An often naughty visual novel-RPG that’s big on story, light on gameplay
Way back in 2014, Atlus and AquaPlus released Tears to Tiara II: Heir of the Overlord for the PlayStation 3. Sadly, the game largely flew under the radar for many players. And that’s a shame, because it was a densely-packed adventure well worth undertaking. It featured a gripping and often controversial story that was brought to life through some seriously lengthy bouts of well-written exposition. And while the story was great, it wasn’t the only thing Tears to Tiara II had going for it. Nestled into the lore-heavy narrative was a deep and engaging SRPG that felt like a throwback to the glory days of the genre. In short, the game was a joy (you can read my review here).
That said, you better believe I was excited upon discovering Atlus and AquaPlus were teaming up for another fusion of visual novel storytelling and tactical combat with Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception. Now, having dug deep into the game’s innards, I’m happy to report that it still tells a compelling story like the aforementioned Tears to Tiara II. It’s just a shame that the combat has largely been left on the cutting room floor this time around. The end result is a somewhat lopsided adventure which will likely leave visual novel fans happy. However, those looking for another engrossing SRPG may be left wanting something a bit more substantive.
Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before…
Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception’s story is one that treads familiar ground. Players take control of Haku, a young swordsman with no memory of his past. After he awakens in a tent in a snowy forest, our half-naked hero stumbles out into the wilderness. And before long, he’s quickly besieged by a pair of terrifying monsters. With his back against the wall, Haku is saved at the last second by Kuon, a mysterious beast girl whose appetite for mountains of meat is rivaled only for her taste for adventure. After the encounter, Kuon designates herself as Haku’s sworn protector. And while the duo’s journey starts off uneventful enough, before long they cross paths with a band of mercenaries, and things really begin to take shape.
From here the narrative delves into the realms of political intrigue, ancient civilizations and more as the gang confronts a colorful cast of ne’er–do–wells. If you’ve played your share of RPGs over the years, Mask of Deception‘s story is one you’ll find very familiar. Still, it’s a very well-written tale. And the lively cast of characters that Haku crosses paths with are consistently interesting, even if they’re largely comprised of all-too-familiar tropes like the lovable and charismatic mercenary leader, amnesiac hero, and demure princess who just wants to be treated like everyone else.
My only problem with the story is that there’s simply just so much of it. Now, if you’re a die-hard fan of visual novels then this may be fine and well. During my first ten hours with the game, I participated in just four very minor skirmishes. As a big fan of the SRPG genre, I have to admit that this came as a disappointment. Combat takes a distant back seat to the narrative. It’s not uncommon for over an hour of dialog to separate you from your next short but sweet encounter.
Again, if you’re perfectly happy with spending most of this 45+ journey just soaking up the story then you probably won’t mind this. Still, going from AquaPlus’ own Tears to Tiara II: Heir of the Ovelord – another VN/SRPG hybrid that did a wonderful job of balancing its combat and story segments – it’s hard not to wish battles made up a more prominent part of Mask of Deception‘s package. Battles do end up becoming a more significant part of the story eventually, with a fight or two rolling in with every hour or so of story. But man, it’s a slow burn to get to that point.
War, what is it good for?
Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception‘s tactical battles don’t reinvent the wheel, but they’re nevertheless still very satisfying. After selecting from your pool of reserves you’ll deploy in a grid-based arena. Battles unfold in turn-based fashion, much like Disgaea, Fire Emblem, or Shining Force. Melee attackers typically need to be within one square of an opponent to strike them. However, players with ranged weapons or magic abilities are best used to strike baddies from a distance.
Sure, this is all standard SRPG fare, but Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception does do a few things to spice things up. By timing your button presses with a rapidly shrinking ring you can sting together chain attacks, which can deal critical damage and inflict negative status effects on your foes. Additionally, if you make a tactical blunder you can simply rewind back up to 50 moves. Similarly, choosing an area outside of your selected character’s movement range will give you a preview of how many turns it would take to reach a given area, which can help you plan your battles accordingly.
Weather effects are also tied to elemental skills. For example, thunderstorms can bolster lightning-based skills. Also, the flow of the wind can impact the effectiveness of your lightning abilities. Again, these aren’t game-changers, but these little touches do add a welcome layer of depth to the combat that makes it stand out from the pack.
Battles aren’t particularly long or grueling, often only putting you against a handful of foes at a time. And these foes aren’t particularly bright, either. I’ve had boss enemies back themselves into a corner on numerous occasions. This allowed me to easily single them out, surround them, and let the punishment flow. Simply put, the fights definitely would have benefited from having more enemies to battle against. Or, at least some more aggressive enemy AI in the game’s default difficulty. Playing on hard mode helps remedy this somewhat. But it’s still hard to imagine genre veterans feeling too threatened by what they’ll find here.
Still, what’s here feels great, and the combat moves at a satisfying clip. Also, the clean UI is almost entirely free of menu clutter. This allows you to take in the battles without walls of stat and action windows getting in the way.
Horndog Haku and the hormonal harem of heroines
If you’ve played an AquaPlus production before, you’re probably aware of the studio’s penchant for fleshy fan service. After all, they’re the team behind the top-heavy brawler AquaPlus Blasterz: Heroines Infinite Duel. Additionally, their Leaf label is responsible for a mountain of erotic games. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception is absolutely oozing with sweaty-palmed sexual innuendos.
Liberally peppered throughout the game’s often meaningful storytelling are ample moments where Haku’s harem of lovely ladies seemingly explode out of their clothing, naughty bits obscured with puffs of smoke or soapy suds. If you’re a fan of buxom beast-girls and curvaceous crusaders baring it all, you’ll likely find what you’re looking for with Mask of Deception. However, low-key pervs may want to pick up the Vita version of the game to avoid having these femme fatales flash across the big screen.
While hentai isn’t exactly my thing, I have to give credit where credit is due. The hand-drawn artwork and vibrant character designs look fantastic. Full of life and detail, everything is of same high standard we’ve come to expect from AquaPlus over the years. So if scantly clad cartoon cat-girls are your thing, then this is the game for you!
Peering through the mask
While not without its share of faults, Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception is a worthwhile addition to your PS4 and Vita library. It’s admittedly unfortunate that the game’s addicting combat is so infrequent. Despite this, AquaPlus’ has still managed to craft an entertaining story that’s worth seeing through to the end. However, your stomach for racy fan service could definitely impact the mileage you get out of the game.
If you don’t mind an adventure that lays the story on thick while keeping the gameplay to a minimum, then this is definitely worth checking out. Personally, the story really has its hooks in me. And I’ll be busy counting the days until the sequel, Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth releases later this year.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (reviewed) Vita ; Publisher: Atlus ; Developer: AquaPlus ; Players: single-player. ; Released: May 23, 2017.
Full disclosure: this review is based on PS4 review copy of Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception provided to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.