We’re all hiding behind a mask…
I’m not really sure what to classify Masquerada: Songs and Shadows as. Based on what I had seen, read, and even written about beforehand, I had assumed that it was going to be some kind of action-RPG, filled with beautiful artwork and plenty of theatrics. And I guess that none of that is technically wrong. It does have all of those things. So it isn’t really confusing in that sense.
What did throw me for a loop was how displaced some of those aforementioned elements were. Well, not the art. That was all great. What I’m talking about here is the imbalance between the storytelling and the gameplay. Technically speaking, I think that, individually, Masquerada does most things right. A lot of effort has been put into the game, and it really shows. But there is a lot of talking. So much so in fact that, at times, it felt less like a game, and more like a highly interactive movie or comic book. Despite that, however, it wasn’t bad — quite the opposite in most cases, actually.
Family and Freedom
Masquerada‘s story centers around Cicero Gavar, and his quest which, though initially all about money, quickly turns into something much more. You see, Cicero grew up in the Citte della Ombre; a city whose sprawling size is overshadowed only by its strict aristocratic hierarchy, and fervid use of Mascherines — special, magical masks used by the social elites to keep the common folk at bay. From birth, Cicero lived in Ombre’s underbelly. Thanks to a bit of luck however, he eventually found himself working as an Inspetorre (a high-ranking military official) for the Registry (Ombre’s government).
Luck may have been on Cicero’s side, but his family certainly wasn’t. Still living in squalor, Cicero’s brother Cyrus eventually created the Maskrunners — a group of underprivileged people determined to sieze the Mascherines from the aristocracy. Eventually, Cicero found himself caught in the middle of this. Unable to decide which side to stand by — his family, or his job — Cicero did nothing, and was banished from Ombre because of it. Seeing as how Cyrus’ plan didn’t exactly come to fruition however, maybe what happened to Cicero was for the best.
Many years later, Cicero was once again called to the city from which he was banished by Avestus Aliarme, the leader of the Registry, in order to investigate the kidnapping of a certain political official. Though uninterested in the event itself, the allure of money was too great an offer for Cicero to refuse. In just a short time however, he would realize that his investigation would run much deeper than he had originally expected it to.
Masquerada presents itself as a story-driven action-RPG with a tactical twist, and is probably some of the most linear gameplay that I’ve experienced in quite a while. Gameplay segments are also quite short. Still, I would be remiss if I said that I didn’t enjoy what I played.
Gameplay itself is a fairly straightforward affair, focused mostly on combat, and works exactly as advertised. Generally speaking, Masquerada will have you doing little more than running through simple, yet gorgeously detailed, dungeons and beating up the monsters within. In terms of exploration, the game doesn’t offer much in the beginning. There are few, if any, puzzles, and it’s next to impossible to lose your way. Things become a bit more involved as the game progresses, however. Areas within Masquerada build up in complexity over time, eventually throwing in collectibles, puzzles, and one particularly perplexing area that warps you around while you try to find your way through to the exit.
Things get more complex during skirmishes. Normally, Masquerada‘s combat is in real time. That, of course, means that every character onscreen is attacking at once. Along with Cicero’s normal attack, players can also utilize special skills. Depending on which of the four Mascherines you picked in the beginning, Cicero will be able to utilize Fire, Water, Earth, or Air, infusing them into his attacks. Naturally, each element has its own specialty, such as offense, defense, or support, so it’s important to choose your Mascherine wisely. While you don’t level up in Masquerada, you do receive skill points throughout the game. These skill points can, in turn, be used to enhance and customize the skills of both Cicero and his party members.
“Ah, but you said something about tactical combat” you might be saying to yourself. And you’re right, I did. Like I mentioned, combat in Masquerada starts out in real time. It doesn’t have to stay in real time, though! At any point during a fight, players are allowed to completely stop the flow of combat. During this time, you are given a few luxuries. Not only can you survey the surrounding area and view the overall progress of the battle. But that’s not all! Players can also issue commands to the entire party, telling them which skills to use on which enemy. Once unpaused all of the characters perform these skills immediately. If used correctly, this can completely turn the tide of combat. Best of all, you can do it as often as you’d like!
Masquerada‘s got a lot going on for it. Not only does it have an exciting story and gameplay, but it features an impressive collection of lore. And that sounds like a good thing, right? Well, not entirely. Having a good story is something that everyone can appreciate. I mean, I can’t ever remember a time when someone said “this game would have been better had the story not been as good.” That would be kind of weird. But something that a lot of people forget is that pacing can be just as important as the story itself. This especially important with lore.
I’m going to be honest with you; I’m not all that great with lore. Unless I really, really like a game, I find an abundance of lore to be very boring (if I do like a game though, you can bet that I’ll spend months researching it). Last week, I reviewed The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel. It, like Masquerada, was a game absolutely chalk-full of political intrigue. Also, like with Masquerada, this game had tons of lore-specific words and terms. Rather than just expecting you to remember everything however, Trails of Cold Steel did its best to gently integrate its lore into the story. While it did constantly feed you new lore, it usually did so in bite-size pieces. Not only did it make this information easier to digest, but I found myself wanting to learn more before long.
Unfortunately, Masquerada, doesn’t take the same route. Rather than slowly integrating the lore into the game, Masquerada throws a book at you. Seriously, that isn’t even a joke. You have a lore encyclopedia. When you progress through the more story-centric parts of the game, it piles on lore at an alarmingly high rate. And, since most of the game is focused on the story… let’s just say that there’s a lot of reading.
Personally, I’m not a fan of this kind of thing. It isn’t until the end of a game, or when I finally begin to understand the world around me, that I delve into lore. Still, for all that I’ve said about it, this isn’t something that I’m going to condemn. While text-heavy lore isn’t my cup of tea, I know plenty of people that like it. In fact, I had a friend who was watching me play through the game and, at one point, insisted that I let him read through all of the lore that I had collected. I totally get that lore is a big draw for people, and Masquerada‘s lore is very well-written. I’m just warning you that, unless you’re the kind of person who love gobbling down lore, then you might be overwhelmed with the towering monolith of information that this game presents unto you.
Poetry in Motion
Talking about the game’s lore before delving into the finer points of the overarching story might sound a bit weird, but there’s a method to my madness. I wanted to point out the fact that Masquerada‘s handling of lore put me off first so that I could point out how much I enjoyed the story. Yes, you heard (read?) me correctly. Even after experiencing what I call “lore overload”, I was still able to enjoy the story that unfolded before me.
I may not have been able to remember most of lore while playing through Masquerada, but that didn’t stop me from appreciating the story at hand. How? Well, it was thanks to the character writing. Sure, I couldn’t always remember which faction was responsible for what. But do you know what I could do? I could sympathize with the characters, as well as their plight. In contrast to the bulky encyclopedia of lore, Masquerada‘s characters felt natural. Relatable, even. Whether it’s Kalden’s tales of love and loss, or Amadea’s struggle to open up to others, each character found themselves dealing with very real issues. Issues that aren’t overblown just because they’re in a video game. And the political turmoil just made it that much more interesting. Sure, lore is great. But no amount of lore can beat genuine, human emotion — especially when it’s backed by phenomenal voice acting.
Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is jumbled, in a way. Individually, its key elements are all great. It features fun, detailed gameplay and an immersive story, all of which takes place in a vivid and beautiful world. Where it stumbles, however, it its application. There’s too much story, and too little of the actual gameplay. I made a joke at the beginning of the review about not knowing what to call this game, but in a way it rings true. A majority of the time, it really is less actual game and more interactive story. For me personally that’s a problem, but I don’t think that it is for everyone out there. If you go into Masquerada expecting hours of hack-and-slash action, the game may disappoint. If you’re looking for something where the story is top priority, or just can’t get enough lore, however, then consider checking this game out.
FINAL VERDICT: 3.5/5
Available on: PS4 (Reviewed), PC ; Publisher: Ysbryd Games ; Developer: Witching Hour Studios ; Players: 1 ; Released: August 7, 2017 ; ESRB: T for Teen ; MSRP: $24.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Masquerada: Songs and Shadows given to Hey Poor Player by the Publisher