Developer: Witching Hour Studios
Publisher: Ysbryd Games
Release Date: September 30th, 2016
Vibrant Venetian visuals, hauntingly beautiful vocal music, and an elaborate fantasy world come together in Masquerada: Songs and Shadows, a 2016 story-rich RPG from Singapore development team Witching Hour Studios. With a heavy focus on narrative and aesthetic, Masquerada feels almost more like an art piece, a tapestry, than a game at times. Combined with real-time tactical combat and polished systems, this tale of politics, intrigue, and magic leaves an impact.
Welcome to the Citte della Ombre, a locale marked by stark divisions and subterfuge. In a land that is being increasingly occupied by mysterious creatures known as Fey, the Citte stands as a bastion of humanity thanks to the titular Masquerada, those who are trained to use magical masks known as Mascherines to manipulate the elements and shape the world around them. However, such power can breed strife just as easily as it spurs on success, and the limited quantity of Mascherines, combined with the lack of knowledge of their origins, has resulted in a struggle to control them. The majority of masks were held in the clutches of six elite Guilds and the governing Registry, while the mask-less masses of the Contadani grew ever more resentful at the oppression they face at the hands of the masked. Tensions came to a head, rebel factions began seizing masks, and a civil war broke out in the nation of Ombre.
Enter Cicero. 5 years ago, his brother led the rebellion that sparked the war, and Cicero was exiled from Ombre. Having had no plans to ever return, he is surprised to find himself being summoned by the leader of the Registry. It turns out that a scholar Cicero was acquainted with was researching the origins and powers of the Mascherines. His notes indicated that he’d just made a breakthrough before mysteriously vanishing. With war still raging and resources stretched thin, the Registry is forced to call upon Cicero’s skills to investigate the disappearance and reclaim the discovery. Thus begins Cicero’s journey through the depths and history of the land of Ombre.
Mechanically, the game is fairly straightforward. You can play with your preference of controller or keyboard and mouse, though you may find the number of buttons on a controller slightly lacking considering the number of potential actions you may wish to hotkey at times. The game has an isometric perspective with a camera that usually has its focus fixed on your character. Much of the gameplay consists of wandering around your current environment to try to find the next relevant location, clue, individual, or what-have-you to further your objective. Not that it’s particularly difficult to do so, as anything you can interact with is VERY clearly marked with a glowing circle. They’re even color-coded to tell you what type of interactable it is! I did appreciate this latter bit, since there isn’t much backtracking allowed in the game. Knowing which interactable is likely the point-of-no-return makes it a lot easier for completionists like me to pick up all the other little goodies along the way.
Aside from that and battle, which we’ll get into in a bit, there isn’t really that much to actively do. Investigation isn’t so much a matter of exploration here as it is one of just finding the next glowing objective. There isn’t any sort of hub-world analogue; you simply are where the narrative needs you to be at that point, and there’s no way to go but forward. Sure, you can tweak your skills, peer into the lives of background characters, and read some of the lore you’ve unlocked, but that tends to be it. Even combat itself is restricted to when the story calls for it; no arena tournaments or random encounters to get your on-demand fix of action. When the game lets you do something it does it well, but, perhaps as a result, it doesn’t have all that many things for you to do. This can be great if you happen to like this sort of focus, but could let down those who enjoy things like side-quests or exploration for exploration’s sake.
The other main aspect of this game is the combat. As I mentioned before, battles only take place at pre-determined points in the story. However, given that the game occurs during a war and there is the ever-present danger of the Fey, there is still plenty of call for combat throughout the story. Combat is somewhat similar to that of Baldur’s gate, with battles organically springing up and taking place on the regular environment. You can choose to control Cicero or any of your party members, position yourself to auto-attack or flank, utilize unlockable skills, and so on. One of the main defining features of Masquerada‘s combat is the tactical pause. As the name implies, this allows you to pause combat in order to gather your wits, scan the battlefield, and micromanage your team. Quite useful to get your squad back on track, since the party AI can be a bit fickle. The other unique feature is the elemental tag system, in which certain attacks can place a “tag” of their element on the target, and other attacks can activate that tag. Special effects are then triggered based on the combination of elements used. Full disclosure though: I didn’t really use the tags all that much, at least not intentionally. You can get by just fine without.
As for how you fight, well, that’s up to you. The characters generally have one of three main combat “classes”, the tank, the melee specialist, and the ranged attacker. Cicero, being the protag and all, has access to all three classes and can swap between them on the fly. There’s also the matter of a character’s element, chosen from water, earth, fire, and air. The characters you recruit are set in their element, while Cicero gets to choose his own at the start of the game. Keep in mind that once you choose an element, you’re stuck with it. It isn’t too bad though. Sure, air may have more mobility focused skills, and earth places more emphasis on area control, but every element has at least one skill to fill the niches of mobility, crowd control, long-distance attacking, and summoning. Use skill points to further specialize your abilities along the branching skill paths and you can make any element suit your preferred style. Take the plunge into New Game Plus, and you’ll find even more possibilities at your fingertips.
New Game Plus in Masquerada takes the form of a repeat run with perks. The story doesn’t change, but there is extra dialogue throughout the game that helps to further develop character motivations and fill in details. Three new boss battles are available throughout the game, two of them hidden down optional side-paths. While I find one to be humorous and another to be fairly impressive, the last (not necessarily in encounter order) struck me as uninspired. There are also a couple of new masks for each character to try, with corresponding new ultimate abilities. Now, something to keep in mind is that this isn’t a New Game Plus with carryover; you don’t get to keep your previously unlocked skills, masks, or other accouterments. Sounds like a rough deal at first, but it’s all made worthwhile by the last perk of NG+: You get to be the Avatar. (Editor’s Note: Told ya.)
Remember how I said that once you chose an element, you were stuck with it? Well, all bets are off in New Game Plus. Cicero gains the ability to access any and all of the four elements, mixing and matching skills as he chooses. To top it off, you’re gifted with a modest supply of bonus skill points and the ability to respec on the fly, making it even easier to fiddle around with custom builds. Pulling from all the elements, you could have a full battery of projectile attacks, or go all out with an onslaught of explosions, quakes, and eruptions. Personally, I grabbed a bunch of summoning skills and had my own private army for every battle. It’s up to you whether more customizable combat is worth replaying the game, but it certainly does improve the experience.
With the core gameplay covered, lets talk about the niceties. The visuals are vibrant, with a bit of a comic-book feel to them. The voice acting is some of the most solid I’ve encountered in a video game, with vocals not only matching the characters but genuinely capturing their emotions. As for the soundtrack… quite frankly, it’s stunning. There is a heavy vocal focus, in keeping with the lore of the game, and a bit of a medieval and mystical influence. I have to say, the audio components are among the game’s greatest strengths, helping to set the tone and make the experience that much more memorable.
Of course, we’ve also got to consider the writing quality. Events feel a bit rushed and contrived at the start, and there are some rather heavy-handed cliches thrown in at points, but that’s about all the negative I can really say about it. The story isn’t anything groundbreakingly profound, but it is still engaging, entertaining, and well executed. Characters avoid diving into exposition mode, conveying meaning through action more than through statements. There are a somewhat daunting amount of new terms and colloquialisms that the characters use, but players end up learning them through exposure and context. If all else fails, you can turn to the lore codex to find out what all those names, titles, and groups mean. Speaking of, the lore codex is simply massive. There’s enough information in there to serve as the foundation for an entire series, and all of it just as well written as the dialogue. Really, the narrative and writing strike me as the main focus of the game.
Another aspect I really appreciate is the characterization. Every character introduced has their own distinct personality, goals, and motivation. They may seem a bit two-dimensional at first, but they develop greatly as the story progresses and they open up to each other. This doesn’t just apply to the main party members either. Sure, they get the most time devoted to their development, but even secondary characters reveal their deeper values and motivations as things progress. I found myself getting easily attached to the coach-hands who escorted me around the Citte, and the game makes a point of giving even the most minor of encountered characters a sense of history and significance.
There is a cost to this, however. The narrative is strong and the characters are developed well, but that’s enabled in part by how linear the game is. Remember what I said about no backtracking? About there being no hub-world analogue? That’s because the game has a specific set of events to be completed in a specific way in a specified order. There may be a few side-paths, but they don’t go far and before you know it you have to return to the main route. There aren’t any branching story paths or meaningful choices to make. I’m not saying this is a bad thing for games in general, as it is quite possible to make an enjoyable experience following a single story-path. The issue arises when the story itself is the main appeal, as I find to be the case here. The combat is enjoyable enough and all, but it’s not the main draw; the experience of the narrative is. Even the “exploration” segments are so straightforward as to feel linear. Successful games with singular routes tend to have greater depth of other mechanics to engage the player. At the very least, an optional side-objective or two would have been nice to give the player some semblance of direct involvement in the story. As things stand, it feels more like you’re along for the ride than anything else. Again, that isn’t always a bad thing, and the writing is still strong enough to compensate, but it feels like a lot of potential was wasted. I know RPG stands for Role Playing Game, but there’s a difference between putting yourself in a character’s shoes and just following a script. Then again, maybe the mistake is expecting this to play like a standard RPG.
Now that I’m off my soapbox, there’s a few more things to note. Although this is an RPG, all of the combat takes place at predetermined points, which means… no grinding. Shocking, I know. There is no XP system in the game; instead, skill points are awarded after reaching set points in the story. Nor is there in-game currency or shops, as all of your (limited) equipment is found through exploration. There isn’t really all that much to explore, but it’s still worth your time to do so. While wandering around you may also find yourself eavesdropping on the conversations of the background characters. They aren’t voiced, and you can easily miss what they said if you walk away, but they really do contribute to the sense of the Citte being an actual place with actual people. You might catch some humorous tidbits, some meta references, and a surprising amount of background character story arcs; there’s a special place in my heart for the tale of the salted pickles. Some are silly, some are sad, but all convey a sense of who these people are that are trying to eke out a living in the Citte della Ombre.
Overall, I had a good time playing Masquerada, even if it isn’t exactly what one would expect of an RPG. While I did personally enjoy the combat, I feel that the main appeal lies in the story and aesthetic. The gameplay (exploration and combat) is more of a conduit for the narrative than it’s own independent feature, and I find this justifiable given how good the writing is. Given what I’ve seen, the large repository of lore, and the potential for future installments, I would happily wait for a sequel to come. As for who else would enjoy this, well, it depends on what you like in games. If you want some sort of open-world, combat-focused, choice driven RPG then this is not the game for you. It’s certainly not a shooter, nor is it a puzzler. Rather, I feel this game would most strongly appeal to the visual novel crowd, or those who are searching for something with a strong narrative. There isn’t really much replay value to the game after NG+ aside from experiencing the story again, so the choice is really up to you.
– Beautiful soundtrack with a heavy vocal focus
– Solid writing
– Solid voice acting
– Venetian-inspired comic-book aesthetic
– Multiple possible playstyles / Diverse skill trees
– NG+ with additional content / abilities
– Color-coordinated interactables
– Massive lore codex
– Fickle Party AI
– Employs heavy-handed cliches at times
– Limited replay value
Mileage May Vary:
– Tactical real-time combat with mid-battle pause to issue commands / assess environment
– No grinding
– Linear story
– Combat is limited to story events
CrimsonMomongaSSS gives Masquerada: Songs and Shadows a Drastik Measure 8.5 out of 10 (85).
For its price of $19.99 USD on Steam, I would highly recommend this game to those looking for a heavily story-based experience, particularly of the high-fantasy or court-intrigue genres. If that’s not your cup of tea, it’s still worth considering, but keep in mind that this is NOT a standard RPG.