One of Basiscape's major scores in 2009 was Vanillaware's Muramasa: The Demon Blade. Set in ancient Japan, the game blends gorgeous hand-drawn 2D visuals, powerful blade-wielding action, and a dark plot centred on a shogun. Led by Hitoshi Sakimoto, seven composers at Basiscape portrayed the era and environment of the game with a combination of traditional Japanese features and their characteristic orchestrations. It took some time for the original score to be released, but when it finally did, it was worth it. New record label Basiscape Records gave the score the full three disc treatment, complete with lavish packaging and composer breakdowns. Let's take a closer look...
Hitoshi Sakimoto's main theme is a central component of the soundtrack. First featured in "Introduction", the opening few bars create so much mood and anticipation with their exposition of a recurring motif on the koto. However, the composition soon builds up with furious percussion and brass into a series of chants from the 0:58 mark, revealing the game's most sinister leitmotif. It's fascinating how Sakimoto manages to hybridise orchestral and traditional instruments on this work — and indeed both his own trademarks with novel features — as if to declare Muramasa: The Demon Blade as a very different Sakimoto work, but a Sakimoto work nonetheless. The main theme makes appearances throughout the soundtrack, ranging from the serene "Untouchable Beauty" to the brutal "Fierce Battle", each of which is artistically arranged. However, easily the magnum opus of the soundtrack is "Impermanence", which hybridises features from all the previous arrangements into a cinematic six minute epic.
The rest of the soundtrack is dominated by the various scenario themes created by Sakimoto's assistant composers at Basiscape. They preserve Sakimoto's image for the soundtrack — hybridising instruments and tonalities of traditional Japanese music with those of Western music, blending moments of profundity with those of great brutality — resulting in an especially cohesive score. However, they do not hesitate to reflect their individuality either and, just as Sakimoto did in the main theme, they each reflect some of their trademarks. Expect more of Mitsuhiro Kaneda's elegant layering in "Womanising", Kimihiro Abe's asynchronised rhythms in "Vicissitude", and Noriyuki Kamikura's beat-heavy fusions in "Briskly Windy Moonlight". Newcomers Yoshimi Kudo and Azusa Chiba also receive a chance to shine in tracks like "Desires Connected to The Enlightenment" and "Deep Mountain", continuing to respectively define themselves as voices of aggression and mellowness at the company.
Perhaps the most remarkable moments of the soundtrack are those concerned with expressing great beauty and colour. Mitsuhiro Kaneda's "Losing Consciousness" and Kimihiro Abe's "Scenic Beauty" are foremost examples. Both gradually build up soft yet breathtaking soundscapes dominated by wailing flutes, soft orchestration, and tribal percussion. During their slow cinematically inclined development, the former enters an elegaic secondary section, whereas Abe's theme takes a number of dark twists. They certainly offer considerable yet subtle contrasts in mood and musicality; however, each expresses so much humanity and complements with the game's stunning visuals through some conserved features. While Odin Sphere's generally action-packed approach often contrasted with the backgrounds, Muramasa: The Demon Blade gets the balance just right. Indeed, Muramasa: The Demon Blade demonstrates how action games can still be beautiful on numerous levels.
Like Odin Sphere before it, the stage themes on Muramasa: The Demon Blade are presented in two variations. The original 'A' version tends to be the calmer one and is used during normal gameplay, while the 'B' version is usually much more action-packed and is used against more formidable foes. Unlike its predecessor, most of the arrangements in Muramasa: The Demon Blade tend to be quite straightforward and don't stray much from the structure of the original compositions. However, most themes certainly have more impact through the use of higher volumes, bolder percussion lines, and dense counterpoint, for example "Scenic Beauty B" and "Losing Consciousness B". Occasionally, there are fascinating moments, however. For example, it's wonderful how Masaharu Iwata maintains similar instrumentation and dynamics between the "Dusky" theme, but presents a minor tonality and more tense motifs in the second variation, or how Hitoshi Sakimoto presents two different sections of the main theme on the "Fierce Battle" suite.
Perhaps surprisingly, several of the composers hybridise contemporary elements into the score. For instance, Noriyuki Kamikura makes the "Magnificent Palace" all the more atmospheric by incorporating pulsating electronic elements and wild synth solos into an otherwise orchestral environment. The second variation is even more threatening with its grisly rhythm guitar riffs and proves a encompassing blend of orchestral, traditional, electronic, and rock features. Yoshimi Kudo also incorporates rock elements into tracks like "Turbulence", "Incredible Power", and "Lightning Speed B", to demonstrate the raw power of the demon blades. Though they are well done, some will feel these contemporary elements betrayal the ancient setting of the game or corrupt the original focus of the music. Nonetheless, they certainly bring diversity and mainstream appeal to the score. Furthermore, the use of fusions ensures that some hints of the Genroku era remain.
Overall, the Muramasa The Demon Blade Original Soundtrack is an excellent collective experience from Basiscape. It's wonderful how they managed to portray the visuals and action of the game so fittingly and artistically. Furthermore, it's impressive how they manage to build a diverse score — through their individual musicalities and contemporary fusions — while still making it a cohesive collective listen. On the downside, some might have difficulty sustaining three discs of this type of music and many will be disappointing by the lack of contrasts between the 'A' and 'B' variations. Overall, though, this soundtrack stands out as Basiscape's most beautiful and fascinating score to date. Those who are likely to enjoy the fusion approach here should seriously consider importing it.