Bakumatsu Roman: Gekka no Kenshi ("Moonlight Swordsmen"), also known as The Last Blade everywhere outside of Japan (except in Korea, where it's called The Last Soldier), is one of SNK's lesser known fighting franchises. Never quite garnering the mass popularity of The King of Fighters, nor even the cult following of Samurai Shodown, The Last Blade is destined to wander eternally shrouded in obscurity. Perhaps it was the combined factors that it was released on a ridiculously expensive console and wasn't pushed into arcades in the same frequency that Samurai Shodown was, or maybe it was simply that people never gave it a chance. Whatever it was, it was an injustice, because Last Blade is quite possibly SNKs finest endeavor.
Rather than being set between the Azuchi-Momoyama era (mid 1500s - early 1600s) and late Edo period (early 1600s - early 1800s) like most samurai fighting games, when the samurai were at their prime, The Last Blade takes place during the solemn Bakumatsu era at the end of the 19th century. Bakumatsu means End of the Bakufu Period, and as its name implies, it was the sometimes tragically viewed era when ancient Japanese culture and tradition were being discarded in favor of the Western lifestyle. The sword was replaced with the rifle, the kimono with the tuxedo. The samurai, who were the very essence of honor and discipline, weren't even allowed to carry their swords into towns, and many were exiled from civilization, forced to earn a living as bounty hunters and hired assassins.
The somber setting and fairly intriguing characters gives The Last Blade a very distinct feel. While some would simply call it a Samurai Shodown clone, it's almost nothing like SNK's first weapon fighting series, from both an aesthetic and physical standpoint. However, a few of the characters are similar to characters in Nobuhiro Watsuki's Rurouni Kenshin manga/anime - which makes sense, considering they both take place in the Bakumatsu era.
Unfortunately, it doesn't seem that SNK is going to continue this franchise. At least some of the legacy lives on - Hibiki was featured in Capcom vs SNK 2, and Kaede, Moriya, Washizuka and Akari are all in Neo Geo Battle Coliseum. The Last Blade is amazing fighting game. It is the very threshold of style and grace in the fighting world, and The Last Blade 2 stands as one of the greatest fighting games ever.
Kaede is one of three siblings, along with Moriya and Yuki, raised by the great swordsman Gaisei. When he was 12, he and Yuki came home after their daily errands to find their adopted father dead, with Moriya standing over his corpse. In rage, Kaede attacked Moriya and forced him away. Now, Kaede travels the country in search of his traitorous brother. Kaede houses the spirit of Seiryu, the Blue Dragon of Lightning, God of the East.
Moriya, having killed his master Gaisei, was attacked by his brother Kaede. Wounded, he ran away without even getting a chance to explain himself. Moriya now wanders aimlessly in search of redemption for his sin, and solace to hide the grief of losing his beloved sister, Yuki.
Kagami is the main antagonist and end boss of the first game, but a psuedo-protagonist in the second game. Kagami is the human incarnation of Suzaku, the Red Phoenix of the Endless Flame, God of the South. As one of the four gods, he's charged with protecting humanity. However, he has grown jaded with the insolence of mankind, and now plots to destroy it by opening the Gates of Hell. In the second game, he is attempting to atone for his actions in the first.
Okina appears to be an ordinary old man decked out with fishing gear, but he's in fact the human incarnation of Genbu, the Black Tortoise of the Sea, God of the North. The eldest of the gods, he trained Kagami in swordsmanship. However, he now senses the evil lurking inside Kagami. Feeling he's somehow failed his student, he goes out to stop him from destroying those he's sworn to protect.
Shigen is Byakko, the White Tiger of Earth, God of the West. Shigen was also trained by Okina along with Kagami, and they were good friends for a long time. However, Shigen was loyal to the humans, and cared only for peace. As Kagami became more and more intolerant and began devising his plan, he realized that Shigen would eventually become a threat to his scheme. Thus, Kagami sealed Shigen away in stone. After 10 years, Shigen broke free, and now, carrying the anger of the earth with him, he seeks revenge against Kagami.
Washizuka is one of the Shinsengumi, a police force of swordsmen that existed in the Bakumatsu era.Washizuka is a very traditional man and believes that Japan is heading in the wrong direction. He wants to help restore the old ways of honor and bring the Samurai back to their former glory.
Lee is a Chinese martial arts master and monk trained in the arts of sealing demons. One day, he sees the falling of the red star to the east, an omen that warns of the opening of Hell's Gate. At this sign, he travels to Japan to find the gate and keep it from being opened.
Akari Ichijo is a summoner capable of calling on the aid of demon's from another realm. Her sister, Hikari, has fallen to a disease, along with many other people in her village. She senses that something is wrong with the world, and goes to investigate. During her investigation, she learns that the seal keeping Hell's Gate closed is weakening, and that this could be the cause of the spreading plague. She now goes to Hell's Gate to seal it forever.
Juzoh is Akari's adopted brother. He's a fairly shiftless layabout, finding very little interest with anything in particular and having no ambition to do anything with his life. One day, he's knocked unconscious by his sister, Akari, and is dragged along with her to aid her in her quest to seal Hell's Gate.
Hyo is a carefree individual with a deep love for sake, women, and most of all, sakura blossom petals. However, he eventually begins to notice a change throughout the land. The sakura blossom trees are dying, and the sky is turning a sickly grey color that darkens with each passing day. Eventually, Hyo hears rumors of Hell's Gate, and travels there to see if he can prevent the further decay of his home. Hyo is also a good friend of Genzou Takane, and sets out to protect his daughter, Hibiki, in the second game after finding out about his murder.
Zantetsu is one of the members of the last clan of ninjas in Japan. Their ancient way of life is becoming harder and harder with the modernization of Japan. To prove his people's superiority, he challenges the call of Hell's Gate, and goes to confront anything that awaits him there. Zantetsu is an ancestor of Eiji Kisaragi from Art of Fighting/King of Fighters, and shares many of his moves.
Musashi was considered to be the greatest swordsman of his time, and virtually unbeatable. Feared by the Shogunate, he was eventually assassinated in his sleep. Hundreds of years later, when Kagami Shinnosuke began to weaken the seal of Hell's Gate, Kagami resurrected the greatest warrior he could think of, in order to use him as a guardian, keeping all those who would attempt to foil his plot from reaching him.
Shikyoh / Mukuro
Shikyoh was a member of the Shinsengumi. Unlike Washizuka, however, he had no interest in protecting the peace. He joined the organization for the sole purpose of killing innocent people. When the other Shinsengumi discovered this, they tried to kill him, but he escaped. After the first game, Shikyoh is killed by Kojiroh, the leader of the Shinsegumi. But shortly after that his slightly decomposed corpse is reanimated by Kouryu, his bloodlust and madness amplified. He now goes by the name Mukuro.
Kojiroh is a woman disguising herself as her late twin brother who was killed by Shikyoh in an attempt to stop him. In order to hide the death of her brother from the other Shinsegumi and keep them from losing faith in their cause, she takes on his name and appearance, also using this as an opportunity to prove herself as a fighter. Now, Kojiroh is on the hunt for a murderer who has left many dead bodies in his wake, a killer with a style very similar to the maniac who killed her brother.
Hibiki is the daughter of Genzou Takane, one of the finest swordsmiths in all of Japan. One day, Genzou is visited by a strange man surrounded by an aura of pure evil. The man places an order for the finest sword Genzou has ever constructed. Once Genzou forged the sword, the man killed him with it and left him there. Now Hibiki travels the countryside in search of the man who killed her father.
Setsuna was the most vile demon in the underworld, sealed inside Hell's Gate for eons, left with nothing but his growing hatred for humanity. When Kagami attempted to open Hell's Gate, the seal weakened enough for Setsuna to escape. He possessed the body of a human infant and made it mature rapidly with his demonic powers. He then found the greatest swordsmith around Edo, Genzou Takane, and makes him forge the greatest sword ever, killing him with it afterwards. Then Setsuna sets out to kill everyone he can find.
Kouryu is the reincarnation of Gaisei, Kaede, Moriya and Yuki's adopted father, and last boss of Last Blade 2. Gaisei had long had ambitions of opening Hell's Gate, and revealed to Moriya the true reason for adopting Kaede and Yuki was to use their latent powers to break the seal. When Gaisei revealed this plan to Moriya, Moriya opted to kill his father rather than betray his brother and sister, but knew Kaede and Yuki would not understand. Years later, Kouryu, arisen from death, now plans to finish what was started by Kagami and fulfill his ambition.