Anyone who has played enough RPGs would agree, that RPGs can roughly be divided into 2 basic types. The first ones have great narratives, and the others have excellent and deep game mechanics. Masquerada: Songs And Shadows is of the first type. While both kinds can be heartily enjoyed, the best ones of course fall squarely in the middle of these two, balancing a tight story with even tighter game-play. Masquerada, however is not one of them. It’s a game stepped heavily in narrative and world building while the game-play is average at best.
Masquerada: Songs And Shadows is an isometric tactical RPG developed by Witching Hour Studios and published by Ysbryd Games. The game released for the Windows, Mac, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, on the 7th of August 2017 with a Nintendo Switch edition in development.
Masquerada: Songs And Shadows
Story And Narrative
Masquerada packs an immense amount of world building. The amount of work that has gone into creating the world of Ombre and Citte is insane. Infact, it wouldn’t be too far off the mark that the game has enough world building in one edition than most games have in three. Nothing is left unexplained, and everyone who you meet has a back-story. Every nook and cranny of the game is full of more information about the world you are placed in. While you start filling up the blank spaces one entry at a time as you progress the story, random conversations between strangers that you pass on the streets fill up tangents and create a world which is believable and immersive. I wasn’t too far into the game when my interest in the game shifted from finding out what’s going on, to finding more about the history.
And I believe the devs recognized that. Almost everything that can tell you more about the world, is contextually highlighted. Then all the entries that you unlock, and the conversations that you have are earmarked sequentially, so you can see your self unlocking the history of a place in parts. The devs turned random exploration and finding more about the world into a collect-a-thon, hell there is even a trophy for it. Of course the down side of all this is that there is a lot of reading involved. Especially in the first few hours of the game, when you are actually trying to figure out what’s going on. And while that may be off-putting to a lot of jump in and play crowd, I enjoyed my time going through entries and finding more about the world of Masquerada.
Following this immense world building is the central narrative of the game itself, which follows Cicero Gavar a law-keeper who is out for redemption along with a quirky group of companions, all of whom have their own darkness to deal with. The first half of the game emphasizes on the power struggle between the various factions in the game, and the impending shortage of masquirines (the elusive masks which give its owner control over elements but also disintegrate when its owner dies), while the second half boasts of an enemy which threatens the entire world order. All of this very Baldur Gate’s story is peppered with quick detours through the lives of the party members themselves, some of which are pretty well told.
Gameplay And Mechanics
As good as the narrative and the world building is, Masquerada calls itself a RPG, and hence there is more to it than just reading journal entries. The first part of the game is the real-time combat not unlike the one you are used to in Diablo 2. However you can pause the combat mid-fight and tactically queue up attacks using Cicero and his allies to better execute your battles. While the pausing option is great, it kind of felt halfhearted, as I could not queue up multiple commands on a single character, so you cannot for example queue up a collector action followed by a crowd control effect (provided you have enough magic). What this means is that if you are twitchy enough with your fingers, you might as well wing it and go real-time all the time.
There is not a lot to be had from micro-managing your allies either, as they more or less do adequately even if you don’t. The only reason you might want to switch from Cicero to any other character would be check out their suite of powers as every member of your team controls a different element. If you don’t feel the urge to mix it up however, you can just tweak the behavior of your allies a little, and get on with it.
Skill-tree wise there is a variation according to the element of your choice, and then according to the mask you choose to wear which effects your ultimate so to speak. You don’t level up the standard way in Masquerada however, instead all skills are open to you from the beginning and you can assign points to them which you earn through combat. No skill is given more deference over the other, which means you never need to switch out a well researched beginner skill for a new but higher level one. Of course even if that was the case, the game allows you to reset and re-assign all the points you have collected up to that point, so there is openness in that. However this does take away the feel of challenge a bit, and the weight of decisions.
The entire game is also highly linear. You cannot jump or complete objectives in random order. And even if you do, the game won’t recognize it until you have completed the entire sequence. The game also lacks side-quests. Everything that you do, for yourself or for your allies is a written and compulsory part of the story. Finally while the game does have optional rooms to explore, the map size at any given point is highly limited, which I felt was a good thing to be honest because I could cover it much more quickly, but I can see why that could be a problem to some who have been brought up on Skyrim and Witcher 3.
Graphics Sound and Performance
Graphically, Masquerada is rarely demanding. It uses comic like panels to showcase important parts of the story while most other conversations are text-based and fully voice covered. The animation of a banner falling over and the avatar mimicking the actions of the characters as they speak and move is a nice little touch. Most environments are sparsely populated and even the scenes at the Bazaar or the docks feel at odds with the image of an over populated city. The fixed camera does make use of the per-rendered backgrounds however, which does allow for some pretty visuals from time to time, but none too great.
There are not a lot of enemies attacking you simultaneously either, so the screen rarely crowds up. However your party has a tendency to huddle together during battles, which would mean that you could find yourself battling in a tight circle even when there is enough space available to flank or outmaneuver your enemies. Boss battles are hardly different from normal battles, and once you have found a strategy that works for you, you would rarely have to change it.
While the game does not speak to you visually, it certainly does through its music. There is a sense of french tragedy in the background music, and while it’s not very effective in isolation, when played against the frames of the story itself, it makes it better. The voice acting too, is pretty spot on and dialogues rarely miss out on the emotion they were supposed to convey. It’s a victory indeed.
Masquerada is a beautiful little game, and its unfair to compare it to giant RPGs we are so used to these days. In fact fairer comparisons can be made with Bastion and Transistor. If you are in search of something which is not fast paced and has an entirely new detailed universe laid out for you un-spoiled by sequels and fan theories, Masquerada is for you.