Full Metal Daemon Muramasa contains some absolutely spectacular action sequences, and it’s an excellent game through which to contemplate one of the biggest challenges that doubtless faces many visual novel authors and developers: exactly how to make sequences like this that unfold in a “hands-off” way exciting.
I suspect part of the reason why we’ve had so many visual novels over the years that focus primarily on relationship building and romantic or sexual aspects is because of this difficulty. When the main point of your game is developing a relationship with another person (or a whole group of people), the audience will be receptive to the mechanics of your game being little more than choosing what to say or how to feel about a particular situation.
But when your game frequently involves heavily armed metallic monsters kicking the shit out of each other, doubtless there are some gamers out there who probably wish they could take the controls for themselves.
And it’s not unheard of for more “actiony” visual novels to actually allow those players to take the controls, even for a moment. Xuse’s Aselia the Eternal, for example, only reveals its strategy RPG core after a good 6-8 hours of solid reading, the Utawarerumono series likewise is primarily known as a visual novel rather than a series of tactics games, and there’s even a strong argument for the most recent installment in the Sakura Wars series to be more visual novel than armoured robot hack-and-slash, despite the latter element most definitely being interactive.
Full Metal Daemon Muramasa has faith in its own storytelling, however. Full Metal Daemon Muramasa recognises that when someone is reading a regular old novel or a manga, they’re not complaining about not being able to take control of the action for themselves. And, in the way it handles its action scenes, it does a number of things that simply wouldn’t be possible if the player was taking direct control of what was going on.
The first of these relates to author Ittetsu Narahara’s background in martial arts and Japanese swordplay in particular. Narahara is certainly not shy about demonstrating his knowledge throughout Full Metal Daemon Muramasa, since many of the game’s fight scenes contain immensely detailed and technical explanations of exactly what has just unfolded, what is about to unfold, or what might unfold next. There are even diagrams at times to help the audience understand them.
While these could have easily felt quite out of place, they really work in context throughout Full Metal Daemon Muramasa, and this is partly down to the hard work the visual novel as a whole does in establishing both its overall tone and feel, and particularly the personality of main protagonist Kageaki Minato.
On the first count, it becomes abundantly clear early on that Full Metal Daemon Muramasa is a wordy, descriptive and evocative visual novel. Its narration is densely packed with detail, and even its dialogue is filled with elaborate, theatrical turns of phrase rather than natural-feeling conversation.
This is very much a story told in the tradition of grand epics — though it also acknowledges modernity with the presence of characters like Ichijo Ayane, who speaks in a distinctly blunt and foul-mouthed manner in stark contrast with nearly everyone else in the cast. This juxtaposition is, as you might expect, often used for comedy — but also highlights the emotion of some scenes. More on that another time, though.
The point is, Full Metal Daemon Muramasa sets the expectation in its reader’s mind for flowery, elaborate and evocative descriptions very early on, and continues to deliver this over the course of its runtime. And thus when a duel between two sword-wielding characters is at its most tense, it absolutely does not feel out of place when the game suddenly begins lecturing us on the intricacies of various stances, methods of approach and possible countering strategies.
The personality of Minato is part of this, too. As we get to know him better over the course of the game, we learn that he is someone who often tends to keep himself to himself — but if he finds the opportunity to engage someone in conversation on the subject of something which fascinates him, he will happily talk for hours.
This is most obviously seen in the “crux racing” sequence in the game’s common route, where he has numerous oddly heartwarming explosions of enthusiasm about the subject; one gets the impression that this is a rare opportunity for him to feel something vaguely approaching happiness, and thus he’s damn well going to seize it with both hands.
Minato’s enthusiasm and willingness to talk for Yamato on the things that interest him ties in with the aforementioned “lectures” the game gives us — because they’re typically given from the perspective of Minato himself as he considers the situation in which he finds himself.
It’s perhaps best to look upon them as a stylistic representation of “time slowing down” for Minato, and his brain shifting into overdrive to quickly consider what his most appropriate tactical options are. The level of detail with which he considers his options demonstrates that, as modest as he is about his swordplay abilities at times, he is a formidable opponent to anyone who would care to face him.
These sequences add enormously to the tension of these scenes, too. A particularly standout example comes during a flashback sequence, when Minato recalls a confrontation against the captain of a group of Rokuhara deserters — and someone whom he came to respect greatly.
The actual fight between the pair of them has very little in the way of action — it has both of them standing almost entirely stock still for a significant period of time — but Minato’s frantic consideration of exactly what he’s going to do as his opponent approaches him agonisingly slowly gives the scene an almost unbearable sense of impending doom.
It’s not just traditional swordplay where this happens, either. There’s a great aerial combat sequence in which Minato is facing a dangerous aerial opponent, and during this we’re provided with an elaborate explanation of the “Immelmann Turn“.
This is actually a real-life aerial combat manoeuvre, developed during airborne combat in World War I, though in our world it was done with rickety old biplanes rather than supernaturally powered suits of quasi-magical jet-propelled armour, of course. The principle is the same, though; after diving at an enemy, climb back up above your opponent until you almost stall, then whip yourself around so that you’re facing the enemy aircraft, immediately ready for another diving assault.
This sequence works so well because as Minato explains the situation to us, the audience, we get a growing feeling in our gut that things are about to go very badly for him. And, sure enough, they do — but not before, once again, the tension of the situation has escalated to a borderline unbearable degree.
None of this is to say that Full Metal Daemon Muramasa is in any way short of more immediately impactful, visceral action sequences, however; it has plenty of those, too. But the things we’re talking about above are particularly distinctive to Full Metal Daemon Muramasa — and a very interesting twist on the usual format of visual novel action sequences.
This is a game that deals with some of the most complicated, elaborate combat styles in the world — and yet it does so in a way that helps even those with no experience in traditional swordplay develop at least a passing understanding.
As for those immediately impactful sequences, though, Full Metal Daemon Muramasa does a great job, too — and it does so through taking advantage of the first-person perspective that many visual novels are assumed to be unfolding from. Full Metal Daemon Muramasa is actually a bit of an exception in this regard due to its overall unusual style of presenting characters and text — but it takes full advantage of the assumption when it comes to the musha combat sequences.
Pretty much any time there’s a conflict between Minato, piloting Muramasa, and an enemy musha, the perspective switches to a first-person view through Muramasa’s cockpit. We see her instrumentation, her heads-up display, and the perspective of what’s going on. And, rather than this simply being a static image, this is very much a dynamic display that continues to move as the fight unfolds.
As Minato moves in for a strike or is forced to parry an opponent’s attack, we see the enemy musha moving around at frighteningly rapid speeds. As Minato throws Muramasa into gut-wrenching aerobatic manoeuvres, we see the horizon pitch and roll and Muramasa’s instruments responding to them. And everything is accompanied by piercingly loud sounds and dramatic music. Despite never actually being in control of any of this, you are very much along for the ride, placed right in that sinister cockpit with Minato himself.
Particularly noteworthy moments in the fights see the perspective cut away to shots of the tsurugi involved making use of their special weapons or their supernatural shinogi; very rarely, these will be depicted using video sequences rather than simple static images. And, in keeping with the traditions of both battle manga and anime and mecha media, most attacks are accompanied by elaborately poetic statements about how this devastating railgun attack is actually adapted from a traditional school of something or other.
It’s stylised, it grabs the attention, it’s compelling and it genuinely keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout. And there’s one additional element that makes these battles all the more unpredictable compared to some other similar works: the fact that pilot and tsurugi effectively become one while working together in combat. As such, the tsurugi protects their pilot — up to and including completely rebuilding their body if parts of it happen to get lopped off, stabbed, drained of blood, burnt off or otherwise mangled in some particularly unpleasant manner.
In fact, one of the narrative routes — Ichijo’s “Hero” route — sees the tsurugi Masamune literally making use of chunks of its pilot’s body to fuel some of its special attacks, leaving Ichijo in a right state when the combat is over and done with. But so long as she doesn’t actually die as a result of all this, she can sacrifice most of her body, safe in the knowledge that it will take a surprisingly brief period of time for everything to be all right again.
Minato knows this, too, and has done ever since he witnessed Ginseigo “heal” his sister from her heavy metal poisoning as a child — a moment which should have been joyful, but which ended up being the situation which led to the whole mess that is currently unfolding.
As such, he often throws himself right into the thick of danger, knowing that he’s quite likely to lose a limb or two in the process — but he does so safe in the knowledge that anything he loses he’ll be able to get back thanks to Muramasa. And he does so with two conflicting feelings, too: a complete lack of regard for his own life, since he believes himself to be a “demon”, but also an unwillingness to die until his mission to destroy Ginseigo is completed once and for all.
There’s plenty more action to come before we reach the conclusion of this epic, for sure — but the thrills of the action sequences we’ve had to date, coupled with the surprising things I’ve learned along the way, are what keep me coming back.
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