game doesn’t have to pay any attention to them), or they actually bolster it.

gsdx_20151113135127What I find really strange about the game, though, is the anti-corporate stance the narrative takes. After all, it’s the foundation for every conflict in the story: small groups against the larger collective; individuality against the faceless crowd; nature versus machinery; tradition versus modernity. Within the bounds of the story itself, these conflicts make some amount of sense. But on a larger scale, it’s easy to see how this anti-corporatism puts the game in conflict with itself. Musashi can’t be the game to criticize corporate excess, as its existence is a by-product of that very excess. True, you could say that about a lot of video games. At a certain point, corporations are going to be the only groups with the capital and manpower needed to make a game of this size. But judging by how vigorously Musashi promotes coolness, its problems extend past its mode of production and into what that end product represents. Every concept the game grounds itself in was born out of a corporate desire for profit rather than artistic exploration. So no matter how credible the game’s arguments are, to hear them coming from something like this feels disingenuous on the game’s part.

The gameplay is fraught with similar tensions. If I had to describe what kind of game Musashi is, I’d peg it as a more combat-oriented take on Zelda. The game puts a real emphasis on its combat, giving you a wide variety of sword moves to play around with and asking that you use them wisely in encounter after encounter. And all the while, you’re exploring vibrant locales like forests, mountains, volcanoes, etc. Why, though? What’s the glue that joins these disparate parts into a cohesive whole? As far as I can tell, it’s branding. The thought process seems to be, “If an idea’s cool, then it’s included in the game.” That’s why Musashi’s walys riding vehicles, like motorcycles or surf boards. That’s also why the game sends you to different locations and asks you to collect so many trinkets: because that’s what people expected from 3D platformers, a genre that was still considered “cool” at the time.

Unfortunately, the game’s fixation with selling the Musashi brand prevents it from meaningfully engaging with any of its structures. So preoccupied is the game with the idea of what you’re doing that when I stopped for a second to ask myself if what I was doing had actual substance, I couldn’t find an answer. The game assumes I already have one, or that Musashi is such an appealing character that his devil-may-care personality can carry the entire game. These answers proved insufficient, though, and the more I looked at the game, the more I realized just how little it understands its own inner workings. Sure, it can replicate other games just fine, but only on the surface. Deeper down, I found there was nothing for me to do other than repeat whatever instructions the game gave me. No wonder that it feels so unfocused, scatterbrained, and empty, bereft of any character.

gsdx_20151118164008Just so we have something to ground these criticisms in, let’s consider the exploration as an example. In this regard, Musashi follows the Zelda template perfectly. You explore an area, get a new tool, and then use that to explore newer areas. What makes this formula work in Zelda games is that these tools force you to look at the world in new and exciting ways. They put you and the game in conversation with one another, the game recontextualizing familiar features while you try to figure out what these new meanings entail. Musashi, on the other hand, can only dictate what you’re allowed to do. There are no new meanings to unearth. Your abilities either negate environmental features (shoes that let you walk on water, a double jump to get past high ledges) or slot into those features so easily that there was only ever the one meaning to read from them. And because the game presents these abilities to you as little more than tools, using them doesn’t carry any sort of intrinsic joy. All that’s left for you is to fill in whatever blanks the game provides.

The combat suffers similar problems. For as much as it emphasizes the player’s skill, I didn’t encounter enough opportunities to exercise said skill. Enemies behave predictably, and bosses operate on easily spotted and easily read patterns. Perhaps unsurprisingly, fighting the various ninja and monsters the game throws your feels more like following a set of instructions than it does engaging with the game as a person. Part of me thinks this is an intentional part of the game’s design: provide the player with the illusion of danger rather than its reality. Convince them Musashi can handle anything the world throws at him, but never expose him to any real risk.

That would certainly explain my muddy thoughts on duplication, perhaps the one meaningful structure in the game. The premise behind this is simple: Musashi can only learn new moves by watching enemies use them on him. Yet because each enemy possesses several moves (any one of which could be the one Musashi can actually learn), figuring out new moves from enemies proves to be a dangerous process. On one level, duplication gives me some space to insert myself into the game. No longer can I thoughtlessly reproduce the same behavior again and again. Now I have to pay attention, observe what signals the game is sending me, and decide which will give me what I want. In short, I have to actively engage myself with the game. And on another level, duplication complicates the game’s hero narrative by emphasizing vulnerability over raw power. It asks you to give up some power now so you can gain more of it later, but at no point does it promise you that power. Now each fight carries with it real danger (real within the confines of the game, at least), lending Musashi’s heroics that much more weight.

At least it would lend his heroics more weight if the game wasn’t so quick to negate the vulnerability that duplication relies on. Whenever you duplicate a move, it’s framed as a reversal. You’ve turned the tables on the enemy, using their own moves against them while bringing no harm to yourself. While this kind of presentation works for reinforcing Musashi’s character as the badass warrior, it’s only able to do so by denying one of the game’s more notable aspects. So no matter how much I may enjoy duplication, the surrounding context renders my thoughts on it irrelevant.

Looking back on this review, I find myself saying that a lot: that whatever value Musashi has must struggle to make itself known. I’m relieved to find myself making observations like that, as they tell me the game isn’t completely bereft of value. I’m not so jaded as to reduce the game to its faults while ignoring its potential worth. At the same time, though, I’m not so naive that I wouldn’t consider that worth in a greater context. When I do, I find time and again that the game is so cynically designed as to quell any potential it holds. All it can ever be is a relic from the past.

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