There are no heroes in Full Metal Daemon Muramasa

Full Metal Daemon Muramasa, it’s fair to say, has a meaty common route. Pretty much everything we’ve talked about so far relates primarily to that common route, which is used to establish, through intriguingly unconventional mechanics for a visual novel, which of the discrete narrative routes you’re going to end up on for the second half of the game.

Unlike most visual novels, in which you simply favour your character of choice with the dialogue options or actions that most obviously benefit the protagonist’s relationship with them, in Full Metal Daemon Muramasa this is an extremely dangerous thing to do. An early chapter demonstrates, through an unavoidable sequence of events, that protagonist Minato Kageaki coming to feel any sort of affection towards anyone will inevitably make them a target for the “Law of Balance” his tsurugi Muramasa the Third is cursed with; as such, when he takes the life of the villain of the chapter, he also takes the life of the one he felt the most affection for.

Full Metal Daemon Muramasa

There are several points in common route’s narrative where not only is Kageaki forced to slay an innocent who had no real part in the situation he was in the midst of resolving, but he is also obliged to kill off one of the game’s two main heroines: the overly affectionate and possibly quite, quite insane Otori Kanae, or the foul-mouthed, aggressive and completely devoted to justice Ayane Ichijo. In order to actually find yourself on a narrative route for the second half of the game, it’s necessary to balance (see, there’s that word again) your affection between the two heroines in such a way that one of them is only slightly ahead when it comes to the point of no return.

Favouring Ichijo in this manner — by indicating that Kageaki prefers her just slightly more than Kanae — plonks you on the route the game refers to as “Hero”. Kanae winds up dead and is never mentioned again — Kageaki is quite good at covering his tracks by this point — and Ichijo chooses to partner up with Kageaki, initially believing him to be a force for justice, but subsequently learning the truth of the Law of Balance from a character named Sorimachi, who is uncannily talented at turning up with perfect timing to throw a real spanner in the works.

As it happens, towards the end of the common route, Ichijo found herself in possession of another legendary tsurugi — again thanks to Sorimachi’s interference — known as Masamune. And, in keeping with the real-life mythology of the Masamune and Muramasa swords, Masamune is a tsurugi with a law of its own: the outright, dogged pursuit of justice at absolutely any cost — a perfect fit for Ichijo, who carries in her heart a similar philosophy.

Full Metal Daemon Muramasa

Trouble is, although Kageaki recognises and understands — painfully so — that what he has been doing can quite reasonably be seen as “evil”, he also knows the necessity of it, and that despite fearing death, he knows that being killed for his crimes would be blessed relief rather than adequate punishment.

“She has heard my confession, weighed my crimes, and pronounced them — and me — deserving of death,” he reflects, on the way to what he believes may be a final duel against Ichijo wielding Masamune. “And to her verdict, I say yes,” he continues. “My crimes are unforgivable. I do deserve to die. How then can I now reject that fate? What gives me the right? If I truly believe that my victims had worth, that the blood on my hands must carry a price, then should I not submit to her judgement and lay my own head upon the block?

“This has never before been a question,” he adds. “Of the few who know the depth of my crimes, not one has ever called me to account. Now one has. She has passed sentence, with the will and the means to carry it out. Is it not my duty to yield? No. Of course I cannot yield. That would be an abrogation of duty, a cowardly flight from unspeakable pain. To hang for my crimes. What a relief that would be. I would know that all is right with the world. But I have no right to peace, now while my true duty remains unfulfilled. If I die without fulfilling my duty, the suffering will not be mine alone.”

Full Metal Daemon Muramasa

Here Kageaki is referring to the core of his mission alongside Muramasa: to defeat the dread “Silver Star” Ginseigo, piloted by his sister Hikaru, and prevent further death, destruction and strife around Yamato. Were he to allow himself the blessed relief of death to escape from his crimes at this point, nothing would change; his mission would be unfulfilled, and thus his death would be meaningless.

Most of Full Metal Daemon Muramasa’s narrative paths explore this core paradox in various ways. The “Hero” route is arguably the most straightforward of them, in that it interrogates the idea of “justice” and its opposition to “villainy”; it questions the idea of whether the concepts of “absolute good” and “absolute evil” really exist, positioning Ichijo and Masamune in one corner, and Kageaki and Muramasa in the other corner.

Except there’s obviously something wrong with that. Kageaki and Muramasa have, of course, carried out unspeakable acts in order to satisfy the Law of Balance — for every evil slain, one judged good must also fall — but few can deny that, on the whole, Kageaki and Muramasa’s intervention have, in numerous situations, made the difference between a seemingly greater “evil” triumphing, and the forces of “justice” being able to gain a foothold. It’s the old dilemma between whether or not it is “just” to kill one person to save thousands or millions.

Full Metal Daemon Muramasa

So in that instance, can Kageaki and Muramasa truly be judged as “evil”? Certainly not “absolute evil”, since their actions have undoubtedly resulted in good. They have saved lives; they have prevented horrendous situations from escalating; they have even tipped the balance of power significantly in several situations. But in doing so, they have, of course, also murdered people who had nothing to do with the situation; people who didn’t “deserve” to die. People whom Kageaki judged to be “good” and “innocent”, and thus a suitable means of paying the dreadful price that the Law of Balance demands without fail.

But then Ichijo is struggling with the law that both she and Masamune are bound by, also: the relentless pursuit of justice, at any cost. And I mean any cost; Masamune goes so far as to use part of its own body (and, by extension, Ichijo’s body) to power many of its attacks, normally leaving Ichijo in an absolutely mutilated mess by the end of any confrontation. Lucky that the partnership between a tsurugi and its pilot results in the pilot being able to (relatively) quickly recover from pretty much any injury that doesn’t kill them, huh?

Ichijo’s passion for justice was instilled in her by her father, we learn, and it’s in keeping with Masamune’s attitude towards such things, making them a perfect fit for one another. And yet Kageaki and Muramasa cause her to question the very core of her beliefs: she knows, in her heart, that Kageaki is actually being too hard on himself, and that he is blaming himself for the things the cursed Law of Balance obliges him to do. She knows that he is, at his core, a good person; all he wants, more than anything, is to stop his sister and Ginseigo from laying waste to his homeland and perhaps even the entire world — and, much as Ichijo and Masamune will pursue this at any cost, so too will Kageaki and Muramasa. Their “cost” is just a bit different.

Full Metal Daemon Muramasa

With that in mind, Ichijo finds herself unable to end Kageaki and Muramasa’s lives, instead offering herself as a companion warrior in his mission. Kageaki and Muramasa can continue to pursue Ginseigo, she figures, and when the time comes, she can do the killing. That way Kageaki’s conscience remains clear, the Law of Balance does not come into effect, and the pair of them can pursue true justice. A seemingly flawless plan.

Unfortunately, it is not, of course, that simple. As the culmination of a mission that the pair participate in together, Ichijo finds herself in a position where she is obliged to defeat and kill the Reverend Doshin, one of the great generals of the region — and a man who we have been set up to believe is unquestionably evil.

Indeed, we see him taunting a political prisoner through a stage play that initially appears to be absolutely beautiful — but which becomes absolutely horrific when he not only reveals that the costumes, masks and sake bowls were carved from the bones of said prisoner’s father and brother, he also drags her up on stage and rapes her in front of the assembled audience. No-one — not even the young new shogun — does anything about this in the moment because they simply can’t; Doshin is too well-protected, and he knows this well. It is a symbol of his absolute power and dominance, and no-one is able to question it.

Full Metal Daemon Muramasa

Ichijo, of course, is furious, and ends up compromising her entire mission with Kageaki as she hunts down Doshin and defeats him in combat, eventually unleashing Masamune’s power to such a terrible degree that there is barely anything left of the Wrong Reverend by the time she’s finished with him. She has not just killed him, she has absolutely obliterated him from the face of the planet… and yet it takes her time to understand what it is she has done.

It is not until later that she reads a newspaper report on the death of Doshin that the enormity of what she has done hits her. She has taken a life in the name of “justice” — and to her great surprise, it doesn’t feel all that great. In fact, it feels absolutely terrible.

“I suspect that until the moment she opened that newspaper,” Kageaki reflects, finding a seemingly non-responsive Ichijo completely unable to process what has happened, “her subconscious had prevented her from facing the truth — that here, victory and justice are synonymous with murder. If her self-deception had been intentional, the headline would not have broken her so. But Ichijo is incapable of intentionally deceiving anyone, least of all herself. Presented with the naked truth, even in the form of a newspaper headline, she had no choice but to accept it and understand.

Full Metal Daemon Muramasa

“People say that you should cry when you’re hurting,” he continues. “It is true. Tears have a wonderful power to cleanse your grief. To soothe your pain. Through tears, we find the strength to stand and face the future. And that is good — for anyone but a murderer. For someone who has taken a life, there is no future. There is only the past — immutable, final. That is what it means to kill. And that is why killers such as we can never weep for what we’ve done. Such tears serve no-one but ourselves, serve no purpose but to grant a reprieve from guilt. For us, therefore, to weep is a choice: to forget the truth of our deeds, or perhaps to imagine that we are forgiven. In other words, to reject the past, to reject the self and become some new, shameless creature.”

Interestingly, this scene is followed by a sex scene between Kageaki and Ichijo, in which Ichijo willingly gives herself up to be utterly ravished by Kageaki who, in his own words, is “not good with women”. Indeed, as we see repeatedly in his few erotic scenes over the course of Full Metal Daemon Muramasa, he is wont to completely lose control of himself in the moment, treating his partner as more a piece of meat to satisfy himself than someone with whom to share an intimate moment.

Right now, though, this is exactly what Ichijo wants; she wants to feel like she has been punished for her acts. In keeping with what Kageaki says, she knows that shedding a tear for what she has done would be completely inappropriate, yet she also craves punishment. And, much as Kageaki believes that dying would make things too easy, so too does Ichijo want a form of punishment that is more… immediate, yet lasting. A means through which she can connect with Kageaki and share his torment, because only now is she starting to understand a fraction of what he has been enduring for the past two years.

Full Metal Daemon Muramasa

There is no justice where killing is involved. Killing only begets more misery — even if it is done with supposedly good intentions. Core to the Hero path is this conflict, which lies in stark contrast to the sort of “justice” we are presented in many other works of popular media. In anime, manga, video games and visual novels in which “good” is presented in conflict with “evil”, more often than not the way in which “good” prevails is by destroying “evil” utterly. And this makes sense, assuming that the idea of “absolute good” and “absolute evil” exists. But, unfortunately, they absolutely do not.

We’ve already been told this much earlier in Full Metal Daemon Muramasa, where we learned that Kageaki’s adoptive mother had told him repeatedly that he should never, under any circumstances, take a life — because doing so will lead to a cycle of continued death and destruction. If an individual takes a life, the people who loved that life will want to take revenge for that life; and then the people who loved the original individual will want to take revenge for their life — and so on, into perpetuity. An endless cycle of revenge, and one which we see explored further in the Nemesis route of Full Metal Daemon Muramasa.

But there’s another angle to it, too. Exactly who is to say what is “good” and what is “evil”, particularly in absolute terms? There is no-one on this Earth who is qualified to say whether someone is absolutely, indisputably, infallibly good or completely, utterly, irredeemably evil — because within each of us is that balance between good and evil. We have all done things that are good and evil — and, moreover, the actions that we have taken look good to some and evil to others.

Full Metal Daemon Muramasa

Consider armed conflict, a recurring theme in Full Metal Daemon Muramasa. A soldier’s job is easiest if he believes his enemy to be irredeemably evil, but matters are rarely that simple — because the idea of good and evil is unique to an individual. The soldier defending his homeland from an occupying force may believe himself to be doing good by slaying the opposing armies, but said opposing armies may believe themselves to be doing good by fulfilling their promise to their lord. At the same time, both forces may believe the others evil for seemingly obvious reasons.

But what if the defending forces had previously taken the land from the now-invading forces some years prior? Would that not make the invading forces good for attempting to reclaim the land that was once theirs, and the defending forces evil for not giving up the territory they once took by force?

What if the forces attempting to occupy the territory were fleeing from persecution elsewhere, and were seeking a way to peacefully coexist with the defending forces, only to find themselves under attack? Would that not make them good for approaching with overtures of peace and coexistence, and seeking a better life for their people, and the defending forces evil for depriving them of that?

Nothing is ever so cut-and-dry, as you can see, which means that absolute good and absolute evil do not exist. Thus, for every life you take, you are actually taking both a good and an evil; it’s all a matter of perspective.

Full Metal Daemon Muramasa

This fact is driven home to Ichijo during a later encounter in the Hero route, when she meets the former page of the late Reverend Doshin, who was left without a home and a means of supporting himself upon his patron’s death. Moreover, his sister was Doshin’s favourite concubine, and was pregnant with his child — but upon learning of his death, she threw herself down the stairs, miscarried the child and died herself. Ichijo obviously didn’t intend any of these things when she obliterated Doshin from the world — and yet it’s quite easy to see how they might cause some to look upon her as “evil”, even if Doshin himself did some absolutely reprehensible acts.

Thus, the core message of the Hero route in Full Metal Daemon Muramasa becomes clear: there are no true heroes, because no-one who calls themselves “hero” is truly blameless. In the relentless pursuit of justice, heroes kill — and those who heroes kill are inevitably good to some, even if their evil might seem self-evident. Thus heroes are killers, and killers are demons. And those who let others do killing in their stead — as Kageaki comes to do with Ichijo — are little better than the killers themselves.

If a true hero were to exist, it would be one who was able to accomplish their goals without cutting down those who oppose them. And, certainly in the troubled world of Full Metal Daemon Muramasa, that does not appear to be an option. As Ginseigo embodies, the Law of Might is such that, if left unchecked, the world is inclined to continually test itself in such a way that eventually nothing will be left except the one able to crown themselves “strongest”. And the Law of Balance’s true meaning is that every life snuffed out in the pursuit of power through might embodies both good and evil.

Full Metal Daemon Muramasa

It’s an ultimately realistic way of looking at things — and while at first glance it might appear hopeless, eventually the true message reveals itself with clarity. Violence and killing are not the answer, because no-one is in that truly infallible position where they can reliably act as judge, jury and executioner. No-one is truly good or truly evil — and thus any attempt to rid the world of one or the other through violence is ultimately, inevitably doomed to failure.

Full Metal Daemon Muramasa is available now from JAST USAA “streamer-friendly” version is available on GOG.com.

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