‘Masquerada: Songs and Shadows’ by Witching Hour Studios

Video Game Review

Finished on 12/8/2018


Genres: Fantasy, RPG, Indie, AA

Civil war in Fantasy Venice

Spoiler-ific review

I can strongly recommend this indie video game for people seeking an RPG with strong storytelling.

I’m writing this review for a criminally unheard of RPG which came out in 2017. ‘Masquerada’ is a fun, linear action RPG-ish game whose main draws are character and setting. It’s strongest feature, however, is the voice acting: the studio got A TON of big name voice actors, and it shows. The IMDB page for this game is basically a who’s-who list of some of the most iconic actors working in the industry.

Ombre is a magical city based loosely on Renaissance Florence, where the oppressive upper class uses magical carnival masks to dominate the maskless underclass. The masks (along with dozens of ancient nearby ruins) are the products of a long-dead ancient civilization. Ombre’s society is obsessed with music and art. If I were to describe the setting, it is Final Fantasy meets Renaissance Italy meets Avatar: The Last Airbender.

This RPG’s plot is strong. Cicero is a cop who was just assigned by the government of Ombre to solve a series of disappearances in a middle of a civil war. The mood of the book is semi-grimdark/semi-hopeful. The goodguys are good but they are prone to misunderstandings and mistakes. The setting is brutal- prominent characters die and are tortured. At times the story feels happy because it seems like everything is going the good guy’s way… but those times were quickly dashed when the plot twisted and people you care about die.

The characters are some of the best I’ve ever seen depicted in video-game format. Their dialog, when combined with the spectacular voice acting, is at times drop dead amazing. Now I’ll admit that the main heroes were a little trope-y and cliched at times. However the voice actors REALLY carried their performances and made the characters seem earnest. Even the bad guys were great: they’re well intentioned extremists who’ve gotten in way over their heads.

The game’s combat utilizes an elemental combo system, where some abilities mark enemies with fire/water/air/earth, and then others expend those marks. It’s fun customizing your characters to take advantage of this resource system. Each hero is customizable with eight potential abilities- four of which can be used at any one time. Free respecs back at the shop, so you are encouraged to swap around and experiment. There are also ‘inks’ and ‘etchings’ to further customize your character in small ways.

You can find a playstyle which suits you and stick with it, or you can swap around at your leisure and try new things. I had fun and felt I had full control of how I wanted to approach all the battles. On normal mode I was repeatedly challenged when I approached some fights with the wrong combination of specs, so I had to reload from a previous chapter and respec to make things work.

Now for constructive criticism.

The pacing is at times touch and go. There are some dungeons which seemed like filler, added to boost the game’s playtime instead of to provide strong gameplay or story. The same goes for the story: the characters frequently went places seemingly only for the purpose of talking.

And the gameplay… well, it’s not the best. The gameplay involves in combat fighting, and out of combat wandering around gathering collectibles. There are no minigames or subsystems to engage you a la the Dragon Age: Inquisition mission table, professions like those in an MMO, or sidequests or missions. Since the story is entirely on rails the plot isn’t gameified either. This makes the game less interactive than others.

The combat system is at times awesome! However it’s usually only good and it’s sometimes a bit lame. By late game I was just spamming abilities. Often the enemies didn’t feel very awesome to fight. Lategame you become so awesome that defeating your enemies feels like meaninglessly removing inanimate obstacles in my way.

The maps are all hand drawn, meaning that they are all gorgeous with carefully scripted encounters. However  because they are scripted, the number of fights are limited. I wish the game had some random encounters or more fights, because the combat was the most engaging part of this game.

In between combat you are crawling all over the map looking for collectibles. In this game, the lore is what is collectible: you find lore notes all around the map, similar to how in Diablo 3 you find satchels and books containing the lore of the setting. The lore is good and I enjoyed reading it… but picking up notes and tabbing out to read them in a UI isn’t the most enthralling way to learn about the setting. I wish these notes would have been voice acted as I was wandering around and fighting things.

Next, you the gamer have no agency in the story. Cicero makes all the story choices, not you, which gives the story an on-rails sort of feeling. On one hand this gives the story the feeling of being carefully crafted by skilled game storytellers (which is good), however it also led me to not feel as invested in the story as I wasn’t the one making choices (which is bad).

I don’t know how much replay-ability this game has. For me, I was invested in the story 100% and now that I know the story I’m not going to play the game again until I forget it or until I feel nostalgic for it.

The game is short; it took me 12 hours to beat it. It has no multiplayer/infinite enemies/ random generation dungeon modes. Instead if you want to play more you have New Game + modes, where you play through the story again. I for one am happy that the game was short because it means I could actually beat it, but I know a lot of people want to get a lot of bang for their bucks.

Going back to the start, I strongly recommend this video game for people who like strong storytelling in an independent RPG. I hope this game gets a sequel, if for story telling reasons alone. The game had a strong conclusion, but it left enough plot hooks open that more games are certainly possible.

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