By Jonathan Falu / November 18th, 2016
|Title||Masquerada: Songs and Shadows|
|Developer||Witching Hour Studios|
|Release Date||September 30, 2016|
|Platform||Steam, PS4 (early 2017)|
|Age Rating||N/A on Steam and PS4|
Masquerada: Songs and Shadows was actually on Kickstarter a while ago, releasing at the end of September of this year on Steam, though console users will have to wait until 2017 to play. While researching this game, I found there was a heavy focus on story over gameplay, and it interested me, especially given I love focusing and dissecting plots on my own channel. Does this make the game better, or worse? Is it worth the $24.99 price tag? Let’s find out!
In order to grasp the story, some understanding of the game’s world is needed. Here are the basics: the government and religion have taken control of the world thanks to the use of their masks. The White Spire is one of the most prominent. These masks are called Mascherines, and grant the users not only enhanced abilities, but the use of magic, as well. Users can only manipulate one out of four elements: fire, water, earth and wind. These masks are usually only limited to the ruling party and their soldiers. However, because of a desire for a free world, a group called the Maskrunners rebel against the White Spire, wearing masks of their own.
The story follows a man named Cicero, who has been hired by those in the White Spire to find one of their agents. Said agent not only happens to be a man who once helped Cicero, but it also trying to find a way to create more Mascherines for the White Spire. However, there is a bit more to Cicero, as he is revealed that he too was a Maskrunner once, though he fled, leaving his brother to die. The incident haunted him for quite some time, and was only doing the investigation for the money, at least initially. Cicero isn’t heartless or anything. Despite being reluctant to share his past, he’s trying to move on, but life won’t let him run away.
As he tries to find the whereabouts of the missing agent, even finding himself doing battle with monsters called Fey, he makes many allies that have their own personal reasons for joining him. There is Kalden, a large man who wishes to find his brother, who just happens to be the same guy Cicero is searching for. Tiziana is a tall and fierce woman, dedicating loyalty to her guild, though she also has a short temper. Amadea is a researcher and also a former Maskrunner, though resents Cicero for fleeing, and the group itself for forcing her away. And finally, there is Vasco, a man who follows one of the more untrustworthy guilds, yet shows a surprising amount of loyalty in between his jokes.
The tale of Cicero and his band of masked magicians is quite good, touching on a few themes such as religion and morality through some of the quests. However, its strongest theme is courage. Every character is afraid of something in the plot, be it standing up to their own superiors or even trying to tell the truth. This is especially important to Cicero, as the narrative gives him quite a lot of development, evolving from the coward he tried to bury so long ago, to a leader willing to do the right thing. The game is quite serious, though thanks to some smartass remarks by Cicero and especially Vasco, the game can have a few light moments as well to balance things out.
But not everything is well, with flaws such as needing to read at times to understand the story, or at least the terminology. Some terms are easy enough to understand, but the idea of stopping while playing a game to read several notes is annoying and distracting. It’s never forced onto you, true, but if you want to actually understand the terms and get a better understanding of what is going on, then you’d better get reading. Thankfully, I never found myself lost, as some quests did show off more of the world within the game. The game also hints at a sequel, so expect some unanswered questions.
The presentation is also quite good, with beautiful areas and objects that pop out, feeling alive with each of the character’s movements. Whether a character is swinging swords or knocking over barrels of fruits, the animation is nicely done. The cutscenes, while limited in animation, are able to capture a lot of the character’s emotions in what feels like a comic book come to life. This is coupled with good voice-acting, capturing the range of emotions each character brings to the table. Areas, however, are limited in size, forced this way due to the strict linearity. You can overhear conversations, find new masks or information, or even knock around baskets of food for fun, but that’s about it. The only way to go back to some of these areas is to hit select chapter, though you aren’t missing much since there are no branching paths. It’s mainly there to find history or items you might have missed.
The gameplay is where the real flaws begin to crop up. The game is an isometric RPG that has you control one character while the AI controls the other two party members in real-time fights. As Cicero in the beginning, you can choose one of the four elements mentioned above. Each comes with their own perks, like summoning wolves made of water, or squirrels made of wind. You can also switch characters on the fly, or pause and command the group. The problem? Combat moves quite fast. Too fast, in fact, meaning I had to pause at nearly every single second to try and gain my bearings, rather than pick a strategy, see how it plays out, and try to plan more that way. It becomes tedious to the point that making this a turn-based game would have worked better. And keep in mind, for hard mode or the later stages in normal mode, in order to be fully effective, you need to constantly pause in order to keep up and try to move each individual character away from damage zones previewed in enemy attacks. Your allies are not smart enough to take care of themselves.
Early on, this isn’t really a problem, as the game is easy. You also have very little to worry about outside of fights, as there are no shops, other equipment (excluding masks), items, or even experience points to level up. Improving skills is one of the only important things you need to do, and skill points are only granted after certain fights. Later on however, the problems become glaringly obvious with significantly stronger foes. The speed of combat and having allies that don’t really move from damage spots were the games greatest difficulty over any boss. The type of mask you have is also important, giving a unique skill, or even deciding which skills to upgrade first. You can even change your battle stance into three styles to change how Cicero attacks, which can be helpful in trying to avoid attention. However, I rarely used this, and came out on top just fine.
One of the biggest design hiccups, however, is the way saving is done. Now, there is nothing new about auto-saving, and even many other games feature that as a way of recording progress. The difference here is that the game only saves after each loading screen. So if you are in a particularly long level, fighting through enemies, and fail, you have to start the level all over again. The same holds true if the game freezes on you, which happened at least twice for me. The game is also not quite fully finished, at least with adding in a certain Kickstarter goal – New Game Plus. This mode would also allow for Cicero to control all four elements. Though according to more updates, the developers are still working on it.
Overall, Masquerada: Songs and Shadows has a very good story, but the idea of needing to read and the linear structure may turn others away, especially if they hated the execution in Final Fantasy XIII. The gameplay also needs some improvements, and can get chaotic. If you do value story over gameplay, Masquerada will hardly disappoint given all of the emotion and wonderful character development the game provides. It will likely last players between 10 to 12 hours, without reading up on text. I do recommend you wait until a sale, however. With all that said, I still look forward to what is next for this series.
Review code was provided by developer for reviewing purposes.
KickstarterMasqueradaRPGstory focusedWitching Hour StudiosYsbryd Games