Masquerada: Songs and Shadows Review (PC)
Rich with narrative detail, Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is that short and sweet isometric RPG you dive into when you don’t have the patience to tackle Baldur’s Gate’s steep learning curve or the stamina for Diablo’s tough farm-grinds. If you have an itch for deep skill trees, flexible customization options and intense tactical planning, Masquerada won’t scratch it. But if you want a good high fantasy to occupy you while you wait for the next AAA title to drop, it’s worth a playthrough.
Our preview of Masquerada offered a positive glimpse of a mask-wielding adventure rife with potential. All the great things that fellow reviewer Ade loved about the demo impressed me all the same, but a lot of the gripes he had also seemed to persist in my own gameplay.
First, the premise: At the centre of the civil unrest roiling within Venetian-inspired Ombre de la Citte – the city of Ombre, if you will – are Mascherines, magic-imbued masks that grant wearers control over one of four elements. Those who wear them form a collective known as the Masquerada, which is fractured into snooty high society guilds. Those with naked faces are the Contadani, your citte commoners. As they revolt against the guilds and The Registry (Ombre’s government), the number of Mascherines that exist are dwindling; Mascherines disappear when their wearers are dead.
Our hero and inspettore (inspector) Cicero Gavar returns from exile to investigate the disappearance of Razitof, a scribe last known to be researching the mysteries behind the Mascherines. This is where the story really kicks off, but by this point you’re already knee deep in political intrigue and fully acquainted with the tension and socioeconomic disparity between the noble and working classes.
It’s clear that Masquerada’s strength lies in storytelling, and it can be as detailed as you’re willing to read or eavesdrop about it from citizens’ idle chitchat. The game leaves much of its worldbuilding responsibility to its Codex, which archives every scrap of information that Cicero collects by either interacting with coloured icons placed throughout Ombre or learns as new mechanics and characters are introduced.
If you’re not the reading sort, you’re welcome to ignore them, but you’ll miss out on a great deal of backstories and points of elaboration that add to your understanding of the universe. (And if you’re not interested in Masquerada’s mythology or story, skip the game altogether, because it won’t have too much else to offer in terms of tactical combat. But more on that later.)
The only issue I have with info collecting is that it affects pacing. When you’re in a scene that’s set up to be urgent, you just want to fight and head to the next battle your characters are urging you to rush to, not collect a Codex page. Yet I can’t ignore the call of the bright purple spotlight…
All characters enter battle with full health, focus (a shield equivalent), and a mask charge, which fills up as you dispense Mascharine abilities and allows you to perform a Mask Ultimate Ability when maxed out. It’s a special ability that helps things along with a buff or boost, but don’t expect it to be flashy like a Final Fantasy limit break.
Another aspect of combat is stance. Party members each take on Sicario (rogue-like), Pavisierre (tank-like), or Dirge (added range) stances, each essentially a different attack style that affects speed, Mask Charge regen, and focus. Cicero, an experienced maestro, can switch stances at his whim and fancy, but his party members cannot. As you encounter different enemy combat styles (there aren’t many), you’ll find yourself tweaking this fairly often to compensate for the other members’ shortcomings or if the battle’s tide is turning against you.
You’re also made to choose what element Cicero’s Mascherine takes on early in the game, but don’t worry about it too much – you’ll be able to equip other masks later as you pick up Raw Mascherines and decorate them. Some abilities can anoint an enemy with an elemental tag, which can then be activated by other skills for added damage or status effects. For example, if an enemy is tagged with Air, an Earth skill will blind the enemy and reduce their damage by 50% for 5 seconds.
The fighting itself is a micromanager’s wet dream. Combat is a frenetic spacebar-spam of pause-unpause, especially in higher difficulties, thanks to the limitation of one preset action per ability that your party AI can perform when certain conditions are met (e.g., Use ability X when HP is less than 50%). Selected characters will always require your commands, so if you’re not poking enemies with your weapon or using Mascherine abilities, they’ll be staring aimlessly into space as their teammates get razed.
For some reason, the party AI that you aren’t directly in control of only perform your first command, then run off, usually towards enemy line of fire. Unfortunately, they don’t really listen to you even when you set them up. There are enemy swarms that can overwhelm if you take your eye off a companion for too long, which has turned out to be a frequent point of frustration for me.
With just four abilities per Mascherine, there aren’t that many ways to dispatch your foes. Once you get the hang of combat, it starts to feel stale thanks to predictable enemy AI and unexciting ability animations. The joy kind of gets sucked out of a victory when you realise your win is attributed to recognizing enemy fight patterns, and not because you genuinely outsmarted a worthy, thinking opponent. It’s an exception in boss fights, but about 7 hours into the game, my general sentiment about getting into fisticuffs is that I hope the adversaries aren’t just tougher, but craftier too. Otherwise, I’d rather avoid the tedium and dive further into the story.
In that mindset, the checkpoint save system can get aggravating. Masquerada doesn’t let you save whenever you want, and it wouldn’t be an issue if autosaves were made post-battle or after long conversations. At times, it’s hard to tell for certain when your game is going to save next; the only way to know that it’s saved is after a loading screen. Imagine having to fight three hordes, each with travel time on foot in-between, and then failing in the next one. You’ll have to reload from the last checkpoint and do it all over again.
Despite marketing itself as an RPG, Masquerada whittles it down to bare-boned basics. There’s no loot, inventory management, currency, crafting, levelling, dialogue options or choice-making that gives way to different endings. Skill trees are short and modest, and the game isn’t particularly generous with skill points. There are no side quests either, except for when party members want to embark on their personal missions, and even those are few and far between. It’s extremely linear, with nowhere else to go but straight.
There are, however, some very bright spots that I think helps keep the entire experience afloat.
The voicework is impeccable, for one. Masquerada made headlines for casting renowned vocal veterans like Matthew Mercer and Jennifer Hale. Altogether, the small cast skilfully delivers the game’s made up Italian-inspired naming conventions with aplomb, making dialogue sound natural without taking away the emotional value of performances. On a background of sweet woodwinds, plucky strings and grandiose choirs, euphonious music and voices work together harmoniously to bring drama or nuance where scenes call for it.
Visually, Masquerada‘s Venetian influences are obvious through its architecture, fashion, and menu designs. Characters appear as cel-shaded in certain angles and as storybook pop-ups in others, but the overall look and feel is always full of colour and opulence, even in the underground caves. Very pretty. Cutscenes have their own French-style art presented in motion comic format, where a scene is set with a still image and panels of character dialogue are layered onto it as each person speaks.
Call it CRPG-Lite if you will. The Masquerada story is solid, peppered with enough detail to trickle over into novelizations – the world is scalable and can offer many more tributaries of tales about Ombre and those who live in it. If you’re a fan of high fantasy tomes wrought politics, the fighting is forgivable – just play it on Story Mode and enjoy unraveling the truth about Mascherines. But if you want a rewarding tactical combat experience, satisfaction is fleeting unless you’re up to the task of aggressive micromanagement. I don’t fault their decision to strip down the systems. I just wish it weren’t so bare.
Regardless of its flaws, props to the indie Singaporean team of Witching Hour Studios, which managed to garner over £65,000 of backers’ support to develop a game with as much love and care to a world that they painstakingly built. It’s a unique narrative experience that stands well on its own, at a good price point for the quick and uncomplicated entertainment it offers.